They emerged Saturday from the tunnel onto the artificial grass at Kinnick Stadium.
Some ran, some walked, some needed a hand to hold and some needed a push.
But every visitor from Camp Courageous wore an ear-to-ear grin as they took the field.
“The kids were smiling,” Iowa junior defensive back Micah Hyde said. “I want to keep that smile on their face all day. Hopefully they go home and go to bed with a smile on their face and have a memory for the rest of their lives.”
It is a tradition now in its sixth year where Camp Courageous — a year-round recreational camp for people with disabilities near Monticello — brings a few dozen campers to Kinnick Stadium.
“This is fun,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Just pure enthusiasm, pure enjoyment. You see it in their faces. It’s pretty special. It’s a pretty unfiltered experience.”
This annual day started in 2005 with Bill Krause, the CEO of Kum and Go who is a supporter of Camp Courageous and Hawkeye football. He helped arrange to have several Hawkeye players and coaches visit the camp.
“Then we got talking,” said Charlie Becker, Camp Courageous executive director. “It is more of a thrill for the campers to come here, to Kinnick.”
They came to Iowa City the next year and have done it every spring since.
The campers toured both locker rooms, the black-and-gold home lockers and the infamous pink room for visitors. They checked out the press box and spent time on the turf under the May sun.
“To get kids out here, this is what it’s all about,” junior Steve Bigach said. “You get put in position with athletic ability to reach out to people. If you get put on that pedestal and you’re not helping people around you, it’s not worth it.
“To see a smile on a kid’s face because you shake his hand or if you sign an autograph on his football … that’s a big deal.”
Becker said the annual event has become something campers look forward to. He said many parents tell him the campers lay out their Hawkeye jersey on their bed the day before and have trouble sleeping at night.
“There is no hidden agenda. This is as pure as it gets. The excitement is almost like Christmas or their birthday,” Becker said. “It is the chance of a lifetime.”
It also can be a humbling moment for Hawkeye players, who sign autographs and pose for pictures.
“Just seeing how important this is for them makes us all realize how fortunate we are,” Iowa junior quarterback James Vandenberg said. “We saw a lot of pictures we signed that was them with pom poms cheering at Iowa games and tailgating. They are all Hawkeye fans. They know you by your first name when they meet you.”
Bigach knows he made a connection Saturday.
“Sometimes you sign an autograph and maybe somebody is going to take it and sell it. Maybe it means something to them, maybe it doesn’t,” Bigach said. “When you look at some of the kids here, you know it means a lot to them.”
Ferentz has increased the amount of community outreach his team does over his 13 years at Iowa. He said the team had a chance to chip in during the 2008 flood and continues to do outreach and team building projects when they can.
“All of our players get involved in community service projects after spring practice is over,” Ferentz said. “We’ve all got it pretty good. That’s one of the nice things about the Children’s Hospital, it puts it in perspective pretty quickly.”
Becker said it is heartwarming to see another side of the players off the field. And the players get something out of it, as well.
“I met a kid, Donald,” junior center James Ferentz said. “He said it was one of the best days he’s ever had.”
Reach Ryan Suchomel at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football