GRAND RAPIDS – Eric Soderberg, starting senior quarterback for the Grand Rapids football team, was leading a group of QBs in drills Saturday morning at Noble Hall Field. The athletes each took a snap and navigated several cones while running with the ball.
At the end of the drill, Soderberg and the other QBs gathered together in a tight huddle, each put one hand up in the middle of the pack and Soderberg said, “QBs on 3!” They all hollered, “One! Two! Three! QBs!!”
It was absolute magic. These weren’t the other high school quarterbacks; these were cognitively and physically impaired children from Itasca County who had been invited to the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks’ first Victory Day event.
Did I say it was magic? Here’s how senior Levi How described the day: “I love it. If there’s one kid smiling today, it makes the whole day worth it.”
Greg Spahn, who is in his first season as the Grand Rapids football coach, put Victory Day on his to-do list as soon as he was hired. Victory Day was started in Trenton, Michigan, in 2010 by a high school coach named Aaron Segedi, a cancer survivor who wanted to give back to the community. Spahn corresponded with Segedi during the Grand Rapids planning stages, and Saturday’s event was a big hit.
The varsity football players worked with the impaired kids on several drills at the same time; running backs swerved around pads on the ground, defensive players put big hits on pads held by varsity Thunderhawks, receivers ran pass patterns and caught the ball.
Everywhere, varsity athletes cheered and their guests smiled.
“It’s just so much fun to have our players see the impact they have and give back to some of these kids who aren’t able to experience football,” Spahn said.
Sixteen kids – some in wheelchairs or walkers -- joined the football team and one young lady spent her morning with the cheerleaders, who performed routines and kept the enthusiasm high. Members of the Thunderhawks marching band provided the school song and other tunes, and longtime Thunderhawks public-address announcer Roy Tovionen provided play-by-play from his perch in the press box.
This hasn’t been a great season for the Thunderhawks. On the same field Friday night, they lost to Alexandria 56-6 to send their record to 0-6. (Spahn smiled before Saturday’s festivities as he said, “I’ll tell you one thing: This will go better than last night.”)
“We’re rebuilding the football program and I think this will be a big piece, to show our kids how to give back and the impact that they have,” Spahn said.
“I hope it shows them the importance they have simply by being a football player, and the impact that they can have on other people. Hopefully it compels them later in life to continue to give back in some capacity. It makes our community better, it makes our players better, and I can’t ask for much more.”
The varsity Thunderhawks wore their black jerseys and their guests wore the team’s white game jerseys. It didn’t matter that the jerseys were so big that they covered some of the kids’ knees; just being able to be a real football player, even if for just one morning, was everything.
“It’s cool,” said senior Dillon Campbell. “We get to do this every Friday night and we don’t think anything of it. And they get to come out and do it once and they absolutely enjoy it.
“The best part is watching them have fun and enjoy themselves. I love watching them smile when they get done with the drills. It’s awesome.”
After all the athletes had taken a turn at each drill station, the day culminated in a very special way: Each guest player scored a touchdown.
The varsity offense lined up against the varsity defense, with one of the guest athletes lined up at running back at about the 30-yard line. Soderberg barked out signals, adjusted his offensive teammates … a linebacker hollered out the defensive calls … and at the snap of the ball a player in a white jersey either took a handoff or caught a short pass and headed for the end zone followed by a convoy of running, cheering, hollering Thunderhawks.
Tovionen did a splendid job in describing the action. “Xavier takes the ball around the right side! Cuts to his left! He’s shedding tacklers! He’s at the 10! The 5! Touchdown!!”
As each player crossed the goal line, they were engulfed by Thunderhawks, offering high fives and pats on the back, with an occasional player lifted up in the air. The band played the school song, the cheerleaders raised their voices to the sky and moms, dads and other visitors wore giant smiles.
One player had a little trouble in hanging on to the ball, but each time he fumbled it he picked it right up and – encouraged by his Thunderhawk buddies – just kept covering ground. In the end zone, the celebration was wild.
“Way to go, Logan! Way to stick with it!”
“I think it’s a great thing to do, to be able to put a smile on these kids’ faces,” Soderberg said. “It’s just awesome to see their faces light up when we play football with them.”
Oh, the smiles. Magic. Pure magic.
--To see a photo gallery from Victory Day in Grand Rapids, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
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