This story is part of a twice-a-month series called Community Champions, which will feature Illinois FCS programs making a difference in their communities. Have a story idea? Leave a comment below.
For many people, Saturday may just be another fall weekend day to run errands or clean out the garage or relax at home. For Nicolas Gonzales, the day ranks right up with Halloween or Christmas or maybe even his birthday.
On Saturday, 16-year-old Nicolas and his mother Michelle will make the journey from their home in Oswego to Hancock Stadium, where an annual Redbird red carpet awaits when ISU hosts rival Western Illinois.
"He looks forward to going to ISU every year!" Michelle told Prairie State Pigskin in an e-mail. "He loves football and being at a game where he meets all the players, watches them during pregame warm ups, gets to walk out in the field for the coin toss, and even get to go to the locker room after the game for the song is exciting for him."
No, Nicolas isn't being recruited by the Illinois State football staff. In so many ways, he's bigger than that.
"Five years ago, we saw that Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy was partnering children who have Duchenne with local area universities for 'Coach to Cure MD' to raise awareness and funds for research," Michelle explained, "Nicolas and I immediately signed up and we were paired with ISU."
And what a partnership it has been.
"It makes everybody's day when Nicolas visits," said Mike Williams, ISU Assistant Athletics Director/Communications.
Not to mention that Illinois State has never lost in the four years' worth of games that Nicolas has attended.
"He's been our good luck charm, for sure," Williams said.
Game day gala
Illinois State staff have provided Nicolas with memories galore.
"I've got so many great pictures," Michelle said.
Nicolas has met the staff, headed by Williams and the Redbird coaches. He's interacted with the players during pregame and sung the ISU fight song in the postgame. Nicolas has enjoyed sharing a Hancock Stadium suite with athletic director Larry Lyons.
"He's treated as a member of the team and says if he didn't have DMD, he would play football," Michelle said. "He can't wait to tailgate this year. something we haven't been able to do yet at ISU. He's looking forward to meeting fans and alumni and tasting some food. Redbird fans are always so generous and helpful and interactive with him."
Nicolas's first visit also coincided with fellow Oswego resident Bryce Holm's freshman year with the Redbirds.
"We watched Bryce grow from a scrawny freshman to a hulking senior," Michelle noted, "and the same with many of the other players. Bryce sent Nicolas a care package and last year, his senior year, gave Nicolas his playbook from that game. That was extremely special. We also had the honor of meeting Bryce's grandparents at the game last year. He is just one of a very many special men that makes up the Redbird football team."
Stanley Cup surprise
On Nicolas's third trip to Bloomington-Normal, a special surprise awaited. Nicolas's wardrobe that day included a Redbird cap and a Blackhawks hoodie.
Unbeknownst to him, ISU graduate and Chicago Blackhawks executive Jay Blunk was bringing the Stanley Cup to Hancock Stadium.
"Nicolas is a big Chicago Blackhawks fan. His father, who passed away in 2013, loved to watch the Hawks, and they won the championship that year (2013) and in 2015," Michelle shared. "Well, in 2015 we were trying to chase down where the Stanley Cup was so he could take pictures with it. We were giving up. When we arrived at Hancock Stadium, it was a bit chilly out. Nicolas was wearing his ISU football t-shirt under his Blackhawks hoodie."
Williams smiled at Nicolas and told him he'd made a "great choice" with his clothing.
"Nicolas was beside himself. We thought he'd be able to see it and take a picture with it. But it was way better. Jay had Nicolas hold it, kiss it and he let Nicolas wear his 2013 championship ring! (2015 ring wasn't finished yet)," Michelle said. "A dream on the bucket list that came true.
"After that Mike put Jay Blunk in touch with us and he sent us to a Blackhawks game and to the locker room to meet Andrew Shaw. Of course, every year each game is special. From the very first with the excitement of attending his very first college football game. To last year in saying goodbye to the seniors that he watched grow up in football. But the most precious unforgettable memory is kissing and holding that Cup while wearing a championship ring!"
Collecting memories, memorabilia and far more
Through the years Nicolas has collected memorabilia from the games, including signed posters and footballs, bobble heads, and even a mini stuffed Reggie Redbird.
"He wears his red and white proudly and every year looks forward to seeing Mike Williams, Coach Spack and all the coaching staff, and all the players, new and veteran. And it's always great to meet Redbird alumni," Michelle said.
"Of course none of this would be possible if it wasn't for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy," Michelle said. "[We appreciate] their very special way of teaming up children with college football in order to raise awareness of awesome kids like Nicolas with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and also raise money for research since there isn't any cure or treatment for this disease."
The Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy website states, "Every year 20,000 boys are born worldwide who will be given the diagnosis of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. As boys with Duchenne grow, they will lose the ability to walk, to move their arms, and even take a breath. To date there is no therapy or cure. Duchenne is 100% fatal."
How you can help
For more information or to make a donation to Coach To Cure MD, a partnership program of the American Football Coaches Association, and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, please click on the following links.
About Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy
About Coach to Cure