Another positive story with a similar lesson for us

Having become somewhat disillusioned with all the bad things going on in the world of sports, last week I decided to write something positive. The column was about a letter a 9-year-old boy sent to his favorite college football team. He wanted to cheer up the Michigan State Spartans, a team that was struggling through a rough season.

In the letter Fraser Hartnell reminded us, with apologies to Vince Lombardi, that “winning isn’t everything.” We sometimes, maybe even frequently, lose sight of that fact. The story was a fresh reminder that there are more important things in life than losing an athletic contest.

In searching for something positive the last few weeks, I noticed that the University of Iowa was playing a home football game and that game would be on television. Of course I tuned in — for the opening quarter. You want to be watching at the end of the first quarter, because that’s when the Iowa Wave takes place.

When the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital opened in 2017 it was designed to treat young people who had been diagnosed with cancer. The hospital was built right next to Kinnick Stadium where the Hawkeyes play football.

The top floor of the hospital was arranged to be a sort of “press box” as it affords a nice view of the action In Kinnick Stadium. On Saturday game days, the children and their families can watch the game from the windows while holding signs urging on their favorite football team.

On that opening day, the real press box announcer asked the fans to stand and wave to the children after the first quarter ended. Not only did all the fans participate, but so too did the players of both teams as well as the officials. A tradition that may never be topped began, and continues to this day.

The first time I saw the wave, I was touched. I could only imagine the feeling that those children had when seeing some 70,000 people waving at them. It had to be just a tremendously wonderful feeling for those kids. Perhaps the only thing more emotional might well have been the feeling of those doing the waving. The first video I saw of the wave included a shot of the referee waving as a tear rolled down his cheek.

Most of those people that wave are not likely to understand what those kids are going through. Most of us watching on TV cannot fully understand what those families are going through. We have an idea, but we can’t totally get it because we haven’t been there.

A couple of weeks ago the University of Minnesota came to Iowa City and one of those Gopher players would indeed participate in the Iowa Wave. Casey O’Brien is a redshirt sophomore and he would have a better understanding than most what those kids are going through. You see, Casey O’Brien is a four-time cancer survivor.

When O’Brien was an aspiring quarterback as a freshman in high school, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. His dream of playing collegiate football would be put on hold for the foreseeable future. O’Brien would endure months of chemotherapy and 14 surgeries.

After his original diagnosis doctors told him he would never play football again as the risk to his life in playing a collision sport such as football would be too great. But Casey O’Brien was not interested in giving up the sport he loved. How about, he asked, if he became a holder for placekicks instead of playing quarterback.

The doctors relented and O’Brien eventually went to the University of Minnesota. His cancer returned shortly after he landed on campus and his dream had to wait even longer. The wait ended this fall.

In a game against Rutgers University, O’Brien was sent in to hold for an extra point. He caught the snap, placed the ball down and turned the laces away from the kicker. The kick was good and O’Brien was mobbed by his teammates. When he went to the sideline he shared a long hug with coach P.J. Fleck.

Casey O’Brien’s dream was fulfilled.

So I wonder what was running through Casey O’Brien’s mind as he was waving on that Saturday afternoon in Kinnick Stadium. He, more than anyone else in the stadium, had to have feelings of sadness as well as the knowledge that hope is possible. He beat cancer, maybe many of these kids will as well and that is our lesson from this story.

A lot of these kids will never realize a dream like Casey O’Brien’s. Their dream may simply be survival. Many of them will never reach my age. Some of them will not likely see O’Brien’s 20 years. As touching as the Iowa Wave is, reality suggests that these youngsters have some very difficult days ahead of them. The outcome of a game seems to pale in comparison. We must not forget this lesson.

Sports are wonderful. It gives us so much, but it is still just a game. Winning or losing is not a matter of life or death.

To use a sports phrase — we need to keep our eye on the ball.

Al Stephenson is a columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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