Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa's Children's Hospital

Adam Kramer

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It's the smell that hits you first. The aroma of fresh popcorn overpowers the senses the moment the door opens, producing a welcoming tailgating fragrance in one of the most sterile environments you can imagine. These game-day scents are not uncommon on an autumn Saturday here in America's heartland, where football is played and celebrated in ways outsiders couldn't possibly understand.

Then it's the sounds. The bustling Saturday soundtrack plays inside a room they call the Press Box, located on the 12th floor of the Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital. There is the rapid-fire popping of kernels. The clash of Jenga pieces falling to the floor and the reactions that follow. The applause of parents. The excited voices of children—some patients of the hospital, some siblings. And the beeping and buzzing of the machinery they're hooked up to—IVs pumping fluids intended to hopefully cure or at least treat what's ailing them.

Then you see the wheelchairs and the tubes and the little faces radiating pure happiness. You see small children pressed up against windows, sitting on the laps of parents whose faces bear, for a few fleeting moments, the same blissful expression.

There is a football game going on down below. It's September 16, and Iowa is playing North Texas in Kinnick Stadium, which is a sight to be seen from up above. It is near the end of the first quarter.

In a few moments, more than 65,000 people will wave in unison to this room of fierce, fragile children, many of whom are sick, injured or recovering. Perhaps you've seen the videos and photos of the greatest new tradition in sports—an idea that began organically through social media before it sprung to life.

It is the simplest of gestures—a way of saying hello that is used each and every day without much thought—but for those who sit on the other side of the glass, it is so much more. It is an acknowledgment of the struggles that have taken place and the others still to come. It is jolt of support from a sea of perfectly good strangers.

It is, in the simplest and purest of terms, a wave of hope.

Image via University of Iowa

It is 24 hours before Kirk Ferentz will lead his team into the stadium, and he can hardly find the words. Sitting in a chair in his office, the face of Iowa football since 1999—the longest-tenured coach in all of college football—struggles to describe what the last few weeks have meant.

"I don't think any of us anticipated this kind of attention," Ferentz says, his voice cracking throughout much of the interview. "But it's so healthy not just for our children's hospital but hospitals across the country. The heroes are the people doing the work, the patients and their families."

For the past few years, during practice, Ferentz watched the Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital being built. It opened back in February. It is the tallest habitable building in Iowa City, a $360 million structure that is separated from Kinnick Stadium by only Hawkins Drive.

The hospital is egg-shaped. Ferentz, who was involved in some aspects of the design, says the curves help eliminate some of the outer sounds. The hospital feels like an extension of Kinnick—like some sort of high-tech treehouse of the future sitting over its shoulder.

In August, Ferentz and his wife, Mary, donated $1 million to the hospital to fund the Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research. They began the initiative after their granddaughter arrived at just 21 weeks old in 2014.

The plan had always been to continue to strengthen the marriage between the football program and the hospital—a union that stretches back to Ferentz's time as an assistant in the '80s. But earlier this year, the relationship received a boost from an unexpected source.

The idea first came to Krista Young during nap time. Young, who works at a day care, began reading about the new hospital while her children slept. She then shared an idea on the Hawkeye Heaven Facebook page, a popular online Iowa hangout.

"I think, with the new U of I hospital addition open, Kinnick should hold a 'wave to the kids' minute during every game," she wrote back in May. "Can you imagine how neat it would be to have all those fans, players & coaching staff looking up at you sending a little extra inspiration?"

The idea quickly blossomed into something more— through likes, shares and positive feedback. As it gained traction, the hospital took note. Slowly but surely, a plan was implemented before Iowa's first home game against Wyoming.

"We're so quick to disagree on everything," Ferentz says. "We're so quick to have confrontation as a nation. And here is one thing everyone can feel really good about. The attention for these kids and their families is what this is all about."

On September 2, as Iowa and Wyoming's first quarter came to an end, the movement was brought to life.

It is 35 minutes before the Press Box will officially open and one hour before Iowa and North Texas will kick off. To enter the viewing area, families are required present a ticket at the door. Because of the new tradition's growing popularity, the hospital has had to limit entry to patients and immediate family.

