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Rutgers University football players get involved with the Special Olympics

Rutgers' new quarterback got his first opportunity to take part in a cherished tradition.

Athan Kaliakmanis was one of 45 Rutgers University football players on hand to support, cheer and encourage the Special Olympics New Jersey athletes and participated in the event's opening ceremony Friday night at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.

“It's something that gives me a lot of perspective and is humbling,” Kaliakmanis said. “I'm just really grateful to be here. I think it's a blessing.”

Kaliakmanis, a junior quarterback, and his brother Dino were some of the freshmen participating in the event for the first time after transferring to Rutgers from the University of Minnesota this winter. Friday was their first opportunity to take part in a tradition that continues to bring smiles to everyone involved.

“One of the blessings of football is that you can do things like this,” said Kaliakmanis, who was named the team's starting quarterback after a successful spring camp.

Rutgers players spread out across campus and chat with the Olympians before marching into the football stadium. They take photos, give high-fives, wish everyone luck and share their mutual understanding of the long road they have traveled to prepare for these moments. They will return for various events and sports over the next two days.

“I'm really grateful,” said veteran offensive lineman Hollin Pierce. “I've been coming here since my sophomore year. It's just a great experience. All the guys on the team, we just love it.”

Pierce, a Trenton Central graduate, marched with Mercer County athletes to the ceremony. Some marveled at his size and others smiled broadly as they marched into the stadium.

“I just love seeing their smiles,” Pierce said. “They love competing. It's pure joy and they're happy to see us too. It's just great to support them.”

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You can reach Patrick Lanni at [email protected].