MORGANTOWN — This one’s for the kids.
We’re talking about Saturday’s West Virginia football Gold-Blue Spring Game at Milan Puskar Field that kicks off at noon.
On the surface, it is a game for the players, the end of spring drills, one last chance to compete … but they are not the real beneficiaries of this game.
They have all summer and fall to state their case for starting jobs and playing time, time to be evaluated and developed.
No, this one’s for the kids.
It’s a day that benefits that beautiful new Children’s Hospital that sits there in the Blue Parking lot, where there are a thousand stories being written every day, stories far more meaningful than anything a sportswriter such as myself can write in a lifetime.
And, to a lesser degree, it is for the healthy children of the community of the North Central area of West Virginia. It is for the children of the state and for the neighboring states.
Any place that heals the sick, eases the pain, cares for the infirmed … those who are too young to understand what has hit them and too young to have to suffer is a place that deserves a special day, a special weekend.
Athletes and children have this special connection, a bond that echoes throughout history.
It runs from Babe Ruth promising to hit a home run for young Johnny Sylvester, an 11-year-old who suffered a serious head injury and was hospitalized. Ruth, about to enter the 1926 World Series with his New York Yankees playing the St. Louis Cardinals, received a request from the family informing him of the situation.
Ruth sent a package to Johnny Sylvester that included a couple of baseballs, one autographed by the Yankees, the other by the Cardinals, and a note in which Ruth wrote: “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday”, which was Game 4 of the Series.
You know the story. He did and Sylvester recovered.
There are so many of those stories, big ones that made the movies and others where no one knew about them but one child’s day was made, where he escaped from the illness or injury cage in which he or she had been imprisoned, if only for a few moments.
The gift that is always of hope and a memory to bring forward.
What isn’t written about is what it does for the athletes themselves. You do not hear of any of them backing away from a commitment that involves sick children and seldom do they let any children down.
For many it is better than the roar of a sellout crowd, the response they get from the children they have visited or contacted.
Want to see what it’s like yourself. Watch at the end of the WVU game as the players head for the locker room, how much a high five from a player means, how cherished a wrist band tossed their way becomes. An autograph? It’s like a signed check when you are 8 or 10 years old, healthy or not.
It all started here in Morgantown when Don Nehlen was named West Virginia coach, more than four decades ago.
He took a trip to the hospital to visit the children and establish a relationship. When he was there he noticed a lack of toys in the hospital’s playroom. He went to athletic director Fred Schaus and pushed for instead of charging admission for the spring game that they should get donations for toys.
And so it began.
The relationship has produced over $790,000 over the years for WVU’s Children’s Medicine.
Nehlen began visits with his players to Children’s Hospital.
Today, during the Mantrip into the stadium for each home game, the players stop and wave to the children and get waves back, something that makes them all winners no matter how the game comes out.
While the weather forecast is for rain, the day is scheduled to get started with an 11 a.m. free concert from West Virginia songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Phillip Bowen.
And after the game, let the kid in yourself out and stop by Kegler’s between 4 and 6 to grab an autograph or picture with former WVU linebacker and Hall of Famer Darryl Talley, who had his uniform jersey number retired last year.