Let former Redskin Ray Schoenke define the word "special" as it is used in the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation Special Olympics, now in its ninth year of offering athletic competition for the mentally retarded. Schoenke was a celebrity-athlete in charge of a program at the Special Olympics in 1969, but his voice still chokes with emotion when he describes what he saw.
"It was the first time they had offered a mile run, and everybody was nervous about whether the kids could make it that distance or not." Schoenke recalled. "The coach pulled me aside and pointed to one black teen-ager in the race. He was a good-looking boy who looked very strong. The coach said he would probably win.
"The boy was talking to his friend from school, a tall, angular white kid about the same age. The race began and, just as the coach predicted, the black younfster took the lead and went way out in front of everybody else. He led all the way until they got to the final lap.
"All of a sudden, the tall white kid started to pull out from the pack. He's running hard and he catches up to the black kid and passes him. Everybody is excited for him; everybody's cheering him to keep on going because he had come from so far back.
But he starts looking over his shoulder, looking back to see where his friend is. Finally, he slows down a little and holds his hand back behind him. His friend has to stumble and strain to grab that hand, but he makes it. And the two of them cross the finish line together. They hugged and kissed each other and ran the victory lap holding each other's hand."
Schoenke, who this year heads the D.C.Special Olympics Fund-raising Committee, added, d"It really touch me that here we were there to help them. And they were doing so much more for us."
"Special" is the theme of these games, which will be held Saturday at Washington Lee High School in Arlington. The people who run in them are special. Young Roberta Cameron, who, although she was leading her race, stopped to pick up a friend who had fallen. And Corrinne Scruggs, who waited until she was 70 to enter her first baseball throw. The 200,000 volunteers who organizw the program work for 600,000 participants - they are special, too.
"I think it's a wonderful thing because it's putting these children on a more or less equal basis with everybody else, and it adds to their dignity as human beings." said Joseph O'Neill, father of 12-year-old blue ribbon winner (basketball and bowling) Mary Nell of Arlington. "I don't think winning means that much to her but I thimk the competition is what is fun. She likes to get out there and compete and enjoy herself. She likes it when they give her ribbons, but she keeps them on the shelf with everybody else's in the family.
Mary Neil's mother, Miriam, echoes the family's pride in her daughter's athletic accomplishments. "I just never knew she could do all the things she does until we saw her in the Special Olympic events last January at George Mason.
"She swims three times a week at Yorktown High Schook and you just can't get her out of yhe pool all summer. Now I hear they've got Mary Nell up on the parallel bars in gymastics. She's a good little athlete. We are blessed with this child. Like any other child, she keeps surprising us every day with what she can do."
Peg Spaeth is a volunteer teacher at George MasinCenter, where her 16-year-old son, Michael, is a special education student. The Spaeths have five sons, she says, but "Michael is the athlete in this family and he knows it. He's special, you know, in this household."
"I had always wanted my kids to be taller, stronger and more intelligent than anybody else's, said Peg Spaeth with candor. "When Michael was born I couldn't believe I had this child. And, to be perfectly frank, I had two years of complete grief.
"Then I said to myself, 'Turn around, dummy, and do something for yourself and the kid'. So I went out and put on little-theater peoductions - we lived in Massachusetts then - and we raised $10,200. That was for transportation of the kids to and from school, but then it became the beginning of funding for a mental health center there.
"Now I volunteer at the school and I have expectations for the kids and they don't let me down. I'm the Pied Piper down the school; and we're getting some place. I am especially hopeful that the Special Olympsics a program will effect a revitalization of the state and local recreation program for special ed. It bothers me when I see Kids I know are capable physically and they are just slopping around.
"But you have so many rewards working with these kids. We had one girl, a teenager who was in a wheel-chair. She couldn't move and we had her about two months before we realized she was communicating by blinking her eyelids. It was a Morse Code communication and even though she couldn't move any part of herself, she could still blink. You think that's not pluck?
"And the sports program is so good for the kids. We are going to have a cheering squad out for our Grorge Mason kids at the Special Olympics this weekend. We have six kids competing and they all have special uniforms. And I even think they get more out of sports than anybody else.
All the special people - Mary Nell and Michael and their parents, the O'Neils and the Spaeths - will be on hand Saturday at Washington-Lee for the 9 a.m. opening ceremonies. They will read the Special Olympics oath before each sport:
"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."