“The benefit for the kids with autism is it’s just a day for them to experience football and have some fun,” said Bob Olson, camp director and treasurer of the Autism Society of the Fox Valley. “It’s probably something a lot of these kids won’t be able to do at a high school level. It’s a growth day for the football players because they can give something back to the community by sharing their talents.”
Olson credits Xavier head football coach Dave Hinkens for creating the camp, which is largely supported by proceeds from the Autism Society golf outing.
“I bet that 80 percent of the kids here are repeats,” said Olson, a parent of an autistic child. “There are some kids that count down the days. They actually have calendars to count down the days until camp.”
Olson added that he was hoping for 100 campers, but the wet weather likely hindered the turnout. The rain stopped in time for the station work, which included punting, kicking, passing, blocking, tackling, ball carrying, pass receiving and agility drills. The Hawks also simulated the introduction of the starting lineup by forming two lines for the campers to run between. The Xavier football cheerleaders were also on hand to support the participants, who received T-shirts and medals.
“This is an opportunity for (the players) to learn about life from a different person’s point of view,” said Hinkens, now in his 10th season at Xavier. “I hope they realize how they are blessed by what they are able to do. The impact this has had on me personally and our team has been huge. We’ve had kids come through here that went to college to work with special needs kids that had no interest in that before this experience. I have two boys that are going to college that are going to work with autistic children when they get done with school as a result of this camp. The awareness, the sensitivity, there are so many different elements of this that help our team grow. It’s a wonderful experience.”
Helping at the camp is a privilege, said Max Machurick, senior quarterback/linebacker.
“You realize the effects of autism and how you can impact a child’s life in one day like this,” he said. “It’s amazing. It seems like we get more out of it than the little kids do.”
Autism specialists spoke to the players before the camp, which provided a good learning experience, said Machurick.
“They talked to us about how we should treat the kids,” he said. “Some kids like to give you a high five. Some shouldn’t be touched at all. Some you can talk to. Others are quiet. You just try to make it fun for the kids. They get this one day. We get nine games every year. You have to put it all in this one day just for them.”
“Sometimes we take for granted coming out on the field on Friday nights,” said Grant Thayer, senior wide receiver/linebacker. “This really puts it into perspective about how special playing football can be. I think it really brings our team together. It shows everyone the importance of giving back to the community. We cherish helping out others because a lot of people put in a lot of time and effort to help us out. It’s fun with all the little kids.”
Logan Mann, a 4-year-old from Oshkosh, participated in the camp for the first time.
“I didn’t know how he would take to it,” said his father, Jeff. “I figured it would be a lot of fundamentals. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s fantastic what these players are doing. It’s nice because, for a lot of these (Xavier players), the sad truth is that football will end for them at this level. It probably helps to get them thinking about the bigger picture of life and the importance of helping the community no matter what they do.”
Xavier improved to 3-0 on the season with a 43-6 victory over Freedom on the eve of the camp. Hinkens emphasized that Saturday’s event was more important than what the team accomplished on Friday night.
“If you ask these kids, ‘Between last night and today, what had a bigger impact on your lives?’ I can tell you it’s today,” he said. “This is a special day for our program and our school. This is an opportunity for us to display our Catholic values, our Christian values and to grow as a team. The letters and feedback we get from these parents are incredible. We reflect on this; we talk about it. If you asked our kids what their best memory of their football experience here is, it’s either this or our team retreat at the CYE (Catholic Youth Expedition) camp with Fr. Quinn (Mann). We’ve been fortunate to win a lot of football games around here, but ask them their best memories and they don’t lead with that.”
Campers, family members, coaches and players gathered for lunch in the school commons to close the camp. Tom Meyer, senior wide receiver/defensive back, presented the game ball from the Freedom victory to Trey Rhoden, a 5-year-old from New London.
“It was a tough choice. We wanted to give the ball to a kid who showed a lot of energy,” said Meyer. “I talked with my teammates about it. Trey did a great job. All these kids did a great job. We could have given the game ball to any one of them. They all deserve footballs.”
For more information on the Autism Society of the Fox Valley, Inc., visit www.focol.org/asfv.