Inside the Press Box, chairs are aligned along the window facing the stadium. Black and gold pom poms rest neatly on the windowsill, a new addition for the second home game of the year.

There are cornhole boards and a giant set of Jenga blocks in the two corners of the room. Small foosball and air hockey tables sit idle, but not for long. There are two circular coloring tables, each equipped with crayons, markers and a stack of football-themed coloring sheets. The popcorn machine is already at work, pushing its sounds and smells to a mostly empty room.

One of the coloring tables prior to the game Image via BR

Down below, the stands at Kinnick begin to fill slowly. A smattering of players and coaches are on the field for warm-ups. As the game inches closer, families begin to gather outside the room—peeking out the windows below.

Inside the Press Box, the name etched outside the room's main entry, four flat screens, positioned together across from the windows, are powered on and ready for the game.

Hospital employees do their last-minute preparations, ensuring that everything is in perfect order.

Minutes before families pour into the room to take their seats, 4-year-old Sam Davidson throws a football covered in his own signatures down the 12th-floor hallway. Courtney, Sam's mother, follows his every step. It's been difficult for Sam to manufacture energy over the previous months, but not these past few days.

"His attitude and spirit were different all week long," Courtney says as Sam holds onto her legs.

On March 14 this year, after complaining of headaches on and off for a month, Courtney and her husband, Joel, brought Sam to the doctor to be examined. The next day, he underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed. On March 20, following six days of heavy sedation, Sam was woken up by hospital staff. It was his fourth birthday.

Today, he wears a black Iowa T-shirt and sports a beautiful bald head. A feeding tube that goes through his nose and into his stomach dangles as he walks. A scar that starts near the bottom of his neck and works its way upward is plainly visible.

Back in March, Sam was one of the hospital's first patients. The family has since spent the majority of its days here as Sam underwent both radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Sam and Courtney Davidson in the Press Box Image via BR

Home for the Davidsons is Boone, Iowa, a short drive from Iowa State, the Hawkeyes' primary rival.

"We all grew up Cyclone fans," Courtney says with a smile. "Now, what my mom keeps saying is that the Cyclones will always be in our heart, but the Hawkeyes are getting in his head."

Mady, Sam's older sister, wears a blue shirt with a picture of her brother dressed as a superhero on the front. The hashtag #SUPERSAM is written on the back.

Kenzie, Sam's cousin, is wearing Iowa State colors—cardinal red and gold—that is unmistakable amid all the black and gold. Instead of reading "BEAT IOWA," however, the lettering on the front reads "BEAT CANCER."

An Iowa cheerleader lifts a child in the Press Box Image via BR

It has been 20 minutes since the Press Box opened, and the room is nearly full. The pom poms that were neatly placed by the window hours earlier are now in the hands of young children. All the chairs and vantage points along the windows are occupied.

Not long after, two Iowa cheerleaders enter the room. They share stories with the children at the coloring tables that are now full. Upon request, they hold up little girls shaking pom poms as their parents take photos.

The families in attendance all have their own stories of how they arrived here—remarkable, heartbreaking and triumphant journeys that are still being written unfolding.

There is Amy Condon, whose son, George, was born as a collodion baby 35 days earlier, meaning his skin was covered with a thick membrane. Once the membrane has shed (most of it has), George will have some form of ichthyosis—a rare condition that leads to extra dry skin and comes with other potential complications down the line.

Amy Condon holds her son Benjamin Image via BR

Today, as George rests, Amy is watching her 2-year-old son Benjamin attempt to eat his weight in popcorn—sticking his entire arm in the bag as he pinballs from wall to wall. Her husband, J.J., a longtime Iowa fan, attempts to teach his son how to sing various Iowa chants in the rare moments he isn't in motion.

"He can't say Hawkeyes yet," Amy says. "But he can say Iowa."

There is 19-year-old Troy Hepker, one of the oldest patients here, and his father, Steve. Back in April, Troy was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia—an aggressive type of cancer that impacts the blood and bones.

The prognosis is positive, according to his father, thanks in part to his treatment here. But it will take years to fully see it through.

