Big 33’s Special Program: Pairing Athletes With Buddies

By Jeff Falk • Photo By VSN Photography

From modest beginnings in Hershey, the Big 33 Football Classic has evolved into the top high-school, all-star football game in the country. Through those years, the Big 33 has become more than just a game, it’s become a week-long event.

And of those festivities leading up to the game, nothing is more special or better received than the buddy program. The buddy program isn’t more important than the game itself, but it – more than anything – has come to represent what the Big 33 stands for.

The buddy program matches up high-school senior student-athletes from Pennsylvania and Maryland with local special needs kids – children afflicted with things like autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy. When athletic football players, some of whom are staying away from home for the first time, are paired up with kids of similar age who are both mentally and physically challenged, something magical happens.

The 63rd annual Big 33 Football Classic will be played on Memorial Day, May 25 at Central Dauphin Middle School’s Landis Field, 4600 Locust Lane in Harrisburg.

“None of this would happen without the game,” says Garry Cathell, the Big 33’s Executive Director. “But if the game is 1A, then the buddy program is 1B. That’s how important it is. Over the years, it’s evolved. It’s evolved with our game.

“It’s important for a lot of reasons,” adds Cathell. “It gives the buddies an opportunity to meet new people. Buddies look forward to the event every year. On the other hand, the player gets more out of it than I think the buddy does. They fall for the kids. They’re hugging them, holding their hands; it’s just so nice. Some of these kids are pretty handicapped. It’s genuine.”

There is no family that has been touched more by the Big 33’s buddy program than Hershey resident Summer Farmen’s, and specifically, her 19-year-old son Jackson, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Over the years, Jackson has connected with eight different buddies from the program.

The Farmen family has also opened their home to host three different players, and this year 16-year-old daughter Lucy Farmen will cheer at the game.

“Jackson is a boy,” says Farmen. “He is a 19-year-old kid. But these players are kids, too. They have struggles. We all have struggles. Often with kids like Jackson, their disability is seen before them. They’re seen as cerebral palsy boys, but they’re more than that. The players are seen as these boys consumed with football. But those players get to see that kids like Jackson are just kids too. They might not have had that close interaction with kids like Jackson before.

“It’s like a magical thing,” Farmen continues. “Being the mother of a special needs kid, our family is very appreciative. Sometimes Jackson drools, and one time one of his buddies started wiping Jackson’s mouth, and I started to cry. It breaks down stereotypes. People can look one way and act totally different. One of our buddies wasn’t used to being on his own, and then suddenly he was around people.”

“The Big 33 is more than a game,” says Cathell. “When we say that, we’re talking about the buddy program. It lasts a lifetime. You can’t play a game for a lifetime, but you can be a buddy for a lifetime.

“The idea originally came from (former Big 33 executive director) Mickey Minnich and (former Hershey High School football coach) Gump May in the early 80s,” continues Cathell. “Both were teachers and they dealt with special needs kids in their schools. I’m sure it started out slow. But it caught fire. It was something good and it made sense. It’s really grown over the years.”

Once paired up, the student-athletes and their buddies simply do the things that kids like to do– chill and hang out, eat lunch, attend pep rallies, experience Hersheypark, take a few swings at batting cages, or go out to dinner together.

Ultimately for the Big 33 game, the football players and cheerleaders will have number-one fans rooting for them in the stands.

“The buddies get a lot out of this,” says Cathell. “But I think who gets the most out of it are the players and cheerleaders. They get a greater appreciation of what they have. First of all, they learn patience. All of these kids are really, really good athletes. They’re dealing with people who don’t have the abilities they do.

“I’d say 80 percent of the athletes haven’t  been around special-needs kids before,” Cathell adds. “You’ve got to focus on them. I think the athletes develop a sense of understanding for the happiness these kids have, even though these kids have everything stacked against them. The special-needs kids are just as happy as they can be. They just appreciate the attention of the athletes.”

“At the beginning of the week, the players can’t even fathom what it takes to take care of Jackson,” says Farmen. “But at the end of the week, they realize it’s not a big deal. It’s just having that brother figure. When you throw someone else in the mix, it’s something you can’t gain from school. You want him (Jackson) to have that. You want him to have that connection. Jackson is particular in who he responds to. It’s just new people in his circle.”

Following the conclusion of the game, the student-athletes and the special-needs kids physically go their separate ways. The players go off to college, and the special-needs kids return to their lives.

But many stay in touch, through talking on the phone or texting. Some players will even return to the Harrisburg area for special events of their buddies’ families, or host the families at college games that they are now competing in.

The Big 33’s buddy program has the ability to create life-long friendships.

“It’s a mutual thing,” says Farmen. “We open our homes to them. But they’re bringing so much to us and our family. It’s like they’re becoming a part of our family. It’s an intense situation that brings you together. It’s also a nice opportunity for them before they go away to school.

“They’re (the players) so thankful  for being a part of the program,” continues Farmen. “They know they’re impacting these kids. It’s like a friendship they’re establishing. We get to know all of the players’ parents, and they’re so grateful as well.”

“Some of our buddies have been buddies since they were 11-years-old,” says Cathell. “They’re like part of a player’s Big 33 family. The players are sometimes invited to special events, and sometimes the buddies are invited to college games. They stay in contact over the holidays.

“Over the years, the buddy program has impacted thousands of lives,” adds Cathell. “It’s grown and it’s branched out. There are some buddies who have even had siblings in the program. I can’t even tell you how appreciative the families are.”