2013-07-12 / Front Page

Hats Off!

Yankees Honor Rockaway Special Athletes
By Gerard Gilberto


Terence Burke, one of the Rockaway Special Athletes, waves his cap to a Yankee Stadium crowd after firing a perfect strike on the ceremonial first pitch. (Printed with permission of the New York Yankees.) Terence Burke, one of the Rockaway Special Athletes, waves his cap to a Yankee Stadium crowd after firing a perfect strike on the ceremonial first pitch. (Printed with permission of the New York Yankees.) The New York Yankees brought some HOPE to Rockaway on Monday. Hope as in Helping Others Persevere and Excel. Hope is what the Yankees call a week devoted to recognizing groups and individuals worthy of recognition and support. After hearing about Joe Featherston and the Rockaway Special Athletes (RSA) on NY1, Yankee officials knew they had a group worth honoring.

On Monday morning a handful of Yankee players surprised the Rockaway Athletes at St. Rose of Lima Church on Beach 84th Street.

Yankees Director of Communications and Media Relations Jason Zillo introduced players Ivan Nova, Zoilo Almonte, Preston Claiborne, David Adams, Alberto Gonzalez and Adam Warren to the nearly 50 athletes and their families. And even though the storied Yankees were on hand, the Rockaway group didn’t interrupt their usual warm-up routine. “We’re going to start with our regular warm-up!” Featherston shouted to his athletes to come together and begin stretching. After the brief warm-up, the Yankee players and Rockaway athletes broke into small groups for various games.

The athletes got to shoot hoops, and play Wiffle Ball in the gym and run a game of kickball in the yard all while getting to hang out with some professional baseball players. Featherston’s son, Joe Jr, has been volunteering with RSA almost his entire life. He thought it was, “pretty cool,” to sink a jumper over Nova. “He loves coming down here,” said Featherston.

Featherston founded the RSA seventeen years ago while coaching Special Olympics track and field at the Cross Island YMCA. The Rockaway resident thought it would be better to put a training site on the peninsula and founded his own Special Olympics program at the St. Camillus- St. Virgilius Parish.

“It’s been absolutely phenomenal,” said Featherston, “We started out with eight athletes and now we have somewhere between 45-55 kids.”

Zillo, the coordinator of this and all other HOPE week events, considered himself lucky to have met a man like Featherston. “You know you’re dealing with someone who’s a great person and getting to meet him and all the other athletes out here is just exactly what you expect. It’s an honor.”

The Rockaway Special Athletes were displaced from the St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Parish following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. St Rose of Lima Principal

Theresa Andersen opened her facility to the RSA early this year, giving the tradition the opportunity to live on.

Zillo was more than happy to bring some attention to rebuilding the Rockaways, “We’re here to let people know there’s work still left to be done,” said Zillo. “It’s great to center that on such an inspiring story like these kids and this organization.” The Yankees reached out to Featherston and the RSA and offered to make this part of their HOPE week activities. “The Yankees found us,” said Featherston, “They saw a story about us returning after we were displaced by Sandy. Jason tracked me down and asked if they could do something special for us.”

“I remember watching video of these guys and we all knew this was something we wanted to wrap our arms around and make a part of our HOPE week,” Zillo said.

The smiles lasted all afternoon for the athletes as Yankee volunteers handed out HOPE week hats and t-shirts. All members of the RSA, including Featherston and his team of volunteers, headed to Yankee stadium after the fun and games at St. Rose.

The fun continued at the Stadium. The Rockaway crew were able to go on the field, meet other players and get autographs. Terence Burke threw out the ceremonial first pitch – a perfect strike! – and got a big ovation from the crowd.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this,” said Featherston.

“We see hundreds of stories throughout the year and the toughest challenge is choosing just five of them,” Zillo said. Zillo went on to talk about how pleased he was with his decision to choose the Rockaway Special Athletes for the HOPE week jumping-off point. (Gerard Gilberto is a summer intern for The Wave working the sports beat.)




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