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Tyler Sarff BUILD’19 Makes the Unified Soccer Team for Minnesota United FC

On May 20, he took to the pitch at Allianz Field and signed on as one of the newest Loons, part of a team that brings together athletes with and without disabilities.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

June 13, 2019 | Noon

Tyler Sarff BUILD'19 outside Benson Great Hall at Bethel University

Tyler Sarff BUILD'19

“I hope Fox Sports North will be there,” said Tyler Sarff BUILD ’19 as he prepared for signing day at Minnesota United FC’s Allianz Field on May 20.

That evening, he would see his name on a locker in the MNUFC locker room and on the back of an official team jersey. He’d meet members of the Loons’ first team, walk onto the field in front of cheering fans, and sign an official contract to become part of the 2019 MNUFC Unified Team.

BUILD student Tyler Sarff stands next to Manny Lagos, Sporting Director of the Minnesota United FC (Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Minnesota)

Tyler Sarff BUILD’19 and Manny Lagos, Sporting Director of the Minnesota United FC (Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Minnesota)

Sarff is no stranger to sports. He played for the Robbinsdale Robins adaptive soccer team all the way through high school. “We won four straight state championships and I was lead scorer the last two seasons,” Sarff says. “Thirty-three points the last year. That’s, like, Darwin Quintero level. I have his jersey for a reason.”

At Bethel, he’s been a student manager and a core presence on the men’s hockey team. He helped launch the first unified collegiate sports club at Bethel and in the state, and could frequently be found checking up on his favorite professional teams and NASCAR drivers between classes. He’s also been a student intern with Special Olympics Minnesota, getting a front-row seat to what it takes to support the organization’s robust network of unified teams and other inclusive programs across the state.

And the Loons are no stranger to unified sports. They’ve sponsored a squad since they joined Major League Soccer in 2017, bringing together athletes with and without disabilities on some of the biggest fields in the country. Sarff was encouraged to try out for the 2019 squad by his advisor at Special Olympics, and was one of nine athletes chosen from 30 at tryouts at the National Sports Center in Blaine. They’ll be joined by seven unified partners, Twin Cities residents without disabilities who have tried out for the chance to play alongside them in matches.

Sarff on the field with the other new members of the 2019 Minnesota United Unified Soccer Team

Sarff on the field with the other new members of the 2019 Minnesota United Unified Soccer Team

“I was so nervous,” Sarff says of tryouts. “But when I got an email from the soccer team saying I had made it, I was so stoked. I was in disbelief at first, but at the same time I was excited. When you work hard, it pays off and you get rewarded. I’m a little nervous, to be honest. But I’m proud of myself. I’m going to embrace this.”

As Sarff transitions to life post-Bethel, he’s also working at Grizzly’s Wood-fired Bar and Grill in Plymouth and working on getting his driver’s license. He’s working toward moving out of his parents’ home and in with a friend, relying on the life skills he’s developed in his two years in Bethel’s BUILD program. And, of course, he’ll be training for his big summer soccer matches.

“BUILD has taught me a lot. I feel like I’m prepared to take on anything. This program has changed my life. Two years ago, I had zero confidence in who I was and what I wanted to do. Then I found out about this program and it changed my whole point of view. I came out of my shell. I’m really thankful for the people who’ve invested in me. This is a great community.”

— Tyler Sarff BUILD'19

Nick Cedergren '12 is a live-in residential supervisor for BUILD. He’s known Sarff since he began at Bethel in fall 2017. He’s also the unified schools and leadership manager for Special Olympics Minnesota, so he knows the profound impact unified sports can have.

Unified sports began in the 1980s on the east coast. They’ve slowly expanded across the nation, and Minnesota adopted the model a dozen years ago, Cedergren explains. The state has since launched teams in many different sports and age levels.

“It’s about putting athletes with and without disabilities together on the playing field,” he says. “We’re showcasing abilities, not disabilities. Our goal is to create not mentor-mentee relationships, but a true partnership: working together as a team to accomplish a goal.”

In the third year of the partnership between Special Olympics Minnesota and the MNUFC, Cedergren says it’s often hard to tell from the stands who has a disability on the team and who doesn’t.

“The point is to help athletes succeed, but also showcase to partners and fans what people with disabilities can do, which will hopefully spread far beyond the playing field.” Bethel, he says, has led the way in the “inclusion revolution” in the Twin Cities, modeling in a practical way what inclusive education, and sports, can look like.

“For so often, people with disabilities have been on the margins of society. We’re breaking down walls and bringing them them into the light, amplifying their voice,” Cedergren says. “It’s a win-win, with BUILD, the United, and Special Olympics all partnering together. And it’s been awesome to see students like Tyler take a leadership role in that.”

The MNUFC Unified team will play twice this summer. They will travel to play the Colorado Rapids in July—immediately following the first teams’ match—and will play the team again at home in August. Tickets for the Loons-Rapids games include admission to the unified matches.

BUILD student Tyler Sarff

Tyler Sarff BUILD'19, who recently made the Minnesota United Unified Soccer Team

BUILD Program at Bethel

Bethel’s BUILD program is a two-year residential learning experience for students with intellectual disabilities. According to the organization Think College, there are currently 256 programs like BUILD in the United States, but only seven—including BUILD—identify as Christian or faith-based.

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