By Wil Crews

Despite a constant downpour of rain, the city of Opelika’s spirit was uplifted on Saturday with the Together Opelika “Game On” flag football event.

“Man this is awesome,” said Opelika Police Chief Shane Healey. “These kids are having a blast and that’s what it’s about.”

Boys and girls ages 5 to 18 years old came in droves to join the Opelika Police Department along with several current and former professional and collegiate athletes for a day of flag football at Opelika High School.

“In football, you have to come together as a team, and all of us that are older in life know it works better when you work together with people,” Healey said. “So, you start teaching them young like this, man it’s awesome.”

Around 250 local youth registered for the event in total. Age groups were divided and teams of eight faced off with OPD officers and high school athletes serving as player-coaches.

“Those 5 to 7-year-olds were out here acting like NFL stars,” Healey said.

For the next few hours, officers did their best to hand out spin moves and stiff arms; participating children — slippin’ and slidin’ all over the place — did their best to deny them.

Once the fill of touchdown dances had been had, children had plenty of time to mingle and take pictures with Tennessee Titans linebacker, Rashaan Evans, former Alabama player and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback, Tony Brown and former Auburn player and current Jacksonville Jaguars running back, Corey Grant.

All the while, loyal parents filled the stands, watching from under umbrellas in support of their child or children.

“You can see the dedicated parents with their kids here,” said Girls S.T.E.P.S. Inc., CEO Tiffany Gibson-Pitts. “They are really excited about it; No one has complained. They brought their umbrellas expecting the rain.”

The football games notwithstanding, the event primarily served as a meet-and-greet of sorts, providing local youth with an opportunity to see police in a non-work environment.

“I think it’s bringing everybody together and they are having a rapport with the police officers,” said Tiphany Thompson, a mother of an Opelika Dawg Pound cheerleader  who participated in Saturday’s event. “Instead of just seeing them when they are called, you have an actual relationship. I think it’s wonderful.”

Local philanthropic organizations focused on youth, The Knee High Foundation, Girls S.T.E.P.S. Inc., The Curtis House and The Dream Day Foundation, were well represented and aided the operation. The Razor Foundation, Opelika High School, the city of Opelika, Opelika Fire Department, Lee County Emergency Management and Golden State Foods also partnered in helping the event come to fruition.

“It’s bringing us together; That’s what chief Healey wants,” said Rebecca Thompson of Critical Insights. “He [Healey] wants to do Together Opelika, and this is part of the initiative to get it started. This brings the citizens and everyone together to build relationships with the officers, with local organizations and with everyone here.”

The Opelika Police Department’s  “Together Opelika” initiative is a city-wide campaign with the four primary goals of: (1) lowering crime and increasing community engagement, (2) building trust within the community, (3) establishing genuine relationships between OPD and the community and (4) encouraging community support for OPD officers.

“A lot of these kids, it may be their first interaction with [police] and it’s positive,” Gibson-Pitts said.

Local food and service vendors were also available for attendees to frequent,  and donations were collected at the gate for the Ambassadors of Change organizations.

All in all, the day was a successful step in beginning to bring Opelika together.

“Everybody is just playing with the kids and having a good time,” Healey said. “It’s about coming together and having fun.”

Photos from the event can be found on B7.