- Josh Caplan
Robert McCann and Savannah Townsend: "Unified" at Florida
It happens to almost everyone. Most have others for support.
Robert McCann did not.
Yet he knew that basketball would always be there.
Savannah Townsend did not.
The Life of Robert
Robert McCann grew up in California, and basketball has always been his joy.
While McCann struggled with social and mental disorders, he wanted to become the best basketball player he could be.
During his middle and early high school years in the 1990s, he went to his local park to hoop with his neighborhood friends as his outlet.
“Basketball kind of calms me down,” he said.
McCann enjoyed every minute spent on the court striving towards his goal. But a battle with severe depression at the age of 17 got in the way.
Then two years later, McCann lost his father. He began to have problems, and situations arose where he would shut down, sometimes act out in frustration.
Around this time, McCann moved into a group home for assistance with his issues. And in turn, that would help with his ability to play basketball.
So he tried. And tried.
But things only seemed to get worse.
Abuse and other awful things occurred, he asserts.
And he had no basketball.
No basketball, his outlet, for 6 full years.
When McCann finally exited the home, he immediately returned to the court. There he made some more friends and continually improved his game. The group decided to enter a tournament, and asked Robert to join. Of course he agreed.
The team arrived excited to compete. And then, in one of the first games - a fight broke out. Exactly the type of emotional, high tension event that caused Robert issues his whole life.
Five members of the team got suspended.
“Uh-uh, not me. No way.”
Instead of taking his prior, aggressive, and angry approach, he knew that this was his time to step up. He knew that he had to keep a cool head to make sure that he helped his team. He had learned from his past errors.
McCann later moved to Florida, which came with some positives, but one big negative - he became isolated from his family.
He did find new friends, including one named Jonathan McCoy, whose brother played on the University of Miami’s basketball team. Although McCann still struggled and now yearned for family, Jonathan’s brother served as an inspiration to McCann to be the best he could be.
With this newfound sense of inspiration and drive, McCann began to get involved with Special Olympics-Florida in Gainesville. And that is where he met a young woman named Savannah Townsend.
The Life of Savannah Townsend
At the age of 8 in Ocala, Florida, Townsend and her extended family experienced stressful issues.
"My situation was not the same as that of my peers. I felt isolated," Townsend said.
How does a mere 3rd grader deal with something like this? Townsend struggled.
She then realized that she could best cope with her her own struggles by helping others with their struggles. She then met many people with intellectual disabilities.
“I kind of learned at a young age that disabilities don’t define anyone.”
She took that lesson with her through high school, where she joined a local Special Olympics Unified Cheer and Dance team.
The team had big aspirations. So they practiced hard. Then they struggled, Then they worked harder.
Then they won the state championship.
At that point she knew that working with Special Olympics was something she wanted to continue to do.
But she only wanted to do it at one place.
At the only place she wanted to go to college - University of Florida.
Yes, UF or bust. Application submitted. Fingers crossed. Notice received.
Accepted. Utter joy.
Until Covid hit.
Like a lot of people around the country, the pandemic had a big effect on Townsend’s life. She didn’t have many high school friendships that she wanted to maintain through college. So Savannah found herself back in that same spot: isolated.
When COVID restrictions lessoned her sophomore year, she immediately signed up to help the Special Olympics at UF.
That’s where she met Robert.
And that helped the isolation subside. For both.
Robert & Savannah
Through a variety of activities the two have created a bond that expands far more than a simple friendship.
“We’re pretty much best friends.” Townsend said, “I’m there for moral support. It’s not a job, it’s just what I do.”
“She’s like a sister to me,” McCann said. “She’s like family.”
Savannah became Robert's teammate as a Unified partner in soccer, flag football as well as track and field.
And basketball? Robert's passion.? Well, Savannah had never played.
But she suited up for basketball too - they're family.
Fostering a family-like atmosphere for the whole team had been one of the focuses for Townsend, who has now moved into an assistant coaching role. Townsend says what they’ve been able to create with the team is unique.
“Basketball has allowed us to make a family for Robert that he doesn’t have here in Gainesville."
Like all families, not everything is perfect.
McCann has had bad days, shutting down and acing out.
Lance Duch, a Unified partner on the team, says that Robert could sometimes be a little bit of a perfectionist, and it affected him.
“It’s appreciated that he wants to do everything correct and wants to run everything right,” Duch said. “He can be too hard on himself and needs to know it is okay to make mistakes and to understand mistakes happen and be more receptive to corrections.”
According to Townsend, “Some of our challenges are trying to get McCann over some mental blocks."
So if Robert really wanted to help his team - his family - he needed to try to improve.
He needed therapy. Consistent therapy.
His prior lengthy involvement with therapy, however, provided some less than happy experiences.
For his family, he agree to give it a shot. He tried hard. And consistently.
Not easy for Robert
But also not without results for Robert.
“On and off the court we’ve been able to see changes,” Townsend said.
Will Munro, another Unified partner on the team, says that those changes have brought a better vibe to McCann.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in him in the last year. He has been more open and more positive.”
Head coach Evan Combs added, "Robert is a terrific Special Olympics athlete, a hard worker, and great friend to the whole team."
The improved Robert and his University of Florida team then won the state Unified basketball tournament last year.
This led to an opportunity. A pressure packed opportunity. The team received an invite to compete for the chance to be chosen as the U.S. representative at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin this coming June.
So the Gators trekked to Texas for the Special Olympics committee to make sure that the team was fit enough for the games. The committee, however, wanted a team not only in peak physical shape but peak mental shape too.
Robert really needed to bring that new vibe.
And he really needed that positivity.
And then, after days of testing from early morning to late afternoon, Robert really needed to start getting over his fear of flying.
The committee chose U of Florida to go to Berlin.
As "the" team representing the U.S., they had to deal with some more preliminary pressure. They had the NIRSA National Basketball Championships to play in this past April. And they deemed it essential to have at least a semi-decent showing.
Robert got hot. He hit three important 3-pointers, made a clutch free-throw and the team won its first 4 games in the tournament - all very close. This put the Gators in the finals against Louisville.
Robert played some tough D. But the Cardinals did as well. The game went back and forth. Though his teammate Kiondre Brown tallied 31 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks, that effort did not keep the game from going to overtime. With less than a minute left a Gator named Ivory Richardson decided to take a deep 3 pointer - that won the game.
Elation and hugs all around for the U of Florida team.
The champs will travel to Bremen, Germany, to tour and take in the culture for three days before nine straight days of competition in Berlin against other Unified basketball teams from around the world.
And to add to the already fantastic experience, Townsend’s parents will be serving as volunteers at the games in Berlin.
As for McCann, he and his head coach know he needs to keep improving.
"We are working on the basketball part every day. He has gotten much better," Combs said.
But if asked what one thing Robert still needs to change, his entire team would likely all agree: He needs to stop rooting for the school's rival Miami Hurricanes.
Robert hasn't quite budged on that. For her part, Savannah has tried to teach him the Gator chomp. She may have to try a little harder.
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