On Saturday, Oct. 29, the day before the Carolina Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, there were football games played on the Panthers’ practice fields that had an even greater impact on the community.
Those games were a part of the season-ending tournament for the Challenger division of the Consolidated Football Federation. The Durham Parks and Recreation adult team was undefeated on the season, and first-year coaches William “Junior” Clemmons and Christian Dixon were looking to lead their players to a defense of the championship the team won the previous season.
Minutes before the buses were set to depart at seven that morning, there was one member of the team that had yet to arrive. Grant Stiff, 32, was cutting it close, and stressing out both coaches and players alike. Dixon jokingly tells the rest of his team that they better hope Grant shows up or they are going to be in trouble. The reason for the comment is that Stiff, who is the veteran on the team in his sixth year, is the team’s quarterback.
Almost on cue, the car he is in pulls into the gravel parking lot. Once he stepped on the bus, the other players erupted with delighted greetings and chants of “Superstar.” The heart and soul of the team had finally arrived.
“Grant is a ball of energy. Every time I see Grant it just makes my day,” said Dixon. “Grant is always smiling. Grant doesn’t allow his disability to change who he is. He has all of the confidence, and there’s nothing he thinks he can’t do.”
That confidence seemingly permeates to everyone else on the team. Everyone on that bus believed that they were going to defeat any team that stepped on the field with them. Do not confuse their confidence for arrogance. They do not believe their success will come from individual greatness, but from playing the game the right way, the way that their coaches have taught them. If they are on the field together playing as one, nobody can stand in their way. While they do want to win, it is not the most important thing. Playing the game they love with the people they love, that is what matters most.
“The togetherness with the team, working together,” said Stiff. “I mean we’re one big family. Of course we want to win, but you’ve got to learn to handle the wins and losses at the same time.”
Clemmons wants his team to perform at their best, but he is just proud that his team gets to go out and show that they can play football just the same as anyone else.
“When I was growing up I participated in pretty much all athletic sports,” he said. “And I think that all kids should be afforded the opportunity to participate regardless of disability or cognitive or physical limitations. They are people just like we are, even though they may not be as able bodied as the next person, they deserve the opportunities.”
The team took advantage of those opportunities that they were given. After winning their first three games, they were locked in a tight battle with the home-town favorites Mecklenburg County. With their team down by a touchdown, and there only being enough time for one final play, the coaches put the ball in the hands of their most trusted player. With no time left on the clock, Stiff hurled the ball the length of the non-regulation sized field, and found his teammate in the back of the end zone.
His football family swarmed Stiff, and the joy was written all over his face. For a minute, all disabilities were forgotten, and the joy of the comeback surrounded them. Nothing else mattered but enjoying what they had accomplished with the ones they cared about most. They had proved their coaches right- anything is possible.