The wind chill at the Ocean Springs Sports Complex Saturday hovered just above freezing. But members of the Jackson County-based Dream Program weren't complaining about the cold conditions one bit.
More than three dozen Dream Program members, staffers and their families braved the cold for an afternoon of football and fellowship with East Mississippi Community College's MACJC state champion football squad.
EMCC, which is on the Mississippi Gulf Coast this weekend to participate in Sunday's Mississippi Bowl – an NJCAA National Championship matchup in with fellow unbeaten Georgia Military College – brought its team, coaches, cheerleaders and staffers to Ocean Springs. The Lions pulled into the sports complex with a police escort and an entourage, much to the delight of the already-assembled Dream Program – a successful, volunteer-oriented program founded in April 2006 to enhance the leisure lifestyle of people with disabilities on the Coast and surrounding areas.
The program was founded by the husband-and-wife team of Troy and Lindsay Trigg. It provides year-round competitions and therapeutic recreation ranging from baseball and softball to flag football to arts and crafts, basketball , bowling, dances and banquets. The group has been recognized with a bevy of awards from organizations on the Coast and they were certainly prepared for Saturday's visit from EMCC.
"The reception we got here was phenomenal," EMCC head football coach Buddy Stephens said. "These kids and folks out here were so gracious to us and they braved this cold weather to spend some time with us.
"I tell you, I haven't heard any of these kids complain one minute about the cold," Stephens said. "And that goes for our guys too. They never griped once about being here in the cold or wanting to go somewhere else or getting back to the room where it's warm. They were exceptionally proud to be here and have this opportunity and I think they made the most of it."
Did they ever.
EMCC's football team and cheerleaders were welcomed by a long line of Dream Program participants, their families and well-wishers in a meet-and-greet which included refreshments, pizza and photo opportunities.
Participants were then divided into two groups. Those confined to wheelchairs or with lesser mobility were teamed with EMCC players and cheerleaders on one football field while those with greater physical ability played with a group of Lions on another.
Again, both sides took full advantage of the opportunity. There were full-fledged offensive and defensive game plans, key interceptions, plenty of touchdowns and a few celebrations which would surely draw a flag when the Lions go for the national title Sunday at 2 p.m. at Biloxi's Indian Stadium.
"These guys are the best ever, they're my favorite football players in the world," one Dream Program participant, Daniel, said while snapping candid photos and getting cheerleader autographs afterward. "I love these guys. They're awesome!"
"To come out here and be a part of this Dream Program football exhibition was a fantastic opportunity for our young men," Stephens said. "It's truly a great chance for them to give back to the community and to feel like they're a part of something special."
Earlier this week, EMCC defensive lineman Jarran Reed verbally committed to playing for the University of Alabama next season. But Saturday, he and fellow heralded recruit D.J. Pettway were as animated as anyone with their celebrations with Dream Program members. Lions' linebacker Christian Russell has the attention of dozens of Division 1 football programs, but Saturday he had everyone's attention as he barked orders and led cheers for both sides involved in his game.
"Our guys had a blast," Stephens said. "On one hand, it's a chance for them to realize what they have in life and all the things they've been blessed with.
"They made some kids smile today, but it works both ways," Stephens said. "It truly was a special opportunity and I'm so thankful our team got to be a part of it.
"It was an exceptional afternoon. Now we're going to get somewhere warm, grab some Five Guys and some pizza and enjoy watching the SEC championship game together."