On a recent autumn day, members of the Youngstown State University football team joined the students of Autism High School for a tailgating party in the gym.
At one cafeteria table, Ed Gurney and YSU defensive tackle D.J. Moss were discussing how they play “both sides of the ball.”
“Believe it or not, I was a defensive tackle, too,” Gurney said to Moss. “I was one of the Unstoppables.”
A physical education major, Moss said he enjoys spending time with the students at the high school.
“I like talking and giving kids guidance,” Moss said. “I want to let them know that anything is possible.”
YSU place kicker Joey Cejudo was seated at another table, eating a hotdog and presiding over a thumb-wrestling contest between Dayna Banks and James Butler. Cejudo is from southern California and his aunt is a teacher of children with autism.
YSU defensive end Milton Williams and Nathan Boucher were discussing favorite action characters.
“Storm,” replied Nathan Boucher and Williams nodded in agreement. Williams is a criminal justice major from New Jersey and said he wanted to be a part of this year’s tailgating party.
“I have family members on the spectrum and I’ve always loved kids,” Williams said. “I was just a kid myself not too long ago.”
George Clarke, YSU Assistant Coach who works with the offensive line and special teams, helped organize the event with teacher Jennifer Gonda. The two grew up together in Youngstown and organized the first tailgate party last year.
Clarke said he encouraged the players to be a part of this event. “It really means a lot to us to give back to our community,” he said.
“Our program emphasized social skills instruction, with that, it is important to have many opportunities for social skills practice. Our students had such a great time last year interacting with the football players, they worked even harder to get ready for this party,” stated Gonda.
After lunch, the players and students moved to the school’s new Sensory Room. YSU Football Coach Eric Wolford and his wife, YSU Professor Melinda Wolford, donated the funds for paint, punching bag set and interlocking mats for the floor and walls through their organization No Stone Unturned. The room, filled with a treadmill, punching bag and stationary bike, is for students who are feeling anxious or frustrated and want to relax in a positive way as well as to practice healthy habits such as exercise.
Then the group moved outside to watch a touch football game between the Warren and Youngstown Summit Academy Secondary Schools.