Uriel Hernandez of Lawndale stood slightly off to the side as he waited his turn to navigate a miniature obstacle course set up at Cougars Stadium at Los Angeles Southwest College. It was the 8-year-old’s first time on a football field and he couldn’t hold back his excitement over doing what he had seen so many athletes do on TV.
“He will be talking about this for the rest of the week,” his mother Nancy said with a smile.
Uriel is autistic, as were many of the kids waiting alongside him. Others who were on the field have Down syndrome or other special needs.
On Saturday, though, the 140 or so youngsters who participated in the annual Snoop Special Stars touch football and cheer event could just be kids. No one stared at them because they looked different or because they moved more slowly than anyone else. They ran and jumped and danced to the energetic music that blared from speakers, encouraged by volunteers who gave out as many hugs as they gave out instructions. They tossed a football, got into a three-point stance, or learned cheerleading routines in the warm, bright sunshine of a day that was, for many, a rare and welcome adventure.
The kids, ages 5 to 18, participated in the third annual Special Stars event funded by Long Beach’s Snoop Dogg, the rapper, musician, producer and, once this season, a knowledgeable and entertaining guest commentator on a Kings telecast. He also supports a youth football league that has helped launch youngsters toward college careers — and a few to the NFL — but he holds the Special Stars event close to his heart.
“These are better than NFL players,” said Snoop Dogg, also known as Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. “They’re the real stars, you know what I’m saying?”
Each child got a blue T-shirt, a backpack and other goodies. More importantly, they were applauded for what they are able to do, not judged or shunned for what they can’t do.
“I’ve been trying to find something for him in sports but there’s not a lot of things, because he needs special attention,” Nancy Hernandez said of Uriel. “He sometimes doesn’t follow the rules, like, he will be looking away. I tried soccer last year. I tried karate. They didn’t work because they are mixed with regular kids and they end up on the side and can’t keep up.
“He’s definitely having a good time. He loves sports.”
Snoop Dogg plunged into the activities, rewarding kids with high-fives and embracing the coaches. “I’m a kid. I’m a big kid. I can’t help it,” he said.
He laughed as one young boy pulled the cap off his head and ran back to go through the hurdles again, just to get another high-five.
“My vision was about just giving all kids the opportunity to have fun and come outside and be kids, and not be subject to abuse or misunderstanding,” he said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding, of nobody really understanding how to deal with their symptoms or what they’re going through.
“Most of the time you sit them at home and let them do what they do. But we found ways to get them outside and get them networking and working with other kids and just being regular. Because they are. They’re regular kids and they need to be loved. That’s all I want to do — give them an opportunity to come out and have some fun.”
Lauren Valter of Anaheim brought her daughter and two sons, all of whom are affected by autism. She was hoping they’d have fun and good memories after their first attempt at a team sport. “It’s hard to find inclusive activities, with their disabilities. I can’t very well put them into your typical sports and expect them to have the same experience as everybody else,” she said.
Janice Harper of Compton brought her 9-year-old granddaughter, Chyna Brandon. The little girl suffered a stroke at birth and has a form of apraxia, which makes it difficult for her to express her thoughts. She loves to watch cheerleading on her tablet, which made the Special Stars cheer program a good fit. “It’s hard to get resources and this is wonderful, to have something like this for children to get involved in,” Harper said. “I’m just so grateful, and she’s going to be ecstatic.”
Chyna bonded with one of the volunteer coaches, Jen Welter, an energetic former football player and coach. Welter became the first female coach in the NFL when she worked with the Arizona Cardinals’ linebackers during training camp and preseason in 2015 as an intern, and she coached for Atlanta of the recently vanished Alliance of American Football.
“Bringing football to a kid, especially ones who might not have gotten it otherwise, is a unique and special thing. And it’s great for them to see females out here coaching, too,” Welter said. “It’s pure joy, and you get to see these kids accomplish things and show you anything in this world is possible. It gives you perspective on what’s really important in life.”