Nathan Stephens played a soccer match Saturday morning, but his biggest round of applause — by a mile — came at a football game later in the day played by a bunch of guys five times his size.
The 6-year-old Barberton boy was feted at the University of Akron’s contest against Louisiana-Lafayette by a charity group called Special Spectators.
The organization arranges events for seriously ill children and their families at Division I football games across the country.
Nathan, who is battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was introduced early in the game. During a timeout, he walked out into the end zone with his whole family and got a nice hand from the crowd.
Earlier he was allowed to stand at the end of the tunnel as the players ran from the locker room onto the field. As they thundered by, he got a high-five from sophomore defensive lineman Mike Davis.
Nathan also met legendary mascot Zippy and got a behind-the-scenes look at UA’s football facilities, which really made an impression: After his end-zone cameo, as the family walked through the training room toward primo seats upstairs, Nathan said to his mom, “Instead of the football game, let’s hop in the hot tubs!”
His sister, 3-year-old Elayna, wasn’t focused entirely on the game, either. While standing on the sidelines during the first quarter, she played with a ladybug before graciously handing it over to Zippy.
Two other area children were scheduled to participate, but when game day rolled around they simply weren’t strong enough. Nathan felt well enough to play soccer in the morning but faded a bit as the day went on.
His mom, Kathy, attributed that to a recent chemotherapy treatment, which he must undergo every 28 days. After three years of those, he and his mom, as well as father Brian, are eagerly awaiting the end of treatments in six months.
“We had some issues in the beginning,” said his mom, “but he worked through them. Now he’s quite a champion. He’s played some T-ball, played some soccer. He’s doing really well.”
Special Spectators is the brainchild of Blake Rockwell, a New York City business consultant who formed the group 11 years ago after noticing that many of the kids he talked to while volunteering at a children’s hospital in Chicago were sports fanatics like him.
“I was really surprised,” he said during a pregame tailgate with the Stephenses. “I thought that since they were going through so much, and couldn’t participate in sports, that they didn’t really have an interest. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“They were probably bigger sports fans than a lot of healthy kids I knew. But most didn’t have much exposure to sports other than watching on television and playing video games.”
Rockwell figured introducing them to the college football scene, which offered a full day with a variety of activities, would enable them “to take their mind off everything that they’re dealing with.”
The group only raises about $25,000 a year, but contributors are getting quite a bang for their buck: Special Spectators is staffed entirely by volunteers.
Even Rockwell, the executive director, doesn’t pay himself a dime. He cranks up his consulting business during the winter then gradually eases out as football season approaches.
On Saturday, his group was making an impression not only in Akron but at jam-packed stadiums at the universities of Louisville and Minnesota.
After a slow start — Rockwell contacted 107 schools the first year, but only Arizona and Central Florida were willing to participate — Special Spectators has hosted more then 6,500 kids and this fall alone will be part of 45 football games.
Nathan Stephens didn’t have a whole lot to say about that on Saturday, but his big brown eyes told plenty.