Finding 'A Very Kind Way' To Lead Special Olympians

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States around the country are hosting their regional Special Olympics games this summer. In New Jersey, the games' opening ceremonies begin Friday.

Jose Rodriguez participated in the New Jersey Special Olympics back in 2003, when he was 13. Special Olympics offers a chance for people with intellectual disabilities to pursue a sport. Jose has trouble learning — mostly through reading and writing.

Speaking at StoryCorps, Jose, 23, told his former basketball coach, Charles Zelinsky, 57, what his life was like before he found the games.

"I got into the street life at the age of 8. If there was a fight, I was there," Jose says. "There was no turning anything down; I didn't care if he was bigger than me; I fought just about anybody.

"But my little brother got sick when he was 4, of encephalitis. I sort of helped my mom with him around the house: feeding him, and stretching him, with his braces. After he passed away, that's when I realized — you know, my mom can't really handle another son passing away. So I basically turned my life around. I started playing basketball, and opportunities just opened up for me."

"Yes, and in 2006, New Jersey Special Olympics was going to the national games, and you were one of 10 athletes picked from the entire state," Charles says. "At that competition, we took fourth. But we had a second chance to go back, in 2010. Do you remember at halftime, we were losing by 8?"

"Yeah," Jose says. "I gathered the team up and I was like, 'Look, I didn't come here to lose; if you're ready to win, let's win this.' And they all shook their head: 'Yes — all right, we're ready to win now.' "

"I think that if you hadn't gone through a lot of the things you did in your past, you probably wouldn't have been ready to take charge like that," Charles says. "When you think back to that week in Nebraska, what do you take away from it — other than the gold medal?"

"One of the players — Sean — I kept throwing him the ball, he kept trying. I was trying so hard to get him a basket," Jose says. "There's what, three seconds left? I got it right to him — a 3-pointer. I look at him, I look at his family, and — best feeling in my life, right there. That's what I take away."

Jose is now a Special Olympics coach — he'll be helping his players compete at games in New Jersey this weekend.

"So, I'm gonna ask you, in 20 years, what will you remember the most about me?" he asks Charles.

"I think I'll remember most the way in which you care about people," Charles says. "And the players that aren't as talented on our team, they're as important to you as the best player on the team. You don't just put words out there — you show them, and you do it in a very kind way."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher

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