Columbia athletes help Special Olympics basketball team

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COLUMBIA - The Special Olympics is deeply rooted in Mid-Missouri. Special Olympics Missouri, or SOMO, has events at the University of Missouri every year, and there are programs going year round.

One of those events is basketball.

"There is this slogan that I heard, ‘you should always play from the heart, because if you put your heart into it you basically have what it takes to play ball' and I believed that ever since I was a child," athlete Tommy Barker said.

Barker is a part of a team called the Heat. Chuck Crews, a business owner in Columbia, has been coaching the Heat for six years.

Some of the players have a lot of experience.

"I have done this for 30 years," Heat player Duke Simmons said. "I have been doing this since I was 13."

Simmons was inducted into the Missouri Special Olympics Hall of Fame. He is an eight-sport athlete who always encourages his teammates to do the same thing he has done, stick with SOMO. Simmons' teammates know what he brings to the team.

"Duke, he is the glue that holds us together," teammate Isaac Welch said. "I am surprised he does not play college ball because he is that good. He also does bowling and, my god, he is good in just about every sport that you can think of in Special Olympics. If he is not in it, then we don't have a good team."

Crews, who is a huge fan of the Columbia College Cougars, had an idea. If he could get the team playing against good opponents, he could make the Heat better. That is when he convinced the women's volleyball team from Columbia College to come out and play against the Heat.

"Oh it's been good. I think this idea the coaches came up with, the girls playing against us has really helped." Barker said "I remember in the beginning we had some struggles, like where we were on the court and stuff but I can see that we are doing a lot better now."

And the volleyball team has loved it.

"Playing here grows us as well as opposed to just them, so it is a two way street," said Columbia College senior Jordan Reid.

Reid said practicing against the Heat on Tuesdays at New Haven Elementary is a stress reliever, but not easy.

"I didn't know what to expect when I first came," Reid said. "But they are so competitive and like, aggressive, and like we really have to work as hard as we can to beat them."

Columbia College guard Zach Rockers also helps the Heat.

"I have been so blessed to play college basketball, if I come teach these guys a thing or two or just encourage them it's the least I can do," Rockers said.

He does not play with the Heat or against them, but instead spends the beginning of practice helping with drills, like coaching defense, and during the scrimmage he is seen cheering on the Heat to beat his Cougar colleagues.

"It is really cool how a team like this can really bring together a college and a group of friends," Rockers said.

His helpfulness does not go unnoticed either.

"You can just see he has an authority, but is, like, so gentle with them," Reid said.

Reid said Rockers treats the team like his own players.

"That is really cool to see because I think that is how everyone responds best," she said.

The players really enjoy him too.

"Zach, oh, he is great, Zach's a great guy," Welch said. "You know he is on the Columbia College men's team and he has experience. I know he had a little injury, so I call him the ‘Comeback Kid.' I am very appreciative that he takes the time to come help us out."

The Columbia College athletes said taking time out of their day to do this is not a chore.

"When you find something you love so much, and some people ask how do you make time, I don't really have to make time for it because it is something that I legitimately love," Rockers said. "You know it takes a little bit of time, but it is one of those things because it is not really a sacrifice at all because it is the highlight of my day."

With all of the help from the Cougars, the Heat players have only one thing on their minds.

"Pretty much the only thing we are here to do is win a state championship," Welch said. "Our main priority coming into this season was to win a championship."

The Heat plays at 9:10 a.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Simonsen Freshman Center in Jefferson City. If they win, they will be invited to Fort Leonard Wood to play in regionals.

Their biggest fan, and friend, Rockers will not be able to watch the Heat, because he has his own game.

Columbia College plays in the AMC Semifinal on Saturday at 4 p.m.