As the FSU Football team captains walked out to midfield for the ceremonial coin toss on their Nov. 8 game against MASCAC rival, Bridgewater State, had their newest, pint-sized player holding on to the hands of safety Matt Mangano and Kevin Donahue.
The FSU football team had an incredible season this year, finishing with a record of 10-1, winning nine in a row to end their campaign. They went undefeated in the MASCAC and were crowned ECAC North Atlantic Bowl Champions.
Their biggest accomplishment, however, was adding a new player to their 86-man roster, 6-year-old Declan Cassidy.
Declan was diagnosed with optic track glioma, a tumor that impacts the optic nerve, when he was just 2-years-old. He uses a cane to get around, and reads Braille. He is legally blind in one eye.
Rams’ head coach Tom Kelley reached out to Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization which pairs children who have life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams. He asked for the team to be connected with a child.
Once Team IMPACT paired the Rams with Declan, they worked directly with Mary Welker, who worked as the liaison between the team and the child’s family.
Last season, the football team worked with the organization and they paired the Rams with a child named Henry for the season, but it didn’t work out. “Henry came to a practice and to a game, but then he kind of disappeared,” Kelley said. “I got nervous we did something wrong. You always think it’s on your end.”
It turns out, Kelley said, that Henry didn’t enjoy athletics and that he enjoyed music and the piano. “We were excited to try it again” this season, said Kelley. “They thought we did such a good job the last time with Henry that Declan would be a perfect match.”
To get acclimated with Declan, Mangano said he, along with
fellow teammates Travis Hayes, Donahue, Matt Silva, Randall Kelleher, Jared Gauthier and Kyle Soja, sent a welcome email to Declan.
“We let him know how excited we were to have him be a part of our team,” Mangano said.
The captains then set up a luncheon so they could meet Declan and his family face-to-face. “We ate sandwiches and had a cupcake bar,” Mangano said.
Once they finished eating, Declan was shown around the campus, and then Mangano, Silva, Donahue, Hayes, Kelleher and Soja played with him in the gym and outside as well. “It was as much fun for us to see him having a blast as it was for him,” Mangano said.
Donahue said, “All he wanted to do was run around. Just to see him smile and have fun with all that’s going on in his life really inspired our team and brought a little more excitement to our guys.”
After they were done running around, Kelley said Declan was so tired that Mangano had to carry him back to his car.
Kelley said, “They lose a lot of their social contacts. They’re not in school a lot, so they don’t have friends around. So when you put them on teams like ours, they get that back and they become a member of the team.”
On Nov. 8, Declan was introduced to the rest of the football team when he and his family attended the Rams’ game at home against their conference opponent Bridgewater State. Declan walked out with Mangano and the other captains for the coin toss, and was even given the coin as a gift.
Kelley said the coin toss became more meaningful when the referee realized he knew Declan’s father. “It made it all that more special,” Kelley said. “The officials were excited this was happening. It was really a special day.”
Silva said, “Declan was in the center of our pregame huddle as he was introduced.” He added, “He broke down the huddle by saying, ‘Rams on three.’ The team was very into it, and he got us fired up for the game.”
At halftime, the Rams found themselves down, 10-0, a predicament they had not been in since Homecoming Weekend on Sept. 27. “We reminded our team of the strength and courage that Declan has shown with his condition and how much of an inspiration he was to us,” Mangano said.
Silva said, “He gave us motivation to not lose this game with him in attendance. We knew it was his only game” he would be attending.
Declan being there with the team inspired the Rams and they were able to score 33 unanswered points and win the game.
Donahue said, “He chose a great game to come to. It was a huge win for us against a big rival.”
The win against Bridgewater sealed another MASCAC Championship for the team, and Declan was there to witness it. “He is now a part of our team and will be forever,” Mangano said.
Silva said it was indescribable. “Not only was it a good win for the team, but Declan being able to be there for it and feel something special is a great feeling.”
Kelley said he had a ball cheering his team on from the sidelines. “He’s full of energy and a really neat kid.”
Declan was only able to make it to one game this season, but it was one he will always remember because he got to see his new teammates capture the conference title.
Mangano said despite Declan’s condition, he is still one of the most “outgoing, enthusiastic and fun kid” he’s ever been around. “It is so inspiring to see this 6-year-old boy completely ignore his condition and just live life to the fullest. … He takes nothing for granted.”
“Seeing him be so happy made me realize sports are bigger than just wins and losses,” Silva said. “It’s the memories that truly last a lifetime, and Declan will have this one forever now.”
Silva said Declan’s favorite superhero is Spiderman, and which he dressed up as for Halloween. The 6-year-old also loves running around and playing outside and his favorite food is hot dogs. “He’s just a very happy kid,” Silva said.
Donahue described him as a future track star who’s “fun, funny and energetic.” He added that the 6-year-old is a fighter. “With how happy he was, you would never guess he was battling an illness. He’s truly a special kid who is an inspiration.”
Declan has a lot to celebrate on top of the Rams’ stellar season. A week before he was introduced to the team, his mother gave birth to a baby boy, making Declan a new big brother.
Although the season has ended, Mangano said the team will be keeping in touch with Declan through emails and face-to-face meetings. “I know that we have started a very special relationship with him and we look forward to continuing to do so,” Mangano said.
Kelley said they plan to bring Declan back next season. “We’ll do some things even in the off-season. … They’ll probably go over to his house and play with him in the yard, do stuff like that.” He added, “We’ll have spring practice, so we’ll bring him out for one.”
Silva said, “Declan being part of our team and program was a memorable experience, not only for him, but for me too. We were able to make a change in someone’s life – someone who is less fortunate than us and we were able to make him happy.”
Kelley said he’s very proud of his players. “It’s really emotional and special to these guys. They’re great people and really stepped up for this cause. I can’t tell you how proud I am and how thrilled I am to be dealing with Declan.”