A couple of months ago, in the middle of a very uncharacteristic 17 day bye period, I went out to practice to watch my team prepare for their next game as I usually do when the weather permits. Watching the players helps me understand what I’m seeing in the game, but on that Saturday, my attention was drawn to a cute little boy on the sidelines who was happily kicking a ball into the punter’s net. I watched him interact with the players and he cheerfully ran sprints along the sideline when the team was running punishment drills; it was obvious how much he adores UMass football, though I had no idea who he was. Afterward I asked my husband about him and he said “Oh, that’s Jared.”
Oh that’s Jared. I never thought three words could have such an impact on me but I admit, I wasn’t prepared for what that made me feel. I was happy he was able to be there having fun with his teammates, and relieved for his parents that for now, at least, he’s doing ok. What absolutely ripped my heart out of my chest was knowing that he’s been as sick as he has in his short little life. You see, Jared is a six year old who suffers from an excruciatingly painful condition called cystinuria which causes repeated kidney stones and infections. Imagine what it would be like to have rocks in your body and what it would feel like to have horrible pain be the rule and not the exception in your life. I’ve only had one kidney infection in my entire 40 years, and that was bad enough that if I ever go through it again, it will be too soon. Sadly, this is everyday life for this sweet child.
He joined our team this summer after UMass partnered with an incredible non-profit group called Team Impact. This charitable organization places chronically and terminally ill children with local college sports teams in 37 states. The power of sport to lift us up and unify us can’t be understated, especially in its ability to help us escape our everyday lives. For a child facing an uncertain future due to illness, this escape is crucial. As a member of UMass Football, little Jared signed a letter of intent, was assigned a locker and given a jersey, and gets to spend time with the team at practice and before games. Seeing how happy Jared is is proof enough that Team Impact is making a difference.
What I love most about having Jared around is how even the surliest, toughest players turn into marshmellows when he high fives them or gives them a hug. As much as Jared thrives in this environment, it also helps the players make an important connection off the field and is a reminder of what football is really about. The sucess of a team isn’t measured in points scored or the number of wins but in the admiring gazes, unbridled enthusiasm, and adoration of its littlest fans. When the team suffers a loss or a player has an injury, the love they receive from these children can be a huge morale boost and is as important to them as they are to the children and their families. I, for one, am thrilled that Jared is a part of my UMass Football family and I’m so proud of my team for taking him in and making them one of their own. I couldn’t cheer for a greater group of kids on Saturdays, and the way they treat Jared is proof positive that college athletes can – and do- make a positive impact on their communities.