On Saturday afternoon the free-weight equipment inside Penn State’s Lasch Football Building collectively resembled a giant jungle gym rather than muscle-chiseling instruments complimentary of a football factory.
With Penn State football players watching over them with careful eyes, the little legs of Make-A-Wish kids churned, their tiny arms pumped and their joyous squeals echoed off the weight room walls.
This was an afternoon of reprieve for them — sick with multiple serious ailments — and a chance for the Penn State football team to give back.
“This is the highlight of my offseason right now,” Penn State running back Zack Zwinak said.
A youngster his hand at a few pullups with Penn State safety Adrian Amos as his spotter. Usually Amos is spotting his teammates. On Saturday, he was more than a workout partner or a Penn State football player. Amos, entering his junior season for the Nittany Lions, said he felt like a role model and enjoyed the opportunity to provide an avenue of relief for the Make A Wish families and their children stricken by tragedy and hardship.
“It’s not mandatory but in a way it should be mandatory because when you’re blessed, you’re supposed to spread that to others,” Amos said.
One glance inside the team’s complex would suggest Penn State football players’ attendance for the annual event was required. While it wasn’t, nearly every player on the team’s current roster was accounted for. Penn State confirmed 70 players participated in the event.
Penn State players convened in the team’s meeting room early in the afternoon and were randomly divided up. Each group was assigned a family and the annual event — a part of Penn State’s THON weekend — commenced. Brad Bars, a junior defensive end on the squad, took part in his third THON Make A Wish event since he arrived in Happy Valley. Bars was encouraged at the turnout from his teammates.
“Before it was like 15 guys. But now it’s like everyone’s trying to sign up to get on the list,” Bars said. “I think it just shows the character of the guys that are on the team still. Everyone that stayed, that takes a lot of character to stay. So everyone that’s here wants to make an impact. We want to help these kids as much as we can and we want to be great in school and in football.”
Once the event started, Penn State players, wearing their white jerseys, took on the roles of tour guides. Their visitors were treated to a full walk-through of the facility with stops in the weight room and team locker room. Ice cream was served and photographs were snapped.
Ryan Keiser and his group bounced yoga balls around the weight room with a youngster. Inside the team’s locker room, kids got to try on some of the Nittany Lions’ gear. Soon enough, would-be blitzers were running around the spacious locker room as gigantic helmets and shoulder pads wobbled on their heads.
The fact that their visitors have dealt with grievous illnesses for much of their young lives was not apparent to Penn State players.
“The thing is, you can’t even really tell,” Penn State tight end Kyle Carter said. “These kids are running around the weight room, running around everywhere full of excitement. You just know what they have to go through sometimes outside of this. It’s just nice for them to have a whole different experience here today.”
And Carter, who is entering his sophomore season, is familiar with the emotions the families he spent time with are experiencing. Carter’s father suddenly passed away during Carter’s senior year of high school after a brief battle with cancer.
“I kind of have more of a feel for the parents and the kids with cancer because I dealt with it,” Carter said. “That’s not the only reason I came here but I feel like I definitely should be here and help these families and these kids out.”
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson was surprised when some of the kids in his group offered empathy for what Penn State players went through last summer.
Then, NCAA sanctions were leveled against the team in a continuation of the darkest period in program history following the Sandusky Scandal fallout.
“It still definitely doesn’t compare to what these kids are going through and what they have been through in their lifetimes,” Robinson said.
Nearly three hours after Penn State coach Bill O’Brien welcomed the families to the Lasch Building, players saw them off. Amos said he felt honored to be able to spend his weekend with the Make-A-Wish families.
It was the least he could do he said.
“I can’t imagine how much they go through,” Amos said. “I’m just blessed to have my health and to help make them smile.”