All He Can Be

After a bitter separation from Special Olympics, a Lewisville father keeps pushing his Unique Athletes

It was a hot morning in July at the Lake Park Golf Course in Lewisville, and the teenager known as Tank had a choice to make.

It was an 8-foot putt, breaking right to left. The 16-year-old conferred with his caddy, argued briefly about the proper line and then stepped to the ball and drained the putt. The crowd that had gathered around the hole broke into applause.

To anyone watching, the scene would have looked like any other from a high school golf tournament. And that's just the way Tank's father wanted it.

Steven Fleming walks the Lake Park Golf Course with a participant in his program.
Grace Photography
Steven Fleming walks the Lake Park Golf Course with a participant in his program.

Tank is Steven Fleming, a junior at Hebron High School. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Fleming is an important member of the Hebron Hawks football team, playing both offense and defense. He dates, attends dances and has a job. It's easy to forget that he is a child with special needs.

That's also the way his father wants it. Tank's father is Steven Fleming Sr. A former Marine nearly as big as his son (6-foot-3, 240 pounds), Fleming made news last year when he was kicked out of the Special Olympics for pushing kids too hard. As a basketball, soccer and golf coach with the Lewisville Special Olympics delegation, Fleming outfitted his players with new uniforms and shoes and demanded more from them than any other coach had. The results were hard to argue with. In 2005, his team won the state basketball title.

While some members of the delegation liked Fleming's innovative approach, others said he was too hard on kids, and in 2006 Fleming left the Lewisville delegation and started his own, called the Flower Mound Mustangs, bringing nearly half the delegation with him.

It didn't take long before the two groups were fighting, and in December of 2006 both delegations were put on probation. Last July, Fleming was booted from the Special Olympics.

Fleming says parents who share his philosophy began contacting him last year after the Dallas Observer and Sports Illustrated ran stories about his struggles with the Special Olympics. "I realized I wasn't alone in this," Fleming says. "There are a lot of parents out there who want kids to be pushed, but it seems like there are very few options for our kids."

In May he met a former college football player named Bruce Carter at a fund-raiser, and the two hit it off. Carter had just started a group called We Are Graduating, or WAG, an educational outreach program for fifth- through eighth-grade students. Carter says he was impressed with Fleming's approach to helping children with special needs. Together, the two started a new program called WAG Unique Athletes. The program would accomplish two goals: It would gives WAG participants an opportunity to help children with disabilities, and it would offer its athletes opportunities to feel included in mainstream society.

"That's what I'm all about," Fleming says. "I want my son to be included, to do what every other child does, to at least have those opportunities."

In June, WAG Unique Athletes began preparing for its first event: a golf tournament at Lewisville's Lake Park Golf Course. Fleming had 17 children with cognitive disabilities sign up for the program, and for 10 weeks they participated in a golf training program run by a coach at Castle Hills Golf Course named Denise Grider.

"Special Olympics has what you call skills. They putt, drive the ball and are given points for their skill level," Fleming says. "To take a player and teach them all of the rules of the game is very difficult, which is what we did."

On July 21, the group held its first tournament. The 12 participants were decked out in donated golf gear. When each one stepped to the first tee, his or her name was announced as well as the city they came from. "It was just like a real tournament," Fleming says.

For him, the highlight was seeing his son walk down the fairway on the final hole.

"There was a time when my son was 8 or 9 when he didn't have any friends," Fleming says. "And here he is, walking the course, and his caddy is a friend who plays on the varsity football team with him...

"At the final hole they're having this discussion about the proper line of the ball, and then Steven steps up and sinks the putt. It was the greatest feeling in the world, not just that he made the putt, but that his best friend helped him make it. That he has friends like that and that he can do anything any other kid could do—it sort of sums up everything I'm about."

So far, Janice Sullivan of Plano is a believer in Fleming's approach. As the mother of a 16-year-old son with cognitive disabilities, Sullivan says she never felt like her son Douglas fit in at Special Olympics events.

"With this [program] Douglas was allowed to be a real person," Sullivan says. "He was pushed and encouraged like a true athlete. He had a real coach who came in, who encouraged him and held him accountable to be what he could be."

Carter says Fleming hasn't shed the prickly exterior that caused him problems in Lewisville. He remains the demanding, and sometimes abrasive, presence he has always been.

Fleming makes no apologies for that, but he says he has learned a lesson from his time in the Special Olympics.

"What we do isn't for everyone, just like Special Olympics and AAU basketball aren't for everyone," Fleming says. "I'm upfront with people. I say, 'Your son's going to be yelled at. Your child is going to give me effort, and that's what I demand.' If they give the effort the rest will come."

Fleming is now looking forward to a second golf tournament and setting up programs for other sports, including basketball and snow skiing. Today, Fleming says he has moved on and has no desire to participate in Special Olympics again. He says his philosophy is at odds with the organization, which stresses participation and sportsmanship over winning.

Fleming has no problem with teaching the importance of participation or sportsmanship—in fact he says he heavily stressed both as a coach—but he says the Special Olympics is selling some kids short by not expecting more out of them.

"My belief is that a child will rise to the level of his or her expectations," he says. "My son, despite his disabilities, is as close to a normal child as I've seen. It's by the grace of God, but it's also because of a father who treated him like he was normal."

As for the Lewisville Special Olympics delegation, the members there say they are doing just fine without Fleming. That's fine with him, he says, because he has moved on as well.

"A lot of people don't understand what I'm trying to do, and that's fine," he says. "I think unless you've had a child with special needs it's hard to understand. I'm just trying to prepare my son for when he has to go out on his own, and right now he's prepared to do that. That's my job as a father, and as long as I've done that, I feel like I've done my job."

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