MILLIS – Marissa Melia didn’t want her friends to miss it. Especially during a school year when so much had already been taken away from them.
“I couldn’t pass up this day for these kids at our school,” said Melia, an elder at Millis High. “Our athletes look forward to this every year. “
For her senior project, Melia tried to replicate the Special Olympics Five City School Day Games: a day when athletes from Millis, Medfield, Medway, Holliston and Ashland come together for a few hours of fun and games every year.
The local Special Olympics event did not take place in 2020 and could not take place this school year due to coronavirus concerns. Melia chose to try to emulate the experience – but with only Millis High students – with a socially distant unified outdoor football game on Tuesday.
“I wanted to do something again that would keep their hopes up,” said Melia, 18. “I wasn’t going to let COVID take away the only day that concerned them. “
A day after celebrating her birthday, Millis High senior Maura Fagan continued to let the good times unfold as she scored four goals in the Special Olympics Unified football game. Melia and Fagan are also “best friends”.
“It was fun,” Fagan said of the game, which brought together nearly 20 Millis High students for two hours. “Pretty cool.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better day,” said Melia, who also played soccer for the Mohawks.
On the grassy soccer field behind Millis High, Melia set up two miniature soccer nets on either side of the sidelines.
Team Spicy Buffalo Chicken Nuggets – a name evoked by Fagan, who had a Buffalo chicken wrap from Big Beef restaurant in Millis on his birthday – went head-to-head with Team Warriors.
Both teams donned a brown or gray T-shirt with “Millis Unified Soccer 2021” written on the front with a soccer ball. There were pom poms and balloons (which almost blew away with the wind). There were announcers and a referee.
And a lot of applause.
“It turned out so much better than I expected,” said Melia, who will be studying management at the University of Tampa next fall. “So many kids came out, everyone was so excited. Everyone was so involved and so included, I loved it.
The Spicy Buffalo Chicken Nuggets led 7-6 at halftime thanks to a goal from college student David Cranton.
“Nice work guys,” Melia said during intermission. “You are killing him. “
“You are on fire,” added Bethany Steiner, senior at Millis High.
The halftime break featured hydration and cheers that spelled out the first name of Millis High senior Elise Spies. The cheers were led by Millis High School students Ella Bender, Jen Damiano, Katherine LaDuke and Mia Molinari in midfield.
“We missed the Special Olympics last year,” said Allie Sears, special education teacher at Millis High. “So for Marissa putting all of that in place this year is huge. … This is the very first time that we can do it here.
“So looking at all the students and teachers is really cool. “
Also in attendance was Mary Beth McMahon, President and CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts. A native of Millis and a resident, McMahon’s son Connor volunteered for the game and helped Melia organize her senior project.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” Melia said. “He was amazing.”
For Connor, it was a special experience to bring two of his worlds together on Tuesday.
“I’ve always grown up around Special Olympics so it’s a pretty easy transition for me,” said Connor, who also plays soccer and is a junior at Millis High. “But it’s so nice to be a part of something in my own community. “
“I think it changed who he is because he doesn’t see a disability,” said Mary Beth McMahon. “The fact that he can actually share that now with his teammates and show them that a level playing field can really make us all capable – I think that is really important to him.”
As for the rest of the game? It was a nail rodent. A Cranton goal with just under two minutes left gave the Spicy Buffalo Chicken Nuggets a 14-13 lead.
“Sometimes I missed it,” Cranton said. “But sometimes I did.”
Minutes later, Madison LeBlanc, senior at Millis High, scored for Team Warriors as time ticked to end the game in a 14-point tie.
“Excitement,” LeBlanc said of his score. “I’m glad we won. “
Tuesday everyone won. At least that’s how I felt. So how was everyone feeling?
“It was fun and exciting to be a part of Marissa’s project,” said Maggie LeBlanc, Madison’s twin sister. “It was fun being with people you knew.”
“I feel like we crushed him,” said Ryan Breslau. What about his legs? “They are in pain.”
Following a collection of post-game “hello’s”, Melia and her classmates handed out Special Olympics t-shirts.
A local firefighter, police officer and Millis Police Chief then presented everyone with gold medals before Elders Fagan and the LeBlanc twins received flowers and a Letterman jacket with their names inscribed on the side in tribute to the day of the elderly.
Everyone then posed for a few photos to commemorate the unified football game and the event hosted by Melia.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have imagined better,” Melia said. “It’s something that I think everyone will remember for as long as they can remember it. So I think that’s a perfect way to end our year, football season, everything, because they’re all my best friends too. So it was really special.
Tommy Cassell is a senior multimedia reporter for the Daily News. He can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ tommycassell44.