Tyler Matakevich leads the nation in solo tackles with 82, 27 more than any other player. Even though he’s pretty busy anchoring the Temple defense, he finds time to talk to Chris Richer, a 15-year-old boy from Mullica, N.J.
“He texts me all the time, just asking if I’m watching the football game, asking me if we’re going to win,” the sophomore linebacker said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling, just having the opportunity to have someone like that be a part of our team. It’s really something special that nobody really understands but us.”
Richer was adopted by the Owls on Sept. 24. He is diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue. He was given his own helmet, jersey and locker and is welcome at all Temple practices and games.
Richer was set up with the team through The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that brings together children with pediatric brain tumors and high school and college sports teams. Friends of Jaclyn began in 2004, when 9-year-old Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, or a malignant brain tumor. A year later, she was adopted as an honorary member of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team – a team that went undefeated and won the national championship that season. This inspired Murphy and her family to start the foundation so other children could have the same experience.
“We were over at the children’s hospital for Christopher’s testing a couple of years ago,” Albert Richer, Chris’s father, said. “I saw a flyer on the wall for Friends of Jaclyn … I went on the website and signed Chris up. Last year they tried to put us with a team, and we couldn’t connect, couldn’t get it done. And then this year, when they called up trying to place us with another team again, we were looking for something local that we could get Chris to more often. Temple came in and said they’d be willing to do it. The coordinators at Friends of Jaclyn put it all together and made it happen.”
Chris Richer played youth football when he was younger, but his father said he cannot play now. He attends a special developmental school that doesn’t have a football team, and the Richers could not find a team that would be able to give him playing time.
“He’s been real excited about it,” Albert Richer said. “He talks to the players on his phone. They call him and text him. He’s into watching all the away games and we try and make as many home games as we can. It’s given him an outlet to being part of a team again.”
The football program isn’t the only Temple team to have adopted a child through Friends of Jaclyn. The softball team adopted Vanessa Moresi, a then-6-year-old girl with neurofibromatosis, in May 2011. Moresi is still taking part in activities with the team. The lacrosse team was the first team at Temple to adopt a child, welcoming then-5-year-old Devon Lam in February 2008.
“We were really excited about it,” lacrosse coach Bonnie Rosen said. “It was really a magical experience from day one. [The Lams] were from New York, so they weren’t local. They traveled in to meet us, and they traveled to our home game and traveled to our away games, so we spent a lot of time with Devon. We just really became bonded very quickly with Devon and her parents, and we were really excited for what was hopefully was going to be a lifelong relationship.”
Lam, who suffered from a brain tumor, passed away in December 2008.
In April 2010, the Owls became the first team to adopt a second child, welcoming then-4-year-old Lily Adkins. Adkins is a survivor of an ependymoma brain tumor, a tumor that grows on the part of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord.
“We had a Friends of Jaclyn Day to raise awareness for pediatric brain tumors,” Rosen said. “On that day a family, the Adkins, showed up and we met them. Since we met, it just seemed like the perfect match.”
Rosen said Adkins was shy when she was first adopted, so the team organized events such as a dance party and arts and crafts days to make Adkins feel more comfortable. Some players have gone to Adkins’ soccer games to cheer her on.
“Fortunately, Lily is actually just thriving,” Rosen said. “She’s getting stronger and better and has been really healthy.”
“Being around children is always a wonderful reminder of what it means to play and be happy,” Rosen added. “She has been a great reminder of being grateful and thankful. Even more than that, she has just become part of the family … she has been a true inspiration and a reminder not to take life for granted.”
Although Chris Richer has only been a part of the football team for about a month, he has already had the same effect on the Owls.
“Every one of them, at the home games when we’re around, they all stop and say hi and shake his hand, get a high five when they go out to the field and come in from the field,” Albert Richer said. “They’ve really embraced him as part of the team.”
Matakevich said the last game the Richers attended was the game versus Louisville on Oct. 5, which Temple lost 30-7.
“You could see his smile in the locker room,” Matakevich said. “He definitely was getting us excited … When you’re out there, you see him walking around and clapping. You’re just like, ‘Come on guys, let’s go. We gotta push through it.’ We weren’t fortunate enough with the outcome in that game, but it really does open up your eyes about how lucky we are every day.”
Evan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EvanCross.