It was a regular Wednesday night basketball practice for roughly 25 kids at a Smithfield-area gym. They weren't expecting another basketball team to be on their court.
Erica Lundahl will always remember the look of surprise on their faces when they saw five towering men in front of them.
"I wasn't sure if it was going to happen, so I didn't tell them what was happening," she said. "They said, 'Who are those guys?' And we told them they're real basketball players, and they play for the Aggies."
Five Utah State players - Jarred Shaw, Jalen Moore, Carson Shanks, Jojo McGlaston and Viko Noma'aea - spent time with Top Sports on Wednesday night, a program that helps about two-dozen kids with varying mental and physical disabilities play sports.
The program was started a few years ago by a Utah State student, and has since been run by parents Lundahl and Emily Larsen. The USU Center for Persons with Disabilities still supports the effort. Both Lundahl and Larsen have children in the program, which is designed to let kids who can't make other sports teams do their own athletic activities.
"It's around this time when other kids say to my son, 'We've got basketball practice tonight,'" Lundahl said. "This way, our kids can say, 'Oh yeah, we've got practice, too.'"
There are kids with mild autism, or some with conditions that require them to use wheelchairs - a range of disabilities are represented. The program works closely with Smithfield city officials to use baseball fields, pools, bowling alleys and other facilities.
Lundahl's 8-year-old son, Dylan Lundahl, goes to school with one of Chris Jones' children. After hearing about Top Sports, the Utah State basketball assistant coach was quick to offer to bring some players by.
The Aggies who visited spent about two hours working with kids: Offering tips, playing games and signing posters. One parent, Steve Murphy, sent me an e-mail which I quote with some light editing:
I wish that more people could have been there to see it! I can't explain how amazing it was to see my kid get to mix it up in the key with Jarred Shaw. I've never seen a kid so happy to get dunked on by Jalen Moore. Jojo put on a dribbling exhibition while kids were chasing him all over the court. At different times during the night, Veeko and Carson pulled my son Jake aside to give him pointers. Coach Jones was even on the sidelines coaching and cheering the kids on. Needless to say, Jake had the time of his life.
I wish more people could have seen it, just to see the different side of the Aggie players. These guys took two plus hours out of their lives (during finals week) to hang out with a bunch of kids that don't know the rules of basketball, but desperately want to score a basket. I watched Jarred Shaw spend about 20 minutes rebounding the ball for an autistic girl. It was just the two of them on that end of the court. On the other end, the guys started a game of lightning with the rest of the kids.
Sorry if this is a bit cheesy, but I think it needs to be said.
These athletes come to Logan to play ball and go to school. I think they all learn real quick that in this small college town, they can choose to become either the hero or the outlaw. We have been very lucky over the years that our coaches and athletic department have only recruited kids that are good people that have good hearts. These athletes quickly become the heroes to our young kids. Last night those heroes put a smile on my kids' face like I have never seen before. Last night my kid wasn't different. He wasn't handicapped. He was just a 13 year old kid playing ball with the Aggies.
It's worth noting that Utah State athletics, at large, encourages community service. Athletes from every team can often be seen at Hillcrest Elementary, for example, reading to elementary schoolers. This episode really accounts for perhaps a small fraction of what the Aggies do in the Cache Valley Community.
"I heard our guys did a good job," coach Stew Morrill said Friday morning. " We're always looking to help with community service any way we can. They're constantly asking us to do things, and we do as much as we possibly can."
Still, about two hours will likely be an experience many of the Top Sports kids - and their parents - won't forget.
"All the parents and kids were so excited and grateful they could come," Lundahl said. "It was really neat that they spent their time with our kids."
Anyone who is interested in learning more about Top Sports can reach Larsen and Lundahl via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have a story you want to share about the Aggies? My contact information is below.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon