Amy Donaldson: Coach's request changes the way football players define family

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 9:55 p.m. MDT

The Skyline Eagles football team will host a dinner at the school on June 2 at 5:30 p.m. to benefit 4-year-old Ava Manwaring and her family. She's fighting neuroblastoma and the team has adopted her. (Shutterstock) The Skyline Eagles football team will host a dinner at the school on June 2 at 5:30 p.m. to benefit 4-year-old Ava Manwaring and her family. She's fighting neuroblastoma and the team has adopted her. (Shutterstock)

HOLLADAY — Justin Thompson knows that some question football’s value.

But as a former player and a longtime assistant, the first-year Skyline head coach hopes to bring out the best in his players and the sport they love.

“There are a lot of reasons why people are apprehensive about playing football these days,” he said. “The concussion thing is scary. The amount of commitment it takes to be really good is a lot for people. What we want our community to understand is that football is good for young men.”

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Like many coaches, Thompson wants his players to feel like a family. He also wants them to learn more than how to score touchdowns and win games.

So instead of just focusing on their brotherhood, the Eagles want to redefine their definition of family to include people who’ve never even thought about stepping on a football field.

When coaches talked with players about finding an opportunity to serve in the community, Braxton Chipman said there were a number of ideas considered by the team.

Then someone mentioned a 4-year-old fighting cancer — Ava Manwaring. Her siblings attend Skyline, but they had no affiliation with the team. Still, Chipman said they were so intrigued that the captains went with Thompson to the Manwaring home to see if there was anything the football team could do to help the little girl and her family.

They went there hoping to bring comfort to a sick little girl. What happened was a pink-clad preschooler taught some pretty burly teenage boys what tough really looks like.

“What was so special about meeting her was that she’s so little and she always has such high spirits,” said Chipman, a senior quarterback and team captain. “What we learned is that we’re really blessed to be playing a game that we love. We shouldn’t complain. We should make the most of what we’re given. It’s one of the main reasons we’re drawn to her.”

Thompson said the family’s motto appealed to the boys, especially when they heard it from a little girl who knows more about pain than they can even imagine.

The boys heard the motto from Ava when she said, "I am brave. I am strong. I can do hard things."

Thompson said that as the boys learned what Ava has endured and how she does it with a positive attitude, they became inspired in ways they didn’t expect.

“This kid is so tough,” Thompson said of Ava. “She said (the motto) at some point, and our kids heard that.”

The boys asked Ava if they could adopt her as the “little sister” of the entire Eagle football team.

“We asked her if she’d like to join our family,” Chipman said. They hope she’ll be able to participate in the coin toss at the first home game, and they plan to sell T-shirts to help the family with medical bills throughout the season.

But their big project takes place in just a week.

On Monday, June 2 at 5:30 p.m., the team will host a barbecue benefit for the family at the school's east circle. For $10, diners receive a T-shirt, bracelet and dinner. The players are working hard to get food donations so that all of the money raised will go to the Manwaring family.

Chipman said the experience has already changed his perspective about many things, including football.

“It’s been awesome just to see how the community has been supporting them,” he said, "and supporting us."

Which was exactly what Thompson hoped might happen when he asked them to find ways to help the community that surrounds the school.

"We're hoping to raise money for the family," Thompson said of Monday's dinner. "But more than anything, we just want to come together for this little girl."

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