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Stevens Football Player Comes With a Unified Message

  • Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber adjusts his shoulder pads before an afternoon workout with his New Hampshire team during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber adjusts his shoulder pads before an afternoon workout with his New Hampshire team during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.

    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber absorbs contact from a New Hampshire teammate in a tackling drill during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

    Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber absorbs contact from a New Hampshire teammate in a tackling drill during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.

    Valley News -- Greg Fennell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber adjusts his shoulder pads before an afternoon workout with his New Hampshire team during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell
  • Stevens High's Kai Kleyensteuber absorbs contact from a New Hampshire teammate in a tackling drill during Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl practice at Castleton State College on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Kleyensteuber's senior year at Stevens included playing on the school's first unified basketball team, which pairs regular students with special needs students in one program.<br/><br/>Valley News -- Greg Fennell

Castleton, Vt. — At its essence, the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl is less about a football game between Vermont and New Hampshire high school seniors than it is an opportunity for those teenagers to give a child a moment to smile.

Stevens High’s Kai Kleyensteuber had a head start in that department before even setting foot at Castleton State College this week.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Kleyensteuber could find himself starting at left tackle in Saturday’s Shrine game at Dartmouth College’s Memorial Field. He’ll head to UNH in a few weeks; if he tries anything athletically there, it’ll probably revolve around track and field thanks to a resume that includes a state championship in the discus from the NHIAA Division II state meet last spring.

Prior to that, however, Kleyensteuber answered a teacher’s call to join Stevens’ nascent unified basketball program. A relatively new NHIAA initiative, unified sports involve rosters split between special-needs students and able-bodied competitors such as Kleyensteuber. He couldn’t have imagined at the time how it might affect his Shrine experience this week.

“There’s a team of five — three special-needs kids and two partners that help them out — and you go down the court with them, assist them in making baskets,” Kleyensteuber described after New Hampshire Shrine practice at Spartan Stadium on Tuesday morning.

“It’s just such a rewarding feeling to see the smile on their face when they score that first basket or win the game for your team. It’s just awesome.”

The NHIAA makes it clear that the goal of unified sports — soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, volleyball and track in the spring — isn’t simply participation.

“We must have high expectations for students with intellectual disabilities,” the NHIAA’s unified sports by-law reads, “because if we do not, we are teaching another generation of regular education students that people with intellectual disabilities can’t follow rules or be held accountable and, as a result, they will not be viable members of their community or society in general.”

Kleyensteuber doesn’t consider himself coordinated enough for basketball; he never played the game in high school. Carolynn Tuck, a Stevens physical education teacher and the Cardinals’ unified basketball coach, tapped Kleyensteuber’s shoulder for the new program anyway because she thought the big senior would be a good leader. He proved a valuable rebounder as well, and his presence helped the Cardinals reach the NHIAA finals as the 14th seed in a 16-team state tournament before falling to Keene in the championship game at Southern New Hampshire University.

The NHIAA seeks a 50-50 ratio of special-needs athletes to partners such as Kleyensteuber. About 20 people altogether suited up for the Cardinals at some point during the winter. Although the state encourages emphasizing competition in unified sports, Kleyensteuber found that his on-floor role could change on a game-by-game basis.

“It varied on whether teams thought it was morally right that you could score or if you could just rebound,” said the German-born Kleyensteuber, whose family moved to Claremont when he was 1 year old. “We try to keep it to our players getting the ball and them shooting, us rebounding and getting the ball to them so they can score the points.”

Tuck found Kleyensteuber also had a bit of coach in his system that needed to get out. Kleyensteuber learned his partners harbored the desire to taste success as much as he did.

“The kids did like winning more than losing; they didn’t see it as anything but what I see it as,” he said. “It’s not like they don’t want to win. They wanted to win just as much.

“When we lost, you could tell on their faces that we didn’t do so well. But I said, ‘Let’s just go back to practice; let’s work on some things.’ Rebounding we didn’t do so well with this year; the kids were just looking at the ball, watching it go by. So you’ve got to be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to go after that ball instead of watching letting it go past you.’ You’ve got to work on those skills so that next year, when other new kids come in, they can help those kids and then keep building the program.”

Kleyensteuber’s affection for the Cardinals’ unified basketball team grew enough that he’s told Tuck he’d like to come back and help coach during his winter break from UNH next season.

Should Stevens expand its unified offerings to track and field — or even if the Cardinals’ track squad should require some throwing help — Kleyensteuber would be happy to step in there, too.

“I just went into it with a blank slate and hoped for the best, and it turned out great,” he said. “I was actually surprised. I just felt great to be with the kids and work with them, see them grow.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.