Bucks football team gives special needs athletes ‘a chance to play’ with friends to help

Listen 3:09
Justin Gabor runs up for a kick during practice at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Justin Gabor runs up for a kick during practice at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Hours before the Eagles got ready to face the New England Patriots in South Philly on Sunday, a football team in Langhorne got ready for an emotional game of its own.

More than 50 members of Bucks County Challenger Flag Football, a team of children and young adults with special needs ages 5 to 28, marked the end of their season with tackles and touchdown dances.

“Actually, I did pretty well,” said Justin Garbo, 18. ”I got a touchdown and I got 20 yards and I’m pretty proud of myself.”

Garbo, who punctuates his touchdowns with the viral “Woah” dance made popular on TikTok or a good old-fashioned dab, has been with the Mustangs for 13 years — since Bob and Joan Wargo created the team.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Justin Gabor is helped into a pinny by his buddy, John Hutchinson, during practice at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

The Neshaminy High School football coach at the time had heard of a similar program for young people with special needs in Lansdale. There was a growing interest in football in Langhorne, but no one to lead the effort.

That coach asked Bob, a retired football coach, and his wife Joan, a retired special education teacher, to lead the new team.

“All they wanted was a chance to play football,” he said. “There’s soccer programs, there’s baseball programs, but all they wanted was the chance to participate.”

Coach Bob Wargo during the game at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

In their 60s, the couple ignores the blistering autumn wind, and in Bob Wargo’s case, a pulled back, to bring the sport to dozens of athletes every week.

“I don’t even feel it,” he said, as he laid down some field markers.

In turn, players give the hour and a half they have with coaches their all.

On Sunday morning, the athletes started streaming into Neshaminy High School’s football field half an hour before warm-ups. They offered to help set up, and then, they snapped to attention when coaches called them in for stretches.

Andrew Padova celebrates after landing a throw into a practice net at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Athletes from Neshaminy and Pennsbury high schools are assigned as buddies to each of the Mustangs, who are broken up into two divisions by age.

John Hutchinson, Gabor’s buddy, is just one of the dozens of athletes who help the Mustangs stretch out, give pointers on plays during games, and make sure those who have more difficulty getting around don’t get hurt.

The extra support, according to Joan Wargo, also lets parents have some time off.

“There’s not a whole lot of programs where the parents don’t have to be with their child,” she said. “They can walk, they can exercise, find out what other programs there are in the area. It just gives them an hour and a half where they have a break.”

Still, Justin’s father, Joe Gabor, appreciates — and gets a little emotional — seeing his son live the typical life of a teenager.

“I mean, you could see the smiles on people’s faces when they see their kid score a touchdown — you know, the things that came so easy to us,” he said.

Michael Foster, one of the other coaches, said athletes like his grandson Will Cunningham have worked hard to get to where they are.

“It makes me very happy to see how he’s come along … learning the skills of running, catching, learning all the aspects of the game just like the regular players do,” he said.

Will Cunningham hugs his grandfather Michael Foster during football practice at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Equally as important, is the time athletes get to spend with their buddies, including varsity players they see on the football field every Friday, who cheer them on and amp them up by calling them by the names of their favorite players.

Gabor’s friends shouted “Michael Vick!” before he tackled two mats held up by buddies as part of an exercise.

Also there to show support is the Mustangs’ cheerleading squad, which is modeled after the football team and includes young people with special needs, along with buddies from local high schools.

Madison Walp from Bishop McDevitt High School performs a cheer alongside cheerleaders from Archbishop Ryan High School during the football game. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Halfway through Sunday practice, participants mingled as they warmed up with hot chocolate and salted pretzels. Because it was the last Sunday the group had together, the coaches gave the athletes and cheerleaders a few extra minutes to take selfies and chat.

Gabor lead some of his friends in a rendition of “Old Town Road” and they broke into a dance before they were called back out to the field.

Still, the end of the season means some buddies will graduate high school this summer, and while some plan to return, others plan to move on.

Will Cunningham runs the ball for a touchdown during the football game at Neshaminy High School. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

For now, Gabor and his friends said goodbye as they do at the end of every scrimmage, in a huddle of more than 50 people:

“Team on three … One, two, three, team!”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal