You are here

DIII Special Olympics Profile: Eric Panetta

By Kaitlee Francisco

Eric Panetta, soccer goalkeeper and Special Olympics New Jersey athlete, has been participating on campus at NCAA Division III Rowan as part of the student club Rowan Unified.

Eric Panetta loves to crush it on the basketball court and the soccer field in front of roaring crowds.

Since 2013, Panetta has participated as a Special Olympics New Jersey athlete with Rowan University’s Special Olympics Unified Sports intramural leagues, where he has been able to play each year in front of fans during halftime of Rowan’s varsity men’s soccer and basketball games in Glassboro, New Jersey.

The Rowan Unified program brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities to play in competition or for recreation. Rowan Unified, an on-campus student organization founded in 2012 at the Division III school, was the first Special Olympics College Club in New Jersey and among the first of its kind across the nation.

During the program’s spring and fall seasons, the student-athletes at Rowan host a Unified Sports Night, where two unified teams get to play on the basketball court or under the lights in front of soccer fans.

“The crowd was so loud,” Panetta said of his experience playing in the Rowan ESBY Gymnasium during a men’s basketball game. “I felt really good inside and made a couple of shots.”

The 25-year-old has seen huge success as a goalkeeper on the soccer field, too. His team, the White Knight Lightning, won the Special Olympics New Jersey Unified Cup in 2016.

“I had come a long way from when I first started playing,” Panetta said, reflecting on his journey as an athlete leading up to his Unified Cup win. “I was on offense and I couldn’t make any shots, but then I made a few shots, and I practiced and practiced. I got to play goalie in my second year. Then in the third year, my dream came true. We were finally champions!”

Like many athletes, sports have helped Panetta learn how to handle challenges. Missing a handful of games one soccer season due to a foot injury, he was happy to encourage and support his teammates during the game from the sidelines. “Never give up,” he advises others. “Also, try to relax, enjoy yourself and have fun.  It’s important to represent the name on your jersey well.”

Last year, Panetta was able to help celebrate Rowan being named a Special Olympics Unified Champion School with National Banner Recognition. The honor goes to schools “demonstrating commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence” and having “an inclusive school climate with a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.” In addition, as a part of the 2018 class, the school was named as one of ESPN’s Top 5 Unified Champion Schools in the United States.  

During the pep rally and award presentation, hundreds of Rowan’s student-athletes from many teams helped pack the intercollegiate sports arena to cheer the accomplishments of Rowan Unified and watch them play. For Panetta, the banner presentation by Special Olympics and ESPN was a chance to have fun and feel special and accepted. “I was surrounded by family, friends, the Rowan community, lots of confetti and cheering,” he said. “It was a special experience of being able to play in front of a college crowd and made me proud to be a Rowan Unified athlete.”

Panetta’s mother, Gina, said Rowan Unified Sports lets athletes feel like they can accomplish anything. She said playing unified sports has allowed her son to have opportunities like proudly holding a trophy over his head and being a true part of the university.

Eric, who also plays guitar and drums and dreams of either being a voice-over actor or a famous musician, explained how important the unified sports program has been for him: “Rowan gave me a chance to be a champion that I never thought I would be.”

NCAA Division III is a national partner with Special Olympics. Special Olympics is thankful for all the Special Olympics athletes like Eric Panetta, as well as all the NCAA Division III institutions and student-athletes who have embraced the partnership. If your college or university is interested in applying to be a National Banner Unified Champion School, details such as the standards can be found here. The application will be open in April.