Steve and Troy Hepker shortly before kickoff Image via BR

"They're basically shooting poison into his system, killing off everything," Steve says of his son's treatment. "And then they give him an antidote to fix whatever is impacted by it. It's a war, and he's won every single battle thus far."

Of all the people in the room, Troy and his father are perhaps the most engaged in what is happening on the field. Troy sits in a wheelchair at the window with an IV by his side, sporting a gold Iowa hat. Steve stands behind his son, wearing a black Iowa pullover, his hands resting on Troy's shoulders.

"Usually I'd be down there at a tailgate," Steve says not long before the game begins.

There is Mason Christensen, a 15-year-old only two days removed from back surgery, sitting at a slight recline in his wheelchair.

Mason Christensen sits at the window Image via BR

Last fall, Mason fractured his L5-S1 vertebrae during a football game. Playing right guard, his body was awkwardly bent backward. Unaware of the severity of the injury at the time, Mason wrestled before receiving a proper diagnosis.  

"They stuck metal rods in my back," Mason says of the procedure that took roughly four hours.

Prior to the game, Mason sits at the window, his wheelchair sideways so he can be as close to the field as possible. This is the first college football game Mason has ever seen live.

Shortly before the national anthem begins, Mason's father, Shelby, delicately eases his son out of his chair and upward so he can stand.

As the final seconds of an uneventful first quarter drain off the scoreboard, a sudden anxiousness sweeps through the room. The time is nearing, and the windows are now completely occupied. Some are experiencing this wave for the second time in three weeks. For many, it will be their first.

The stands at Kinnick are full of gold—Iowa colors—but also the color for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which is September. The gesture is not lost on Courtney Davidson, who holds Sam up so he can see the field.

"It's pretty special," she says. "Being in the hospital and looking out, a lot of times you don't feel like people quite know the realm of what's going on in here or the day-to-day struggles. Being able to do something normal and fun has made Sam a completely different person."

When the clock finally hits zero, the Press Box grows quiet. The 65,668 people inside Kinnick, knowing what happens next, mute to an audible hum.

As the announcement is made within the stadium, fans slowly begin to stand. A cheer begins to erupt, slowly at first, before the crowd is asked to wave to the 12th floor of the Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital.

The moment is here, and it is everything you could possibly imagine: an entire stadium acting as one, supporting families they cannot see with real emotion and support.

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Although their faces are impossible to make out, you manage to focus on specific sectors of the stadiums. The arms moving all at once create a kind of rhythmic pattern that makes it seem as if the stands are somehow in motion, rocking back and forth.

Behind the glass, a few cheers are let loose. Most of the parents and children stand in silence, processing the gravity of this moment and everything that had led up to it. Some wave back. Some take video with their cellphones. Others merely stand with their loved ones, arms around one another.

For the first time all afternoon, the hospital employees are motionless. Having put so much into this day, they look down at the field to gauge the response. Then, they divert their eyes to see the joy that comes from inside the room.

"During the wave, you're not even thinking about you," Amy Condon says, holding Benjamin. "You're thinking about all of those kids sitting next to you and their families and their friends and everyone who is cheering for them."

Image via the University of Iowa

As the waves taper off and the second quarter begins, the windows start to clear. Some families slowly begin their departure, wheeling their children back to their hospital rooms, where the reality of the fight will resume.

The existence of this magnificent new ritual is a reminder of why it has to exist to begin with—that there are things no child or parent should ever have to endure inside these walls.

It's also a reminder of the power of the human spirit—a moment when a city of strangers can stand together as one, supporting faces they cannot see and struggles most cannot understand. But the support is real and unwavering, and those on the other side appreciate every single wave lost in the sea of gold.

As the second quarter begins, the noise returns to the room. The games that sat idle for a few minutes are once again being played, the coloring books back in action. The popcorn machine begins its staccato song.

Down below, Iowa leisurely pulls away from North Texas, setting up perhaps the most meaningful home game of its season against Penn State next Saturday—a rare night game at Kinnick.

Regardless of score, one thing is certain. At the end of the first quarter, the fans will lift themselves from their seats and stare up into the twilight. They will lock eyes with the top floor, giving the children and their loved ones an ovation far more significant than the game itself.

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.


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