“Finding out that your child has a disability is like a curve ball,” Paul Rogers says. “You don’t see it coming. Then you have two children with disabilities, and it’s the curve ball that never ends.”
Paul was a student at Mississippi College School of Law and his wife, Mandy, was a nurse at St. Dominic Hospital when their first son, Nathan, was born in 1985. Nathan was born with a range of serious physical and intellectual disabilities; the diagnosis would eventually include a severe hearing loss, speech and language disorder, seizure disorder, growth hormone deficiency, severe attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and an intellectual disability.
“What do you do when you have a baby who’s so sick?” Mandy Rogers says. “You adjust.”
While Paul completed law school and began his legal career, Mandy quit her job to care for Nathan. Over the next three years, the young family juggled the pressures of the legal profession with the challenges of caring for their son, who required treatment from a seemingly endless procession of doctors, therapists, and specialists.
In 1988, Paul Rogers opened his own law practice. That same year, the Rogers’ second son, Ben, was born. At birth, Ben seemed to be a perfectly healthy baby, but by the time he was a toddler, the Rogers knew something was wrong. Ben was eventually diagnosed with many of the same disabilities as his older brother. There was no name for the spectrum of disabilities affecting Nathan and Ben; genetic testing revealed nothing. Paul and Mandy had nothing to guide them except a poor prognosis.
“I got in my car and I hit the steering wheel so hard I broke my ring,” Mandy says of the day she realized she and Paul would be raising not one child with profound disabilities, but two.
But while life had thrown the Rogers a curve ball, they were far from out. Instead, Paul and Mandy responded with a game-changing idea that would transform not only their own family, but also the lives of dozens of people with disabilities.
In 1991, the Rogers helped organize a baseball game for children with disabilities. That first game was pla
yed on a field in Ridgeland, Mississippi, on a scorching afternoon in August. The 18 children playing had disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness, and a wide range of intellectual disabilities. The stands were filled with parents who had never dreamed they would see their children do something as wonderfully ordinary as play a baseball game.
“That was the first team sport activity Claire had ever been able to participate in,” says Charlotte Myers, whose daughter, Claire, has cerebral palsy. “For the first time in her life, she was more than just an observer.”
“I think everyone in the stands cried the whole game,” Mandy Rogers recalls. “Just seeing those kids on the field, having a good time with other kids like them, was really something special.”
It was supposed to be a one-time event, but the game was such a hit with the players and their families that the Rogers organized four more games the following summer. The third year, what had started as a one-weekend event was expanded to an entire season. Paul and Mandy Rogers, an attorney and a stay-at-home mom, found themselves the “commissioners” of a full-fledged baseball league. Given the make-up of the teams’ members, it was only fitting that the league be christened “Challenger.”
This year, the Ridgeland Challenger Baseball League celebrated its 20th season. The league has grown from the original 18 to 125 players ages five to 67 playing on four youth teams and six adult teams. The adult teams were formed, Paul explains, “because the original kids grew up and didn’t want to stop playing.” The season runs from April through June, with each team playing two games per week at Ridgeland’s Hite Wolcott Park. The Challenger League is open to any child or adult with a disability who wants to play, at no cost to the players or their families. While most of the players are from the Jackson Metro area, the league includes several players who travel up to 100 miles for the opportunity to take a swing.
The Rogers and a dedicated group of volunteers work hard to give the games a Major League atmosphere. For two hours, children and adults who are relegated to watching from the bleachers during “regular” sporting events are transformed into superstars. The stands are packed with cheering spectators, and a photographer is on hand to snap team pictures and capture action shots.
As he or she approaches the plate, each batter’s name is announced over the public address system and walk up music blasts across the field. When “Brown-eyed Girl” plays, the crowd knows it’s Kayla Weaver up to bat. Jon Thomas Barnes takes the plate to the tune of “Big Bad John.” Hearing his name called over the PA system and walking up to the theme from “Superman” is especially important to “Superman” Tyler Cannon, who is visually impaired. The first time he heard his name called, Tyler stopped in his tracks, turned to his father and said, “Did you hear that, Dad? He said my name.”
Every player has a chance to bat. Players who cannot hit the ball or run the bases on their own are assigned a volunteer buddy who bats for them and assists them from base to base. No score is kept; the inning ends when every player has had a turn at bat.
It’s a simple concept built a-round a simple game, but the results are nothing less than profound.
“The first two years, we just sat in the stands and cried because it was so wonderful,” says Geri Clark, whose 29-year-old son, Jimmy, has Down syndrome. Jimmy has played with the Challenger League for 19 years.
“Even after all these years, I can’t describe it without crying. Most of the time, it’s like these children and adults are in their own world looking in on our world. For those few hours every week, it’s their world and we’re the ones looking in. We’re the observers and they’re the focus.”
“I like to catch, batter, and outfield,” Jimmy Clark says with a wide smile. “I’m a good player and I have a lot of friends on the team. I can’t wait for baseball season. Can’t wait.”
Almost every parent describes that same sense of anticipation as the opening game approaches. Players ask about baseball weeks before the season begins, and some families have been known to arrive at the field hours early on game day because their player was just too excited to wait at home. The Challenger League eases the frustration and sense of “missing out” that children with disabilities feel when they can’t participate in extracurricular activities at school, and the games add some normalcy to the lives of the players and their families.
