Harry’s Game is an opportunity beyond charity


Joe Browning/UNCW Athletics

Brandon Sans and Lanre Badmus

With the Spring schedule underway for UNC Wilmington men’s soccer, Saturday will be special for coach Aidan Heaney.

The seventh annual Harry’s Game will be played between the Seahawks and UNC Charlotte. Both teams will benefit from the competition, but the hope is fans and players can come away with something more than just springtime soccer.

Harry’s Game

Named after Heaney’s soon-to-be seven-year-old son Harry, who has Down Syndrome, the event benefits special needs children in the community. Heaney was inspired by a fellow college soccer coach who shares a similar situation with his daughter.

“Truthfully, it was from a good friend of mine who was a coach at Xavier,” said Heaney in an interview with The Seahawk. “He’s got a daughter with Down Syndrome and they did something at Xavier in the springtime, and I chatted him up. So we took that and ran with it, and the guys look forward to it every year.”

Harry’s Game has been played every year since 2013, the year of Harry’s first birthday. All proceeds from the event go to organizations such as the TOPSoccer Program, ABLE to WORK, Buddy Walk and the Special Olympics of New Hanover County. UNCW is undefeated in all previous six editions, with three wins over NC State (2014), Wake Forest (2017) and Appalachian State (2018).

Admission is $5 for adults, and youths 15 and under will be admitted free. The gates will open at 4:30 pm for a free soccer clinic hosted by UNCW. Other activities available will be inflatables, music, a live auction and food.

Just a kid

When Harry was first diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Heaney experienced the wide range of emotions every human imagines themselves to have, but few truly feel. For Heaney, those feelings have become his life.

“We had no idea what to expect. How it was going to be with a son that has these kinds of challenges,” Heaney says. “Every family is different. Every kid is different.”

The glances will come from people when they see Harry because he looks different from what a ‘normal’  kid is supposed to look like. That’s to be expected when humans notice things of the abnormal.

The misnomer is that because what a disabled child may look or think like should influence how society treats that child. It’s not that there’s a fear of being bullied which certainly isn’t limited just to special needs kids.

“I don’t get offended by it,” Heaney said.

Rather these kids can become like a package marked fragile. That what ailment they have becomes who they are and not just a part of who they are. Everyone in life, disabled or not, needs help. Some just need a little bit more.

The essence of Harry’s Game isn’t for the kids who participate in the clinic. It’s not just a day that exists simply to rip them apart from their handicapped lives, if only for a few hours. It shows that being impaired doesn’t make them any less of a child or person than anyone else.

“That’s really the goal,” Heaney said. “If we change someone’s impression, just one family’s impression, we’ll be making some kind of an impact.” 

A program defined

Since its inception in 2013, Harry’s Game has become a part of the men’s soccer program at UNCW. It may be Heaney’s most notable accomplishment in a career that’s included conference championships and several trips to the NCAA tournament.

The game has become a staple of the program and experience student-athletes a promised when they commit to Heaney and UNCW.

“Harry’s Game is a wonderful event that showcases all that is good about college athletics,” said UNCW Athletic Director Jimmy Bass in an email to The Seahawk. “Two teams are competing to raise not only financial resources, but bring awareness to those who have special needs. We’re very proud of everyone who makes this one of the highlights of the year.”

Harry has grown the program in other ways through his father. The lessons Heaney has learned through his son have made him a better father, person, and much less importantly: a better coach.

“Having Harry has made me more patient. It’s made me more aware of others. As a coach, you get really transfixed with the game. Even in ‘nontraditional’ springtime, I’m constantly thinking about coaching, training, the spring games, recruiting and traveling,” said Heaney.  “He’s made me a better father. I have to be there for my wife to help take care of his every need and make sure that’s priority number one.”

It forms relationships with players whose families face similar challenges as Heaney. No matter what happens on the field, the lessons players learn from this game last them long after leaving UNCW.

Family ties

When the final whistle blows on Saturday the fans will clear out and go home. The stories, pictures and videos of the day’s event will go online and some won’t think about Harry’s Game for another year. For the Heaney family, and other families just like them, the ideas behind the game don’t end.

Disabilities don’t affect the person who has them. As anyone who has a family member with one can attest to, every decision becomes centered on how capable or possible it is for them.

Simple things that people can take for granted like choosing a restaurant to eat at. How accessible the restaurant is, the nose level, the things on the menu and many other simple things become important factors to those who will have parties with people that require more attention and care.

“It certainly impacts what we do as a family, just planning and those sorts of things. We’re learning as we go along as well.”

Harry is “very much about his routine” according to Heaney which is common for people with certain disabilities. He’s nonverbal, but he can say things like “yes” or “no” and has started using an iPad where he can point at pictures of something that he is trying to communicate.

The iPad is one of many things that have evolved as Harry’s family has learned to adjust to his specific needs. It’s a process that continuously changes each passing day as they learn to better cope with Harry.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement from him as well,” said Heaney. “Things that he picks up on. He’s trying to help us out now like emptying the dishwasher and packing his lunch in the morning. It’s really cool.”

Harry is not the boy with Down Syndrome. Harry is a son, a brother, a friend and, on Saturday, a reminder that only definitions we place on others are our own.

Sports Editor Brandon Sans can be found on Twitter @bsans10Staff Writer Lanre Badmus can be found on Twitter @LanreBadmusSH.  Any tips or suggestions should be forwarded via email to [email protected].