We had the good fortune of connecting with Scott Freeman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Scott, how does your business help the community?
Founded by a combat veteran to honor the memory of his disabled brother, who passed while he was deployed, Mikey’s League challenges the limits placed on children with disabilities. We believe in the power of sport, and its moments of triumph, to provide the confidence needed to be successful in life, regardless of challenges. We work towards this mission by running inclusive sports programs. Inclusive means bringing athletes with disabilities together on teams with their non-disabled peers and changing the game’s rules to allow everyone to compete meaningfully. We do this with as authentic a traditional sports program as possible while holding the youth to a high standard and focusing on player development.
The demographics we serve make us different. There are very few programs in the country that are actively attempting to serve athletes with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and those without disabilities in the same program. Unlike similar programs that serve one of these groups, we also do not segregate based on the type of disability or athlete skills. We believe in balancing teams within a league to allow our higher functioning athletes to take on leadership roles. We modify rules to meet the needs of the individuals and let those that might need a little more support the chance to experience true success. For example, we have an athlete with cerebral palsy who is non-verbal, is in a specialized wheelchair, and has limited muscle control. On defense, we modified the rules to allow him to use a pool noodle to tag opponents instead of pulling their flag. We also allowed him to rush the quarterback immediately instead of counting 5 seconds before rushing. These small changes took him from being unable to meaningfully participate on defense to be one of the most important defensive players on the field. With the assistance of his chair pusher, he was able to pressure the opposing quarterbacks effectively consistently. This player was voted the Most Valuable Player on his team at the end of the season. He did this while participating alongside and against some genuinely gifted athletes.
While we have focused on flag football and basketball, we are also proud to be piloting an ice hockey program that has six young adults with disabilities participating alongside their peers in a traditional adult hockey league. This program is the first of its kind and is being prepared to spread to other cities.
Through sports, we can discover self-confidence. We can learn to work hard and be accountable to others. We are pushed to raise our performance expectations. We form lasting bonds through shared effort. We develop these skills and others that help us be successful in school and life.
At the heart of our program, we provide participants skills necessary to live successful lives and have careers at the limits of their abilities. Athletics allows our participants to practice job readiness skills meaningfully instead of learning about them on paper. Every day, they are tasked with responding appropriately to authority figures, following multi-part directions, working alongside, interacting with peers they don’t necessarily get along with, properly handling mistakes (and successes), focusing on a goal, reading diagrams, etc. Importantly they are also building confidence that they can succeed in a world that will not treat them “fair.” In our most recent participant/caretaker survey, 93% of respondents believed their overall health/disability limits their participation in work or school. That same number thought they were learning the skills to overcome those limitations at Mikey’s League. 100% reported discovering a new strength, ability, or interest through sports that improve their overall well-being.
If you are interested in learning more about Mikey’s League or becoming involved with our programs, please visit us at www.MikeysLeague.org. We are always hunting for new athletes, volunteers, and supporters.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Michael Bender was born with cerebral palsy and a backward pumping heart. Doctors told his family that he would never be able to walk and would not live past the age of three. To his family, he was Mikey, but to the kids in the neighborhood, he was “Karl’s handicapped brother.” They all played tackle football, and Mikey could only watch from the sidelines due to his medical condition. Mikey’s League co-founder Karl Bender changed all that one day by insisting the group let his brother play and creating new rules that made it safe but still fun for everyone. Mikey was passionate about sports and did not let his disabilities hold him back. Even though there were no intramural programs for him, he could now play with his brothers and their friends. Those games became some of the best and most enduring memories for Mikey and his family.
Playing sports allowed him to have his own identity and show his peers that he was just like everyone else. It gave him the confidence to be successful in life, and he graduated high school with his class and was attending college.
Mikey passed in 2008 at the age of 21, while Karl was deployed in the army to Iraq. In honor of his legacy, we established Mikey’s League with a mission to challenge the limits placed on children with disabilities and allow them to inspire and teach us. In doing this, we are also creating lasting memories and creating bonds between people who need them the most.
One of the major things that set us apart is that we do not white glove or coddle our athletes. We treat them how we would treat anyone. We coach them to high standards that they often exceed. In exchange for their effort, we make sure they have an incredible sports experience. We have amazing jerseys, play at beautiful facilities, and have good equipment. Our goal is that anyone walking past one of our practices would not realize it was a program geared towards youth with disabilities.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Arizona is an incredible place to be a sports fan. Being able to catch a Suns, D-Backs, Cardinals, or Coyotes game is always a great way to spend an evening. The new Bell Bank Park in Mesa is also pretty incredible and worth the drive. We are fortunate to be partnered with Legacy Cares and are currently running a flag football program there. 320 acres of beautiful fields and facilities for any sport you could want plus restaurants and an arcade. It’s worth checking out!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
It would be a mistake not to give credit to the two biggest champions behind the success of Mikey’s League. Full credit for our success falls with our wives, Cindy Freeman and Jesika Bender, for believing in the vision and allowing us to chase this dream and volunteer our time and attention throughout the last three years. We literally could not have gotten where we are without their support.