Time to star: Special Olympics basketball athletes have own tournament

Since that day seven years ago, Paffrath has earned the respect of players, parents and school district employees for his work with Willmar's Special Olympics basketball program.

Since that day seven years ago, Paffrath has earned the respect of players, parents and school district employees for his work with Willmar's Special Olympics basketball program.

"Todd treats every one of them as athletes," said Susan Smith, coordinator for Willmar special education. "He gives them a structure. He expects them to compete like athletes and the students strive to reach his expectations."

Paffrath, a jeweler by trade, manages and coaches three "Half-Court" and one "Full-Court" team that will represent the district April 8-9 at the state Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Eden Prairie High School. More than 600 youth and adult athletes are expected to take part.

The district program serves seventh- through 12th-grade students with disabilities, plus 18- to 21-year-olds in the transitional Focus House. The past two years Paffrath has received a "modest stipend" since he's also taken over the duties of the Special Olympics coordinator. That job involves detailed paperwork on each student, as required by Minnesota Special Olympics. Teachers had done the work previously, but the part-time post was lost during staff cutbacks.

Paffrath answered a postcard seeking volunteers seven years ago. Amy Sachs, a junior high teacher, was already coordinating track and field and also bowling. She wanted to add basketball. He was eager to help.


Todd's wife, Diane, is a special education teacher in the New London-Spicer School District and he has a basketball background. In 1970, he was the "sixth man" on the 1969-70 Cardinals' team, coached by the late Russ Adamson, that went 20-3. He clearly remembers losing to Robbinsdale 53-52 on a last-second shot in the Region 5 semifinal. Teammates included co-captains Ron Gilbertson and Loren Carlson.

Paffrath says those Cardinal standouts are no different than the young people he coaches.

"They all want to compete and be successful, just like everyone. They want to play, to work, to run," said Paffrath.

Three of the 25 student-athletes this year are from the NLS district. Just like other Cardinal athletes, the Special Olympics team members pay a participation fee of $20 to help offset some costs. The school district will pick up the athletes' overnight motel stay at the state tournament.

Since January the teams have practiced Tuesdays and Thursdays after school in the Kennedy Elementary gym. Practices are like the varsity: run, drill and scrimmage.

At a recent practice, Paffrath and a half-dozen volunteers helped the team get ready for the Area 6 Tournament. For state-bound programs, it's a mandatory tournament to establish classification. Saturday's day-long event at the Willmar Senior High School included adult teams from Hutchinson, Willmar and Montevideo, and a skills competition.

At a practice earlier this month, players sat on the floor around the head coach, a scene repeated in gymnasiums everywhere.

His message was this: "Not everyone plays the game the same speed; some play faster, some play slower. Just have fun."


Assistant coaches must be certified through Special Olympics, a course that requires classroom work and later online courses. It takes a lot of coaches, since some athletes with disabilities may require one-on-one attention.

"I couldn't do this without all of them," said Paffrath. He listed his assistants as Robert Perry, Rachelle Somerville, Cheryl Kulset, Michelle Brown, Ann Christianson, Donna Dobransky, Nancy Harman and Deb Pikus.

The flagship team of the district lineup is the Full-Court team of Kenny Kight, Mitchell Eckhoff, Eric Wankerl, Eric Guevarra, Jamie Harman, Chase Hodapp, Ryan Pederson and Dawn Line. Last year Kight led the team to first-place in Level One. Paffrath promised if the team won gold, he'd let them go full-court this year.

Kight is also manager for the Cardinal varsity team. He is a well-rounded player with a vertical that gets him up to eye level with the net.

"This is Kenny's time to shine, the other kids look up to him," said Paffrath, who owns Paffrath Jewelry with his son, Jeff, a fourth-generation jeweler.

Todd Paffrath said coaching young people with special needs doesn't take any more patience than any other activity that involves teaching, but it does require a lot of energy. And he feeds partly off the joy the young people bring to the gym.

"They don't talk back; they just do it," he said, sounding a little like a Nike ad. "I'm humbled every day I go to practice. The simple things are enough to bring joy. We can learn from them. It doesn't take a three-pointer to make them happy. They just want to play the game."

Smith hopes she doesn't have to replace Paffrath any time soon, should he retire.


"Even after the season, he maintains an active interest in students," she said, "like helping them find positions in the community. He goes above and beyond."

The state tournament is an important time of the year for these athletes.

"This is so rewarding for them," Smith said. "As one parent told me, 'This is the only opportunity for these students to be a star.'"

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