KINGSTON — The University of Rhode Island’s toughest football player this season weighs all of 62 pounds.
He’s had 21 surgeries, the first one just 38 hours after he was born. He’s absorbed the hardest hits life has to offer – opposing defenders are a footnote. His first stated goal when he officially signed with the Rams last week was to push fifth-year senior Bob Bentsen and South Alabama transfer Kolt Peavey for their respective places on the quarterback depth chart.
His name is Evan Huddon, and to be in his presence is to be inspired. The Warwick native’s spirit is the infectious sort that makes those around him smile and count their blessings. The Rams are the fortunate group who will welcome his presence throughout the 2013 season thanks to a meeting made possible by Team IMPACT, an organization based in Quincy, Mass., that matches children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses with athletic teams.
“When you talk to him he’s as positive a guy as you’ll ever meet,” URI coach Joe Trainer said. “He just has one of those personalities – you like to be around him. Our players migrate to him just because he’s fun to be around.”
“I can’t get over all these guys,” said Evan’s mother, Julie. “They’ve already adopted him into the family like he’s been here forever.”
Evan, 13, has battled spina bifida since birth, a developmental disorder in which vertebrae protecting the spinal cord remain unfused and open. It is one of the most common birth defects in the world, afflicting one in every 1,000 newborns. Complications can include leg weakness and paralysis, hydrocephalus and cognitive difficulties.
The physical complications seem particularly cruel when you consider the athleticism in Evan’s genes. His father, Jason, is a high school track and field coach. Julie was a college gymnast. Evan’s brother, Luke, is an athlete at Bishop Hendricken. Evan is still able to compete in Challenger’s Series sailing and baseball and is a menace at the bowling alley.
“He’s an amazing little child,” Julie said. “He’s been through so much but he’s always had a positive attitude. He always has a bright side. He’s never looked at himself and been down.”
Team IMPACT invites families and schools to make preliminary contact with the program by signing up online at goteamimpact.org. The process sees the organization set up an introductory phone call and families and schools fill out a more formal application. Evan and URI were put together by Maura Mahoney, Team IMPACT’s director of case management and communications.
In Evan’s case, the idea to sign up with Team IMPACT came eight months ago during a visit to his pulmonologist.
“They try to match those kids with certain athletic teams at colleges and universities across the country,” Trainer said. “It was a win-win for him and us.”
The end of the matching process comes on Draft Day, which Evan and URI celebrated Aug. 14. Evan and his family were invited to meet the Rams during a nighttime event at the Ryan Center, where he was formally introduced to his new teammates. He received a standing ovation when Trainer announced that Evan was URI’s first draft pick this season and awarded him the No. 1 shirt. It’s a jersey he’ll share with Miami (Ohio) transfer running back Justin Semmes.
“I actually feel honored to wear No. 1 as well as (Evan),” Semmes said. “I feel blessed to be able to play this game and it’s a great opportunity to have him be part of this team.”
The Rams posted a video of the moment Evan was introduced by Trainer on their website, gorhody.com. Absent is the type of behavior that lands the current generation of young adults the usual criticism – that they’re selfish and unappreciative in some way of the simple things life has to offer.
“It’s nice to see these guys see a kid that’s this positive battling some of the adversity he battles,” Trainer said. “That can’t but give our guys a sense of being grounded and a sense of humility. Every day is a blessing – my health, the fact that I’m playing college football at this level and having success – and that’s going to be great for our players.”
“They were just so sweet, so outgoing, so receptive of Evan,” Julie said. “They really just took him in like he was their little brother – all 100 of them were the big brothers.”
Evan will have his own space in the URI locker room this season. His stall is next to fifth-year senior defensive lineman Shomari Watts, who Trainer has assigned to be Evan’s personal mentor.
“We knew he was super-excited and we’re super-excited to have him,” Watts said. “We wanted to make sure he knew that. We wanted to make sure when Evan walked in he saw the smiles on all of our faces.”
Evan took part in the team’s Media Day on Thursday, posing in the team picture and with the quarterbacks in the position group shot. Trainer pushed Evan’s wheelchair into the grandstand and there was no shortage of muscle to help ease him into the first row or down onto the field for the next hour.
“When he first came in the room with 90 guys he took it on,” Bentsen said. “He loved every minute of it and we loved having him around. Everyone’s going up to him in the middle of practice. It’s great for the energy.”
“My mom used to say, ‘Would you take your bag of troubles to the land of troubles, park yours and take another bag with you?’” Trainer said. “When you see some of the things other people have to deal with, whether it’s health or physical challenges or life-threatening disease or illness, it grounds me.”
Toughness. Great team player. Depth at quarterback.
Sounds like URI used its draft pick wisely.