For kids with disabilities, and especially those with autism, acceptance and inclusion can often be hard to come by. The University of Virginia (UVA) Football Team has an answer—a program that it calls “Thursday’s Heroes” that gives kids with disabilities and special needs a moment to shine.
This fall, three VIA students are being celebrated as Thursday’s Heroes with a special program that brings them to a team practice for a morning of fun and celebration. The “heroes” and their families arrive early at the practice facility for a complimentary breakfast before the fun begins.
The children and their guests are ushered through a guided tour of the football operations building and the indoor practice facility. The families conclude the day by taking part in a special, post-practice ceremony.
Harmon, age 10, was the first of three VIA students to be honored this season, two days prior to the Cavaliers’ September 21<sup>st</sup> home game with Old Dominion.
“We toured the athletics department and got to see their trophies and photos of previous players that were drafted to the NFL, which Harmon thought was really cool,” said Harmon’s mom, Tina. “After practice, the players showered Harmon with gifts like shoes, jerseys, a new bike, a gift certificate to Jump, and Golden State Warriors tickets. They are such an amazing group of young men.”
The team invited a few additional guests to make Harmon feel extra special.
“He met some of their gymnastics team, which he loved, as he takes gymnastics himself,” his mom said.
The gymnastics team performed a series of back flips and some hand walking, before Harmon got out there and showcased some of his own favorite moves in front of his new friends.
Another VIA student, Wesley, was honored during the Thursday’s Heroes prior to UVA’s trip to Miami. Wesley received the same “hero’s welcome” as Harmon, as well as a collection of gifts, UVA memorabilia, and concert tickets. And the team had one last surprise for Wesley and his family. Two players dressed up as characters from <em>The Incredibles</em>, and presented him with action figures from the film.
For Wesley, who has a chromosomal defect that causes physical and health challenges as well as his autism, it was a rare chance to meet, greet, and be celebrated. According to his mother, Jocelynn: “when we go out, 90% of the time people stare, or they don’t know how to react to him. It’s so great for him to be somewhere where he’s celebrated, and people are happy to see him.”
According to VIA President Dr. Ethan Long, Thursday’s Heroes is an example of the power of inclusion.
“At VIA, one of the ways we work to build acceptance for people with autism is to partner with local individuals and groups who have a compassionate commitment to helping people,” said Long. “We are so grateful to UVA Football and all our partners for working to help deepen our families’ connection to community.”
Thursday’s Heroes is a favorite among followers of UVA football, but the program actually debuted at Brigham Young University, where current UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall was the head coach from 2004-2015
Early in Mendenhall’s tenure in Provo, a father of child, who had undergone brain surgery, approached BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, and asked if his son could watch football practice. Holmoe brought the entire family to the practice facility one day, hoping that they could catch a quick glimpse of the Brigham Young players working out.
Not only did he get a chance to watch the Cougars practice before game day, Mendenhall did all that he could to make the boy and his family feel welcome. The players responded enthusiastically, and the celebration became a fixture from then on.
Due to its success and popularity at BYU, Mendenhall brought Thursday’s Heroes to Charlottesville beginning in 2016. The UVA players quickly took a liking to the weekly occurrence. From dance routines, to physical challenges to dressing up as super heroes themselves, Virginia football players make it their mission every week to make these kids feel great about themselves.
“The Thursday Heroes program is a way to lose our self in the service of others,” Bronco said. “We’ve been given and blessed with so many wonderful opportunities and resources, and we just want to make sure that we can do our best uplift and encourage and help anyone that might be struggling from the position that we have.”
That good feeling travels both ways.
After the treatment that he received from the players, coaches, and support staff members, it is safe to say that UVA has gained a new fan in Harmon.
“He did not have a favorite college team, but now he does– it’s Hoos all the way,” Tina said. “I cannot express enough how welcoming the whole school was and what a great day it was for him. Those young men and women were exceptional.”