Penn State football: Nittany Lions making wishes come true for families

tjohnson@centredaily.comFebruary 22, 2014 

— Jesse Della Valle and most of his teammates on the Penn State football team made a few new buddies on Saturday afternoon.

They got a chance to catch up with a few old ones, too.

About 55 Penn State players welcomed an estimated 40 Make-a-Wish families to the Lasch Building for the team’s annual event — part of the THON weekend festivities.

“I’ve been doing this for four years now so I’m kind of recognizing faces that I see almost every year coming in here,” Della Valle said. “It’s something that’s really special. You build relationships with a lot of the kids, a lot of the families and it’s just something that we love to do.”

Before engaging in the annual squirt gun battle, kids and their family members were treated to a tour of Penn State’s facilities.

They started in the weight room where Director of Performance Enhancement Dwight Galt gave a guided tour and a quick chat. In between, players watched with careful eyes as kids explored every piece of equipment. Defensive tackle Brian Gaia took turns doing squats with a kid on his shoulders while a few other members of Penn State’s offensive line also transported kids on their shoulders.

It was on to the team’s locker room after that where players’ locker stalls were stocked with gear. In the center of the room, team equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell gave a brief chat and answered questions about how he outfits each Nittany Lion player from head to toe.

Kids took turns donning helmets from every era of Penn State football, including an old leather lid that dated back to the 30s. A few of them tried on massive cleats and also donned monstrous shoulder pads.

Meanwhile, players were decked out in only their white football jerseys.

“A lot of people they see us in shoulder pads in helmets and they don’t get to see a lot of us outside of on the field and in person,” Offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. “It’s more personable to get up and have fun with them, laugh and joke around and play with the kids. It’s giving back to the community.”

Players continued the tour by taking families into the training room. Once inside a handful of kids took turns sitting on training tables. The tour continued through the hallway where Penn State’s All-Americans all have their pictures framed on the wall and into the massive squad room where ice cream was served.

The tour concluded with a group picture.

“I think the kids, what they like the most other than the ice cream, is probably the weight room,” Linebacker Nyeem Wartman said. “There are a lot of gadgets in there they can play around with, little weights they can pick up, little medicine balls they can roll around. Some of them try to get on the treadmills and the stretch machines, they get on those.”

Most of the players also took part in the squirt gun battle where Smith may have been looking for a bit of revenge.

“I remember one guy walked up to me and was like, ‘I’m the guy that squirted you with the water gun,’” Smith said. “I was like, ‘I definitely remember you right now.’”

Players took time to pose for individual pictures, too. All of them signed autographs and every kid left the Lasch Building with either a signed jersey or football.

Receiver Geno Lewis smiled when asked if he remembered seeing any of the same kids from last year.

“It’s always a good time seeing them and I’m just glad they’re doing well,” Lewis said. “I still understand what they’re going through. I love to help people. I love helping kids and it’s just a good feeling doing a good deed and just keeping a good reputation for Penn State.”

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