I've been blessed to experience a multitude of "goose-bump" moments in sports.
Watching Indiana's Hoosiers complete a perfect season and win a national basketball title in Philadelphia. Jack Nicklaus capturing a Masters at age 46. Hoosier Fuzzy Zoeller winning a U.S. Open at Winged Foot in a playoff with Greg Norman. A New Castle/Batesville high school basketball regional championship game at Chrysler Fieldhouse that epitomized all that boys' basketball used to be in Indiana. So many incredible performances at Olympic Games. Watching Indiana's "50 Greatest" gather at the opening of Conseco Fieldhouse. Peyton-Manning-to-Marvin-Harrison for the record. And Reggie Miller. And Reggie Miller. And Reggie Miller.
You get the idea. But I think they now will have to be no better than No. 2 on my list.
No. 1 came the evening of July 2 in Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. There, I experienced the ultimate honor of leading Indiana's athletes and coaches in the parade of states that marked the opening ceremonies of the first USA National Special Olympic Games.
This didn't merely warm my heart. It put my emotions into the microwave and set them on high for five minutes.
I was there representing the board of Special Olympics Indiana, of which I am a member. My role with SOIN is the culmination of a 30-year relationship that began when my wife, Sherry, encouraged me to attend a Special Olympics competition at the old Cold Springs School-she was the school's occupational therapist-on Indy's northwest side.
I got hooked. It's difficult not to.
In the ensuing years of my daily sportswriting career with The Indianapolis Star and now, continuing with IBJ, I've tried to use that space to occasionally write about Special Olympics for the simple reason I've stated before: Nothing I've covered in sports speaks to the essence of sports better than Special Olympics.
The national, state and area administrators, the coaches, the volunteers, the parents and families, and-most of all-the athletes, routinely provide me with inspiration, humility and perspective.
In Ames, that was all there as 3,000 Special Olympians-including 61 from Indiana-gathered for the National Games.
Inspiring? There was the athlete who was pushed to the pool deck in a wheelchair. From there, he needed a cane to walk the few steps to the pool. But he then jumped into the water and swam a 100-yard medley: backstroke, breast stroke, butterfly, freestyle. Yes, he finished last. Who cares? This athlete had just gotten far more from his potential than I've ever gotten from mine. The crowd gave him a rousing ovation.
Humility? How much have I done to make this world a better place? Barely anything when compared with Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Tired of hearing "no, no, no" when she attempted to find activities for her intellectually disabled sister in the 1960s, Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver, started Special Olympics and have grown it into a worldwide movement that has provided enjoyment, achievement and a sense of being, well, special, to millions.
Man, I've got some work to do.
Perspective? Special Olympics makes you realize the biggest victory or the worst defeat in the realm of "real sports" means nothing-zilch, zip, zero-when placed in the perspective of Special Olympians who never, ever give anything less than their best effort. And while they pursue medals and ribbons, the result is inconsequential to the participation. I hesitate to go all John Lennon on you, but imagine.
And to the next greedy, 'roided-up, anything-goes rules-breaker in pro sports who complains about how tough he (or she) has it, my suggestion is he (or she) be mandated to spend just one day-one day-at a Special Olympics event. It might change a life-the rich jock's.
But back to Ames and goose bumps. I wish you could have seen the grins on those Hoosier faces. I wish you could have sensed their excitement. I wish you could have felt their joy as they marched in their blue-and-white uniforms, hearing the cheers, waving to the crowd of more than 13,000.
The folks in Ames couldn't have done a better job, either. They marshaled a volunteer force of 8,000. They were friendly (very), efficient and organized. They had one goal: to make this the best week in these Special Olympians' lives.
As I carried the banner that said "Indiana," I knew it was going to be. The goose bumps were confirmation.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.