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'Anybody can play': Arizona Cardinals, Mikey's League team up for skills camp

Using sport to challenge the limits placed on children with disabilities.
Credit: AP
Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Devon Kennard (42) protects the ball from Cardinals running back Eno Benjamin (26) during an NFL football training camp practice, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — While many of the Arizona Cardinals are out of town enjoying some vacation time before training camp begins in July, a group of players spent their Saturday morning with some very special athletes. 

The Cardinals held a skills camp for a group from Mikey's League, a local organization dedicated to giving children with disabilities opportunities to thrive in sports.

Mikey's League uses sport to challenge the limits placed on children and young adults with physical or intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit strives to create an inclusive environment on the field or on the court that allows individuals to learn, inspire and build confidence.

"Mikey's League is about doing it right. Nobody gets any preferential, everybody can do everything," Cardinals linebacker Dennis Gardeck said. "The athletes being able to learn the fundamentals and learn how to play is so instrumental to what they're doing."

Gardeck and his teammates led the group of athletes in stretches, drills and friendly competition inside the team's practice bubble in Tempe. As the athletes from Mikey's League shared the field with the pros, their parents looked on from the sidelines with pride.

"Anybody can play. One of our players is in a wheelchair and they (the Cardinals) run around with him and you just see the joy on the kids' faces. It's just amazing," Kimberly Bonham said. "And the players, they've been so amazing. I said 'thank you' (to one of the Cardinals players) and he said 'if it makes the kids happy, it makes me happy and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.'"

Mikey's League was established in 2019 in memory of Karl Bender's brother, Mikey, who was born with cerebral palsy and a backward heart. 

Bender and Scott Freeman, who founded the nonprofit, said they don't want their athletes to feel like they're being handled with white gloves.

Doctors told the Bender family that Mikey would never be able to walk and he would not live past the age of three. Mikey beat those odds and never let his disabilities keep him from pursuing sports passionately. 

Mikey passed away in 2008 at the age of 21 and now his legacy is celebrated through the group and its events around the Valley.

Cardinals linebacker and Phoenix native Devon Kennard were among the pros coaching and encouraging the group. As a father of two young girls, Kennard said he could imagine the emotions parents were experiencing watching their children interact with NFL players.

"You don't get too many opportunities to compete against NFL players so I'm going one-on-one with these kids and getting active with them," Kennard said. "I got Mossed one time! I'm like 'oh no, you're not about to get me on film getting Mossed! I'm going to have to really bring my "A" game."

At the conclusion of the skills camp, the Cardinals posed for pictures and signed memorabilia for the group from Mikey's League.

Follow the conversation with Lina Washington on Twitter: @LWashingtonTV. If you have a sports story idea, e-mail Lina at LWashington@12News.com.

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