A few dozen people gathered in North Andover, Massachusetts to welcome the latest men’s soccer recruit to Merrimack College. Emerging from the dressing room wearing his new team uniform for the first time, Brady Antaya strode to the stage and climbed behind a long table. As his feet swung below him, Brady pushed his thick glasses up and rested his chin in his hands. Merrimack head coach Tony Martone said he doesn’t make a habit of holding flashy signing ceremonies for his players.
“No, no, only special young men like Brady. My players get welcomed to the locker room and to the field basically and before they get any accolades they do a lot of hard work.”
Brady is 6. He’s legally deaf and blind due to CHARGE Syndrome, a genetic condition diagnosed the day after his birth. His soccer skills could charitably be described as “still developing,” but as a recruit from Team IMPACT, an organization that pairs college sports teams and kids with life-threatening and chronic illnesses, Coach Martone seems confident that Brady will be an important contributor to Merrimack Soccer.
Martone signed on for Team IMPACT as a way for his team to give back to the community. Ask his players, like Andrew Suttle, and they’ll say it’s worked the other way around.
“Having Brady around, your work ethic goes up,” Suttle said. ”Seeing him, it puts a smile on your face. You have a bad practice you see this kid and it kinda puts everything in perspective. You know, see him smile and it really it changes everything. It’s amazing.”
Brady and the Merrimack soccer team are still getting to know each other. But, this June, 30 miles north of Chicago, a more established Team IMPACT pairing was playing basketball on the concrete floor of the empty ice rink at Lake Forest College.
Griffin Maks, age 7, was diagnosed with leukemia at two and a half. By the time his mom, Gretchen, found Team IMPACT, he had undergone three and a half years of chemo and was in remission.
“We wanted positive vibes, ” she said. “We wanted Griffin to know he’s a survivor, he can do this, you know especially with a sport like hockey. It’s kinda grueling, but when you win it’s such a great feeling.”
None of the Maks were hockey fans when Griffin was drafted by Lake Forest. And, as it turns out, Griffin isn’t the only member of the family the team decided to take on.
Griffin, Hudson, and their sister Kailey are triplets. Along with their older brother Everest, the four Maks kids keep the Lake Forest team pretty busy. But, head coach Ryan McKelvie isn’t concerned about getting more than he signed up for.
“Man, I wish we could have one Griffin for every kid on our team,” McKelvie said.
At first, Coach McKelvie was more worried about what the Maks had taken on.
“It seemed like for a while I think they came for a lot of losses and it was like, after a game it was like we’d be so frustrated with the loss and we’d be going in to talk to the players and we’d see Griffin and his family standing out there. And it was like, well, that’s really what it’s about. We might have lost a game, but it’s just a game. And all the kids would come in and give everyone a high five and you know I think it made things a lot easier or better.”
But the Maks brought more than a dedicated cheering section to the experience of players like Senior forward Mike Violette.
“It almost makes me feel grounded.” Violette said. “It brings a smile to my face and just come down here and release everything, release all my stress and kinda forget about everything — sit back and relax and pretend I’m a kid again.”
Gretchen Maks says the Lake Forest players are giving Griffin back some of the childhood he lost, and the Maks kids are learning to be siblings again. Griffin might be done with chemo, but he still has bad days. But his mom says they never happen on Tuesday; the day he skates with Lake Forest.
“When he comes here, he’s all smiles. The crabby Griffin is gone, he sees all the guys and he’s happy.”
Matching up kids and schools doesn’t happen by magic. Every morning, Maura Mahoney, Director of Case Management and Communications for Team IMPACT, takes the staff through the list of kids looking to be paired up with teams.
“As you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes into each match,” Mahoney said. “I can’t even think of the average number of phone calls. I mean the number of phone calls we make as a case management team everyday is… a lot.”
Each potential match is carefully debated and planned. Geography is important, as is making sure that both the family and the team are committed to the match. The easiest part of the process seems to be finding college teams that want to be involved.
“We have probably close to 1,500 teams that are looking for a kid, banging down our door looking for their newest recruit, so to speak.”
Pairing sick kids with college sports teams isn’t a new idea. Organizations like Make-A-Wish have long been arranging one-day connections, and kids with brain cancer can be paired with schools through the Friends of Jaclyn. Team IMPACT wanted to expand the idea, creating lasting connections between college sports teams and kids facing all sorts of medical challenges. First, individual teams signed up, then entire schools, and finally full college conferences got involved. Now Executive Director Dan Walsh says Team IMPACT is facing a new, unexpected problem.
“There’s enough stories and news articles and videos that it’s pretty quick to illustrate to the athletic community what the experience is all about and they’re quick to sign up,” Walsh said. “Our biggest challenge and daily focus is trying to find more children, more families that could benefit from this.”
Walsh can’t promise a kid will be paired with his or her favorite team, or even their favorite sport. But, he says it’s not about picking favorites—it’s about having 20, 30, even 100 older brothers and sisters during good times and bad.