Bobby Waugh was prepared to live a simple, fulfilling life.
He was a high school athlete who went on to play college football. He went on to graduate, got a teaching degree and returned home to Hagerstown to help and guide kids into similar directions as an elementary school physical education teacher.
But one day, about 10 years ago, the life he knew took a dramatic shift. After that, nothing was the same again.
He couldn’t turn back. He didn’t want to.
On that day, he met with former North Hagerstown athletic director Marcia Nissel, who was pitching a Unified Sports program. It was aimed at giving special-needs children the opportunity to participate as varsity athletes.
“I did it just one time and I was hooked for life,” Waugh said. “I never expected it to be life changing. Getting married and having a child are life changing. When I started coaching bocce, I didn’t think it would do that. But for the last 10 years, it has done that for me and many special-needs athletes.”
Waugh never fathomed the depth and reach of Unified Sports.
After a modest start, the program has grown in Washington County. All seven public schools have fielded teams, some going on to win state championships.
With the guidance of Special Olympics and the passing of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law in 2008, the state has become one of the pioneers of Unified Sports.
The ground floor began with bocce, with tennis and track and field to be added later.
Bocce, a form of lawn bowling, is played on school gym floors with the scoring principles of horseshoes. The closest shots to a target earn points.
A target ball is rolled to a position and each team has four turns putting one or multiple balls closest to the target and inside opponents’ attempts.
But, the beauty of Unified Sports isn’t the games. It’s the ability to pair special-needs athletes with able-bodied partners to work together in competition. Stigmas and fears are erased and replaced by teamwork and camaraderie.
“Seventy percent of high school students are uncomfortable being around kids with special needs,” Waugh said. “I was one of them. Now, I encourage all my elementary school students to come out to bocce matches. Being a coach opened my eyes.”
It’s difficult for Waugh to describe his emotions when it comes to coaching Unified Sports.
It’s not about him. It’s about giving kids the chance and opportunity to participate.
He knows the feeling when he sees it.
“In my first bocce match, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “We tried to make it just like any other athletic event at North. We played the national anthem, introduced each player and had the cheerleaders when we could.
“Michael Vogel was one of our special-needs athletes, who was with Zach Schreiber, his abled-bodied partner. The gym was packed. Michael took his shot and his ball hit the (target ball). The crowd gave a cheer. I played football and heard cheers for big plays, but not like this. I never felt anything like it anywhere.”
Then came the hook.
“Michael celebrated, but then didn’t run to me. He didn’t run to his parents … he ran to Zach, his partner,” Waugh said. “That is what it is all about … that moment. Winning and losing isn’t No. 1. The opportunity to compete is on top for us.”
That’s what makes Waugh’s next step a little difficult.
On Friday, he is leaving the area for a new job in North Carolina. Unified Sports will not be gone or forgotten.
After getting acclimated to his new area, Waugh hopes to help launch strong Unified programs in North Carolina and has reached out to put it in motion.
If Maryland is a Unified Sports torchbearer, Waugh wants to pass it on to North Carolina if he can.
But once you’ve your life changed, it makes it tough to walk away.
“This is tough,” Waugh said. “I posted that I was leaving on my Facebook page and the feedback I received from former students, athletes and parents was incredible. Leaving my family here is the hardest part, but leaving this community is tough.”
One reason which makes leaving difficult came during North Hagerstown’s trip to the first state bocce finals, which was held in a warehouse in Severn, Md. Waugh was asked to provide names of a pair of athletes.
“Asking this gives me chills,” Waugh said. “I gave the names of Michael and Zach. When the opening ceremonies began, there was an announcement that Michael and Zach from North Hagerstown were carrying out the torch to start the competition. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was a moment that brought everyone together.
“After that, one of the parents, Mrs. Barnhart, came over and gave me a big hug. She said, ‘You don’t know how long I have fought for something like this to be here for my boys.’ You can’t describe a feeling like that.”
The indescribable feeling is the reward.
“I’m having trouble finding the words to describe what this has meant to me,” Waugh said. “When you do anything as a coach, you want your athletes to succeed. But when you see that smile on a special-needs athlete, it says it all.
“That opportunity would not have happened without the Unified program. In history, there have been millions of special-needs people who did not have this opportunity. Part of being involved with this is being part of something ground breaking.”
Many people think they need to make millions of dollars to make an impact.
Bobby Waugh helped make a difference with just a little bit of change.
And that’s why he is leaving Washington County as a very rich man.
Bob Parasiliti is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-791-7520 or firstname.lastname@example.org.