After a stressful few weeks of training camp, Shelton Gibson was happy to spend his Tuesday afternoon, dapping up Special Olympics athletes.
"Just seeing the passion. Me waking up, and I know I have to play football here every single day, and it's some days when you're down," said Gibson. "You have to understand other people are out there willing to play your sport. You know I have the ability to do everything in my power to go out and play the sport every day, and some people don't have the access to do what I can do."
The Eagles launched their legacy Special Olympics Pennsylvania partnership on Tuesday. Its plan is for the team and the Special Olympics organization to provide more inclusive programming to Philadelphia residents.
"Our biggest goal going forward is to link our brands," said Matt Aaron, Special Olympics Pennsylvania CEO and president. "We are looking to put those two brands together around something we call the 'inclusion revolution'. It's something Special Olympics is doing right now globally around our 50th anniversary."
To kick off the opening week of the NFL Season the Eagles partnered with Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes and Unified Flag Football to host a flag football game. The two 12-player teams were formed from players who reside in Chester and Montgomery counties. Another 40 or so Special Olympics athletes from across the state came out to support the event.
Last year, the Eagles hosted the Special Olympics flag football championship game in a four-team tournament leading up to the Super Bowl. The Eagles also are in a partnership with the Special Olympics to host future events.
Each team competing had an Eagles player representative. Wide receivers Mack Hollins and Rashard Davis were the team representatives. Each posed as both a player and coach for his respective team. While that was going on, the remaining athletes participated in blocking drills with Eagles receivers Greg Ward and Shelton Gibson.
Players have relied on the Special Olympics as an outlet to let loose. Siani Elliott said she has been playing on her flag football team for the last year.
"I like being the quarterback of my team. That's kind of exciting," said Elliott. "I like having fun and being around my teammates."
Tuesday's event fell under the unified sports umbrella. The two teams were unified teams, meaning that intellectually disabled athletes are paired on teams with those who aren't intellectually disabled. Organizers have found this to be effective in breaking down stereotypes.
"Our goal with putting partners and athletes together is to provide a good competition opportunity and meaningful engagement for both the athletes and the partners," said Aaron. "We strive to have athletes of similar ages and similar ability levels on the team together."
Aaron said the unified model has been something the organization has pursued across the elementary, middle and high school levels of the Special Olympics. They are hoping soon, through this model, they will be able to reach every school in Philadelphia.