Iowa football meets courageous campers

BY SETH ROBERTS | APRIL 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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A boy wearing a white Iowa football jersey and a name tag reading "Matthew" worked his way down a long, black-and-gold table in Kinnick Stadium, gathering players' autographs on his sleeves and hat.

After every signature, Matthew beamed and planted a kiss on the fresh ink.

Matthew was one of about 100 members of Camp Courageous — a Monticello-based recreation and care center for people with disabilities — that met the Iowa football team's senior class on April 23.

The visitors had an autograph and photo session in the concourse behind the Nile Kinnick statue, where players and head coach Kirk Ferentz signed everything from plastic footballs to a banana.

They were then given a tour of the Hawkeye locker rooms and press box before they were taken to run around on the turf.

Smiles were planted on every face, including that of defensive lineman Mike Daniels. The New Jersey native said he never smiles during interviews, but he couldn't stop an ear-to-ear grin from repeatedly sneaking across his features while he talked to the media.

"I'm happy — I love seeing the kids play," Daniels said. "Imagine if I was 8, 9, 12, or 3, how ecstatic I'd be to be able to play out there with some of my heroes. That's wonderful. That's great. And we, being players, to be able to make somebody feel like that — to know somebody really, genuinely appreciates our company and looks up to us — it's heartwarming. It really is."

Daniels said participating in the charity opportunities organized by director of player development Chigozie Ejiasi is one of his favorite aspects of playing for the Hawkeyes. Tight end Brad Herman — who said he was told the camp had to turn away 200 more people who wanted to attend the meet-and-greet — agreed.

"It humbles us, brings us back down to earth, and makes us appreciate what we have," he said.

"Sometimes you have to think, 'Why am I so lucky?' Being able to meet them and hang out with them is a blessing in itself."

Camp Courageous, which was founded in 1972, sits on 150 acres approximately 55 miles northeast of Iowa City. The not-for-profit organization's website says the camp specializes in providing care for those with "mental and physical disabilities, brain injuries, hearing or visual impairments, autism, ADHD, and other special needs."

It seemed as if every member shared a deep love for Hawkeye football, though, and each player present appeared to connect seamlessly with the campers.

Offensive lineman Markus Zusevics plopped himself down on the bleachers next to a tiny boy, whose eyes went comically wide at the sight and size of the 6-5, 295-pound Arlington Heights, Ill., native.

Wide receiver Marvin McNutt said he was especially taken with a 2-year-old girl who "imitated everything [he] did."

"It's a spirit-lifter," McNutt said. "To be able to put a smile on somebody else's face is a good feeling … You can't take anything in your life for granted."

Daniels had more trouble picking out a favorite moment, though.

"There's too many to name," he said. "I had a couple guys sit in our lockers when we went to the locker room, and their reactions were priceless. You can't pay for something like that."

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