Camp gives kids facing challenges a chance to shine on gridiron
The excitement generated from the backseat of the Potvin family vehicle intensified the closer it got to the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park’s football stadium July 29.
The generator was Parker Potvin, a Livonia resident born with Down syndrome.
“Parker kept saying, ‘I’m so excited! I’m so excited!’,” recounted Mike Potvin, Parker’s dad. “My older son plays football for the (Southeast Michigan Youth Football Association’s) Livonia Orioles and Parker has always had a desire to play football.”
The Potvins were headed to the 8th Annual Sunshine Football Clinic for children with special needs, which was initiated in 2014 by then-10-year-old Connor Sherman, the recently-graduated Plymouth High School starting quarterback who is moving on to play the position this fall at Kalamazoo College.
The clinic, which has been held every year except Covid-19-ravaged 2020, pairs individuals with special needs with Plymouth High School football players for two hours of fun-drenched gridiron drills.
Parker Potvin was one of close to 50 clinic attendees who tackle each day with gusto while dealing with physical and/or intellectual challenges.
“Camps like (the Sunshine Football Clinic) are integral in getting Parker and kids with similar abilities to participate in football,” Mike Potvin said. “What I especially like about these camps is the sense of community. It gives everyone involved a chance to experience inclusion.
“The Sunshine Clinic brings out the best in everyone.”
That was apparent throughout the event, which featured one drill that required campers to carry a football through a cone-lined course before displaying their best touchdown dance once they reached the end zone.
One touchdown-scorer unveiled a joy-filled celebration that manufactured smiles on the faces of everyone within 30 yards.
“It’s such a rewarding experience participating in this clinic because we get to help make it one of the best days of the year for these kids,” said Plymouth High School junior Sam Plencner, who is expected to serve as Sherman’s QB successor this fall. “It’s a happy and humbling experience at the same time for me and my teammates.”
Sherman, wearing one of the eye-catching tie-dyed T-shirts distributed to camp volunteers and campers, looked on with pride as the clinic unfolded.
“After the first year, we didn’t know if it would continue, but the funding kept rolling in and the interest has always been there, so we’ve kept it going,” Sherman said. “The Plymouth players – both the ones before I got here and the past four years I played – have always been all-in on helping out. For that, I am incredibly grateful.”
As a fourth-grader in Melanie Gray’s class at Canton’s Workman Elementary School, Sherman came up with a plan for a special-needs football clinic during “Genius Hour”, a project that allowed students to create a “Passion Project” and share it with the class, school and the world.
Although Gray and Sherman’s parents – Eric and Jennifer – acknowledged turning the idea into reality would be challenging, they supported him 100%.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a really neat idea,” said Brian Rochon, a teacher at Pioneer Middle School and an instrumental organizer of the clinic since its inception. “I thought it was great that Connor came up with the idea. His parents deserve a lot of credit, too, for helping him put it into action. Most parents would have said, ‘Aww, that’s cute, buddy’ and move on, but they embraced the idea and ran with it.
“One of the coolest things is seeing some of these kids come back for a third, fourth or fifth time. That shows that what we’re doing is working. I love, too, that it gives families that rarely experience a stress-free day a few hours of stress-free time.”
Plymouth head football coach Greg Souldarian said the clinic brings out a side of his players that he and his coaching colleagues rarely see.
“I get to see the big-brother side of these guys that you don’t see during practice and workouts,” Souldarian said. “I told the team last night that I look forward to this night all year because it creates such happiness and joy. It’s such a cool experience.”