Tim Matheny’s 28-year-old son, Daniel, has an undiagnosed condition that may be a form of autism. Daniel still has the ball from the 1996 Challenger game in which he hit his first home run. Today, Daniel plays on a Challenger adult team and Tim Matheny serves as a volunteer coach.
“The Challenger League has meant everything to us,” Tim Matheny says. “What other opportunity are these children ever going to have to play ball? Plus they have the camaraderie of playing with friends who are like them. It tickles me to see them enjoy themselves so much. The gleam in those eyes is something else. Even the ones who can’t talk seem to be saying, ‘Hey, hey, I’m on the ball field! Look at me!’”
The Challenger League could not operate without the generosity of corporate sponsors who provide uniforms and year-end trophies and cover other operating costs, or without the dedicated volunteers who serve as coaches, buddies, and cheerleaders. Volunteers come from all walks of life and include individuals, families, and groups from local churches and high schools.
“We target the high school girls,” Mandy Rogers says with a smile, “because then we get the high school boys.”
Laura Sue McClure is a science teacher at Madison Central High School and the faculty sponsor for the Interact Club, the high school version of the Rotary Club. McClure sends club members to volunteer at the Challenger games every season.
“I tell my students, ‘If you hate school, if you’re mad at your parents, if you’re upset that you don’t have a nice car, go over there and volunteer. You’ll come back with a whole new perspective,’” McClure says. “It’s really something to see these high school students – including the big, tough football players – go to a game, meet the players, and just melt. Once they’ve gone to volunteer once, they all want to go back again.”
“What makes these [young volunteers] so special is that they go to school with our kids,” says Ken Weaver, whose 16-year-old daughter, Kayla, has cerebral palsy. “No adult can take the place of these girls and boys. The interaction with peer buddies is invaluable to our kids’ self-esteem and frankly, warms the parents’ hearts like nothing else. Every parent knows that one day we won’t be there to look after our kids, but knowing there are kids like these buddies out there helps.”
One of those kids was Dustin Crum, who began serving as a Challenger League buddy when he was eight years old and continued to volunteer for more than a decade. Dustin was so inspired by the experience that he decided to make assisting the disabled his life’s work. Today, Dustin Crum, now 27, is a recreational therapist with the North Mississippi Regional Center, a residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities located in Oxford, Mississippi. Crum has also launched an Oxford Challenger Baseball and Softball League modeled after the program begun by Paul and Mandy Rogers.
“Volunteering with the Challenger League gave me my first taste of the joy that comes from doing something for someone else,” Crum recalls. “Without the Challenger League and Paul and Mandy Rogers’ guidance, I would not be where I am today. I am so blessed to have this career and the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of people with disabilities.”
The Rogers’ efforts on behalf of those with disabilities made national headlines in 2006, when USA Weekend recognized them as among the three most “caring coaches” in America. The Rogers were chosen from among 700 youth sports coaches nationwide. The accolades are nice, but for Paul and Mandy Rogers, the enthusiasm of the players and the gratitude of their families is what truly make it all worthwhile.
“I have a longtime association with some of the adult players that means so much to me,” Paul Rogers says. “If I walk into the Mustard Seed, they all call out, ‘Hey, Coach Paul!’ and want to high-five me. Parents tell me their kids start putting their baseball hats on in January. They are just so appreciative for the opportunity to participate in something ordinary that the rest of the world takes for granted.”
The Challenger League players have that opportunity because Paul and Mandy Rogers never equated “disabled” with “hopeless.” Their belief that individuals with disabilities can lead productive, joyful lives is exemplified in their sons.
Today, Nathan “Nate” Rogers is 25 years old and works at the Mustard Seed, a vocational center for developmentally disabled adults. In his free time, Nate enjoys working on his computer and predicting who will be the next couple to be eliminated from “Dancing with the Stars.”
Twenty-two-year-old Ben Rogers works for the City of Ridgeland Recreation and Parks Department as a groundskeeper, keeping the ball fields where he loves to play tidy. Ben is proud of his recent blood donation, made in honor of a friend in need; he smiles when he shares that while he had no problems donating blood, his mother, a former nurse, got sick. In 2011, Paul and Ben Rogers will travel to Greece, where Ben will participate on a bowling team in the Special Olympics.
Nate and Ben both play in the Challenger League, and Nate has also served as a buddy for some of the other players. Both young men are graduates of Madison Central High School, where both won the Jaguar Spirit Award as seniors. Ben was the manager of the Madison Central football team and still contributes to the school’s athletic booster club.
Of course, Paul and Mandy Rogers can’t help but wonder how life would have been different if their sons had not faced so many challenges. They know they won’t celebrate the traditional milestones, like seeing their sons graduate from college or get married, and they will never know the joy of having grandchildren. But at the end of the day, the Rogers choose to focus not on the difficulties, but on the blessings.
“As an attorney, I see a lot of families with children who have made bad decisions and caused their parents terrible pain,” Paul Rogers says. “I know our boys won’t do that.”
“I guess the thing that upsets me the most is low expectations,” Mandy Rogers says. “One of the few things that can still frustrate me is when I hear someone say that a person with a disability can’t work or play or have a meaningful life. We look at the players in the Challenger League and we look at our own sons, and we see proof that that is absolutely not true.”