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AHS student wins gold at Tennessee Special Olympics

A young man dressed in a football jersey smiles at the camera

Some people are born and bred athletes. No matter the sport they play, they excel. They can hit, run, juke like nobody’s business – it’s just in them. Kyler Bilbrey is that person. The Arlington High School junior has had a fascination with sports from an early age. He particularly took to soccer, a sport that allowed him to travel all over the south as he played with the Lobos Rush Youth Soccer team and other traveling teams. For Kyler, “Fútbol is life,” to quote the popular Apple TV series Ted Lasso. That is until the seizures started.

“At the age of 10, he had his first seizure, and the doctors' only hope at the time was to place him in a two-month coma,” said Danielle Bilbrey, Kyler’s mom. “Nothing would work. Nothing would stop the seizures from happening, and it just totally upended the way Kyler would have to live his life.” Doctors believe due to the continuous seizure attacks, Kyler developed a form of autism over time, making his journey back to the field that much more difficult. 

“He would miss half the practices and games because of the seizures,” Bilbrey added. “Some of the adults couldn’t grasp how they needed to communicate with him because you have to keep repeating things for him to understand. Those who aren’t around people with autism or who suffer from seizures just don’t know how to treat them, and it’s not because they’re ignorant. They just don’t understand.” 

That challenge – trying to get adults and coaches to recognize what it was like for Kyler – on top of the constant seizures eventually became too much to bear. They made the difficult decision to pull Kyler from playing recreational sports, a crushing defeat for a kid who had already been through so much. “I just knew we had to find something else for him to do, and that’s when I came across the Special Olympics of Greater Memphis website,” Bilbrey said. That discovery was literally a game changer for the Bilbrey family.

The Special Olympics of Greater Memphis (SOGM) is part of a larger global organization that serves athletes with intellectual disabilities. Here in the Memphis area, SOGM offers every sport Kyler could ever possibly dream about joining, from basketball and bowling to swimming and powerlifting. But flag football is the sport that really caught his eye. He started playing with the SOGM team this past June and hasn’t looked back since. “The boys welcomed him right away,” Bilbrey added. “After that first practice, he told me, ‘Mom, I love this. The kids are just like me, and they’re not going to make fun of me. They’re awesome.’”

At an instant, Kyler regained his community, a family of like-minded sport enthusiasts he thought was long gone. Turns out, they needed him as much as he needed them. For the first time ever, SOGM was set to compete in the Tennessee Special Olympics in Nashville, and they were missing a quarterback. In walked Kyler, the born and bred athlete we mentioned at the top of this story.

“The coach said I need you at quarterback,” Bilbrey recalled about the conversation. “He’s not going to like it because all he wants to do is run it in and spike that ball, but he’s going to be THE guy, the quarterback.”

This past weekend, Kyler’s team, the Memphis Gladiators, competed in the Special Olympics Tennessee Fall Games and walked away as undefeated gold champions in flag football, all with Kyler at the helm. “I’m really happy for my team,” Kyler told us. “It feels amazing. I just love this – I don’t want to take it off,” he continued as he held his gold medal.

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Young men dressed in football jerseys celebrate their win after a big game

For his mom, Danielle, the gold medal represents more than just a win at the tournament. It’s a symbol of hope, of never giving up. It’s the epitome of a true comeback story.

“We have finally found a loving family, not just for Kyler but for myself, my two other kids and my husband,” she said. “I find myself crying a lot because there are no words that can express how happy I am. His journey has been unbelievable, yet he’s been so strong through it all. He’s my hero.”

About the Special Olympics of Greater Memphis: For the past 50 years, Special Olympics has been spreading the message: people with intellectual disabilities can – and will – succeed when given the chance.With training and competitions in Olympic-style sports, SOGM athletes push hard and play harder. They strive to beat their personal bests, defying the odds again and again. From the local fields and courts to the shining stage of World Games, from swimming to snowboarding, our athletes showcase the talents, abilities, and triumphs of people with intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics Greater Memphis is a registered 501(c)(3), non-profit organization supported by private donations from individuals, corporations, and organizations throughout the Greater Memphis area. Special Olympics is “the most credible charity in America” according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

short video clip of a quarterback throwing a touchdown pass