IOWA CITY — Max Stancel-Hess got to fulfill a lifelong dream this past weekend.
On Saturday, the 11-year-old Marion resident and 12 other children, all patients at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, played a special role in the Hawkeye’s Kids Day football scrimmage as 2016 Kid Captains.
They toured behind the scenes at Kinnick Stadium, visited the locker rooms, met players and entered the field alongside team members to a roar from the crowd.
Max has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly. He spent his first five months of life in the UI Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and has been back to Iowa City for multiple surgeries and appointments throughout his life.
It was a nice change to visit Iowa City for Kids Day instead of for a hospital visit.
“Meeting all the players, going to the field — ever since I saw my first football game I’ve wanted to do that,” he said.
His father Ryan Stancel works for Modern Piping, a Cedar Rapids company that is helping build the new UI Children’s Hospital quickly rising next to Kinnick Stadium. He said it was poignant to walk onto the field so near the hospital that has helped his son survive and within view of the new building he is helping construct.
“All the guys I work with think it’s pretty cool he’s a Kid Captain,” he said. “It’s for these kids — they’re what we’re building for.”
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It is children like Stancel-Hess that inspired Kid Captains co-founder Cheryl Hodgson to help create the program eight years ago. Each season, one Kid Captain is selected to be honored at each UI football game.
Hodgson said adjectives often attributed to athletes — words like “strong,” “brave,” “hardworking” and “determined” — can be applied even more aptly to these children.
“That’s these kids, these families,” she said. “This is their chance to be a Hawkeye hero. We wanted to give these families and kids a chance to share their stories, their inspiration.”
Each of the 13 children selected this year represent hundreds of others. Over the years, 2,557 children have been nominated, with 108 Kid Captains chosen from 74 towns and seven states.
For Reed Havlik, 3, of Jesup, the Kid Captain experience has been a bright spot in a young life that has seen too many challenges. Havlik has vanishing white matter disease, an extremely rare condition in which the white matter in his brain is disappearing. As the terminal disease progresses, he is likely to lose the ability to walk, talk, use his hands, eat, hear or see.
“It’s a huge honor for us. Reed reminds us every Saturday in the fall to put on our Hawkeye gear,” his mother Erika Havlik said. “We’re trying to give him every experience we can.”
Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz spoke to the families who gathered in the Hawkeye locker room, where each Kid Captain had personalized jerseys and posters waiting for them on Saturday. “You guys are awfully special,” Ferentz said. “I know what you guys have been through and what your families have endured. You’re going to meet all the football players; big, tough guys.
“I wish that most of them were half as tough as you guys.”