KINGSPORT, Tenn. -- “This is something close to our hearts.”
That theme was echoed throughout the Kingsport Aquatic Center last Friday morning during the swimming portion of the annual Tribe Games.
This year over 100 special needs kids and young people between the ages of 7 and 21 participated in a variety of events in an Olympic style format.
The Tribe Games, which include a bowling and track component at different times of the year, are the brainchild of Dobyns-Bennett staffer Jimmy Burleson.
“For several years we had not been involved with the Special Olympics,” said Burleson. “We wanted to get back involved and provide these special needs kids or kids on a transitional tract a chance to compete in a fun and supportive environment.”
Athletes competed in a variety of events that included longer, solo swims of up to 50 meters or shorter swims with in-water assistance.
“We will make it work no matter what the kid needs – all different levels of adaptation,” added Burleson. “The kids really enjoy and look forward to it every year. It’s a pretty awesome event.”
And Burleson says the support of a community willing to do whatever it takes is also awesome.
“The support of the community is something that is really exceptional,” noted Burleson. “A lot of the businesses have said they will do whatever we need to make the games as inclusive as possible.”
Among those many sponsors include Texas Roadhouse, the Palmer Center, Food City on Eastman Road, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Allen Greene Photography and many others.
“I can’t say enough about the Kingsport community rallying around our school and our students,” added Burleson. “Texas Roadhouse feeds everybody. Not only do they feed us, they serve us. Food City donates our water. The Palmer Center and the Kingsport Chamber provided facilities for and also help support financially. Allen Greene documents with his great photography. It’s pretty fantastic.”
Burleson says it’s also fantastic that a former classmate and Dobyns-Bennett Indian football teammate has developed a remarkable passion for the games as well. Current San Francisco 49er Daniel Kilgore and wife Megan have been ardent supporters of the Tribe Games since their inception.
“It’s great to come out every time to the Tribe Games and see the fun the kids are having,” said Kilgore. “Overall, the community support and other students and faculty throughout the school system, it’s an awesome deal.”
Kilgore’s heart for special needs kids grew from volunteering in adapted physical education classes in the Watauga County [North Carolina] School System while playing at Appalachian State. His support isn’t just financial, but also comes with the donation of his time to interact with the kids.
“This is home and for my wife, Megan and I,” continued Kilgore. “This is something close to our hearts and something we enjoy giving our time to.”
“Daniel has come to some of our events and the kids have just loved that,” said Burleson. “He has a passion for these games and who better to sponsor and to give back to his community. As you can imagine he’s got a really busy schedule, but when he’s in town, he’s here. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we are doing without him and our other sponsors and all of our volunteers.”
The other volunteers include current Dobyns-Bennett coaches and student-athletes as well as members of the D-B and central office staff.
“To have that many kids here and all the helpers, the students at the high school level helping, speaks volumes about the school system and this community,” added Kilgore. “It shows how deep our roots really run at Dobyns-Bennett and how people want to give of their time.”
It’s not just the off-season where Kilgore supports his community. Kilgore and wife Megan regularly participate in community service projects in the San Francisco area during the regular season.
“Mondays are our days, our off days,” noted Kilgore. “We have all kinds of events, working with kids with disabilities or going to San Quentin and talking to felons. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
Kilgore said he had far too many ‘off’ days during the 2015 season. Kilgore missed the final four games of the 2014 season after being injured during an October 19 Sunday night nationally televised game at Denver.
The 49ers were driving early in the third quarter but faced a third down. Near the end of a Frank Gore carry on a draw play, disaster struck. Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall inadvertently ran into the back of Kilgore’s left leg. It’s every offensive lineman’s worst nightmare.
Kilgore’s reaction was immediate. Crumpled to the Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium turf, Kilgore waved to the 49ers’ sideline for assistance.
“I just got tangled up from behind with a linebacker,” recalled Kilgore. “I knew right away what had happened. I ended up fracturing my leg, my fibula. It’s the biggest injury I’ve ever had in sports.”
Kilgore was carted off the field, to a rousing ovation by Bronco fans who had plenty to cheer about that night as quarterback Peyton Manning had set the NFL record for most career touchdown passes in a 42-17 win over the 49ers.
“One thing that was special was the way the fans at Mile High really stood up and gave me a great ovation,” added Kilgore. “It speaks volumes about their organization and fans. Kudos to the Broncos for winning and playing a great game and Peyton Manning doing what he does best.”
The recovery for Kilgore was difficult and came with several setbacks. With the injury still not healed, Kilgore opted for a third surgery last summer.
“Two weeks before Megan and I got married, I had a third surgery,” said Kilgore. “It was a trying time. But Megan and I were able to step back and enjoy each other and see the whole picture. Sometimes you get caught up in everything and take things for granted and you don’t see the blessings you really have.”
Kilgore could only watch as the 49ers embarked on an 8-8 season under head coach Jim Tomsula.
“It was a long season, sitting out trying to get back and get healthy,” said Kilgore. “We didn’t have the season we wanted obviously.”
Kilgore also admitted there were times during the three surgeries and subsequent rehabilitation to wondering not only about the 2015 season, but also the future of his career.
“About week eight, I was wondering if I was going to be able to play,” explained Kilgore. “I was wondering if I needed to tell the coaching staff that it wasn’t working and I needed to take the whole year off to hopefully get ready for 2016.”
However, after some late season roster moves, Kilgore had his opportunity to return.
“It showed I’d been working and I was ready to come back and wanting to be part of the team,” said Kilgore. “I needed to come back.”
Kilgore made his return in a reserve role against Chicago on December 6 and was in the starting line-up the rest of the season.
“It was a tough season, but it felt good coming back playing the last five games and starting the last four,” said Kilgore. “It was good to see where I was mentally as well as physically, to see where I was and how I needed to work this off-season to get ready for next season.”
That changed again, however, after Tomsula’s release and the hiring of Chip Kelly on January 15. However, Kilgore notes that due to the injury, he didn’t have a full off-season, mini-camp and summer camp with Tomsula and his staff prior to 2015 like he will have with Kelly heading into the 2016 campaign.
“I’ll have a complete full off-season with this staff to learn the new system,” said Kilgore. “The guys are ready to get to work and change the way things were last season.”
Kilgore has already learned one thing about Kelly’s up-tempo, fast-paced offense.
“I’m going to have to be in better shape that I have been in year’s past and there is more responsibility at the center spot under his offense,” added Kilgore. “I look forward to that challenge.”
NOTE – The 2016 NFL Schedule has not yet been released, but opponents and locations have. Area fans wanting to have a chance to see Kilgore and the 49ers this season can look forward to games in Charlotte and Atlanta at some point this season as well as Chicago, Miami and Buffalo.