Dozens of athletes with Down syndrome converged on San Jose this past weekend for a chance to make their NFL dreams come true.

Eight years ago, Valley Christian coach Mike Machado created Football Camp for the Stars, a program that allows people with Down syndrome to experience football drills and even play in their own scrimmage. Current and former NFL players, including 49ers Joe Staley, Guy McIntyre and Dana Stubblefield, commit their time to help encourage the players.

Stubblefield has been by Machado’s side since the program started. He believes it is important to not only get to know the players on the field, but to get to know them personally as well.

Stubblefield said it’s easy to inspire the players’ lives: “Give them more hugs,” he said, “the guys love the hugs.”

Machado said the program itself was inspired by Valley Christian’s team manager, Andrew Watson, who has Down syndrome. Machado and Watson met when Machado was a special education teacher at Saratoga High School.

Machado said he watched as other students ignored their classmates with disabilities. “There is a lack of education,” Machado said.

Years later, Watson came to work for Machado and the Valley Christian football program. When Machado created Football Camp for the Stars, he said his goal was to provide Watson with the spotlight he and others deserved.

“I wanted [Watson] to be the guy on the field getting cheered on,” Machado said.

At the same time, he wanted to teach the school’s football players an important lesson. “I want our guys to learn that you don’t shy away from people with differences.”

For 16 seasons, Watson has stood on the sidelines encouraging the Valley Christian varsity football squad. He said he couldn’t wait for Saturday’s scrimmage when he would be able to “knock someone down … and score eight touchdowns.”

Stubblefield, who coaches at Valley Christian, served as one of the head coaches during Saturday’s scrimmages. Valley Christian’s varsity, junior varsity and freshmen players participate as well. He said he saw another side of his own players that doesn’t normally come out on the field. It is, Stubblefield said, a result of the relationships forged with the program’s participants.

The Mariucci Foundation has also become involved. About three years ago, the family began donating the apparel worn at the event by both the athletes and the coaching staff.

Steve Mariucci helps bring in NFL referees for the scrimmage and his son Stephen Mariucci is one of the coaches. It is a family event where everyone gets involved.

Looking back on his experience at the camp, Jay MacIntyre, son of former SJSU Football coach Mike MacIntyre, said he enjoys coming back to his old high school and being a part of the program. He still remembers his most memorable experience.

“My first year working the camp I made a pass to a camper,” MacIntyre said. “When he scored, he told me with a huge smile on his face that it was his first touchdown, and the excitement on his face made my day.”

Valley Christian’s cheerleading squad roots on the players during the scrimmages. Girls with Down syndrome sometimes join the squad.

Valley Christian cheerleader Lauren Ensor is another student who said she has been inspired from Camp for the Stars over the years, forming her own relationships with the players. Ensor said cheering on the players from the sidelines “makes me feel fortunate to be a part of this experience.”

“I feel like I can inspire the football players by being positive and always having a smile on my face,” Ensor said, “and by letting them know that they did an amazing job.”

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