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ClemsonLIFE and athletics’ relationship returns to normalcy

Emma Whitfield, Provided
ClemsonLIFE students pose for a photo with Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney in the fall of 2021.

Last school year, the pandemic heavily restricted ClemsonLIFE’s previously-extensive involvement with athleticsHowever, with Clemson University easing COVID-19 restrictions, ClemsonLIFE’s involvement with athletics has returned to developing meaningful in-person relations between studentsplayers and coaches. 

The program strives to prepare students with intellectual disabilities for independent living, focusing on social skills, employment skills and life skills, according to ClemsonLIFE’s website. The program’s relations with athletics plays a role in developing these skills. 

This semester, the program’s relations involve weekly Wednesday clinics with different Clemson athletic teams as well as team manager positions which students apply for. Students who obtain manager positions have tasks such as filling up water bottles and getting equipment ready for the team. 

The clinics and manager positions were, for the most part, not available last school year, since the pandemic hit a peak as the Fall 2020 semester began.  

According to Joe Ryan, program director, the lack of in-person, face-to-face interaction between the students and athletes was the pandemic’s most significant effect on the program’s involvement with athletics. 

“For individuals with disabilities, online instruction hurts more so because they need to be face-to-face,” said Ryan. 

Ryan added that former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and teammates would participate in parties through Zoom, but the ClemsonLIFE students still missed normal interactions.  

According to advanced program employment instructor, Sarah McAlpine, for the team manager positions specifically, in-person interaction is a necessity. 

“It’s really hard to be a manager through zoom. You can’t do anything,” said McAlpine. 

“If you’re a manager or you’re doing a sports clinic or anything with the athletes on zoom, you can’t refill water bottles on zoom; you can’t communicate.” 

COVID-19 is still prevalent today, but that has not stopped clinics and manager positions from returning. ClemsonLIFE’s program manager, Erica Walters, believes the return of the program’s involvement with athletics during a pandemic has shown the students’ dedication. 

What was cool was when we started back this year it was the protocol, like our students sometimes they’re testing three times a week to be able to do these clinics,” said Walters.  

In Walters’ mind, those demanding testing protocols are a testament to the students’ drive and dedication. 

One of ClemsonLIFE’s students, Alex Eveland, has shown that drive and dedication through his manager position with Clemson’s men’s basketball team.  

“I was so sad,” said Eveland, a sophomore from Connecticut. “Last year I was a freshman, and we had nothing to do because of [COVID-19].”  

Now, Eveland, whose favorite sport is basketball, is a manager of the men’s basketball team and can attend all the team’s home games and practices. More importantly, he can learn life skills during those games and practices. 

Meanwhile, the athletes themselves are dedicated to support the students and build friendships beyond the clinics and manager positions. 

One specific instance of the athletes’ dedication to building those friendships occurred from Oct. 29 to Oct. 31.  

On Friday, Oct. 29, a group of ClemsonLIFE students attended the men’s soccer game. After the game, the team let the students hold the trophy, impressing Walters and the ClemsonLIFE staff.  

The next day, the soccer team showed up to the program’s family tailgate, but the engagement did not stop there. On Sunday, Oct. 31, one student asked a singular soccer player to play kickball. Instead of the one soccer playing showing up, the entire team did.  

“That is such a testament to the Clemson Family,” said Walters. “From the support we get, but we are part of it. With athletics, they really work together with that.”  

On an individual level, the athletes who work with the program can have a remarkable impact on a student’s growth. Ryan and his staff emphasize the importance of gaining independent living and employment skills, and the involvement with athletics has taught them some of those skills. 

From showing up to practices on time to being devoted to tasks, the students are engaged in their activities with athletics.  

“Having them interact, and especially among top-athletes in the United States essentially, is a great role model, and they serve as great role models for our men and women,” said Ryan. 

This relationship with athletics has dramatically impacted the lives of ClemsonLIFE students. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is not impeding it anymore. The relationship is thriving once again, teaching the students skills they will use for the rest of their lives. 

This article appeared in The Tiger’s Nov. 18 print edition. It may differ in formatting or content due to space constraints.

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