USA Today: Former NFL star Tiki Barber teams with charity, helping disabled kids through sports

November 22nd, 2010

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Nov 22, 2010

Remember how fitting in was so important as a kid? For the 6 million disabled kids in the U.S., fitting in can be an even greater challenge. In some good news for the day, this might soon change, as an organization is aiming to build a new sports facility that will give these kids a leg up.

The Opportunity League, a non-profit based in New York, is aiming to build the first recreation facility of its kind in the Hudson River Valley region where fitness and inclusion will go hand-in-hand. The new facility under development will “feature accessible and sustainable design principles, provide a gathering place where individual differences and varied abilities are celebrated by the community and promote a collaborative environment where trained mentors and volunteers facilitate fitness, recreation, and competition for all,” explains a news release. Once complete, the plan is to replicate this model in other communities across the country.

I caught up with former New York Giants’ star and Opportunity League advocate Tiki Barber to learn more about the organization and its planned facility, including the efforts to win a Pepsi Refresh grant this month that will support the group’s work.

Kindness: Tell us more about the Opportunity League and why you’ve decided to team up with them.

TikiBarber: The Opportunity League is a program that allows individuals with and without disabilities to engage in recreational and competitive activities that will challenge and enhance their lives, mentally, physically and emotionally. In our programs, game rules are modified to maximize participation, level the playing field and eliminate the need to use the word “handicapped.”

Kindness: What are you doing as an “advocate” for the organization?

Barber: I am working with a wide range of committed community (elks clubs), governmental (former state senator Nick Spano, Margaret Giannini who helped start the ‘I can do it, you can do it’ program in 2004 with Health and Human Services office on disability), programmatic specialist (slippery rock university adaptive physical activity PHD Bob Arnhold) and friends to push our idea toward reality, by participating and demonstrating the potential of the program for kids with and without disabilities. We are working with local organizations like the Hudson Valley Cerebral Palsy Association to find locations for our fields. We are engaging political contacts that I’ve made over the years to help us push for government funding. most importantly, when I get the opportunity to speak about the importance of inclusive play environments, I do – most recently at a Willowbrook state school.

Kindness: How did sports play a role in your social development while growing up?

Barber: I was painfully shy when I was young, and very dependent on my twin brother for social interaction. However, as I grew older, evolved as an athlete and found success, sports became my vehicle to express myself. Also, growing up as one of a handful of African Americans in a predominately Caucasian county in VA, sports gave me way to assimilate comfortably. I wasn’t always successful as an athlete, and the humility I learned from those challenges prepared for the upside of success.

Kindness: Right now, the Opportunity League is competing for a Pepsi Refresh grant. If they win, how will the grant money be used?

Barber: The Pepsi Refresh Competition has restrictions that dictate that everything has to be completed in 12 months and the money has to be spent on “deliverables” that can be documented. For that reason the money will be used specifically to build the Opportunity League facility in southeast, NY. The specifics are included as part of our grant proposal on the Pepsi Refresh site. They are:

$180K – specialized, age appropriate, accessible physical fitness/recreation equipment and fields
$20K – specialized, accessible safety surfacing
$50K – development of adaptive physical education programs, games, and mentor training

Kindness: Are you still engaged in competitive sports these days?

Barber: I am not engaged in competitive sports, other than watching my two boys, AJ and Chason, compete and grow their athlete passions. I do, however, stay very active physically. I’m in the gym most days, or taking bikram yoga, a love/hate 90 minutes, a few days a week.

Kindness: How can other folks get engaged and support this cause even if they may not live in the New York/Hudson Valley area?

Barber: Our website ( has a button labeled “Join Us” that asks people to choose one of two options:

Do you want to see an Opportunity League in Your Community?
Do you want to support the Development of the Opportunity League?

Our ultimate goal is to make this a national program that affects the communities that we all live in, and for children and adults to see those with disabilities not as inferiors, but as peers.