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VOL. 43 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 13, 2019

UT football more than a game to children with cancer

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Nonprofit Special Spectators, helping kids with cancer, gave Amy Kate a day of fun at Neyland Stadium when the Vols played BYU. Athletics Director Phil Fulmer gives her a lift.

-- Photograph Provided

Stephanie Bible had just picked up her first set of hearing aids at a location near the University of Tennessee campus. She was only 4, suffered from partial hearing loss and had already gone through cancer treatment.

Her mother, Vickie Bible, decided to stop by Neyland Stadium and show Stephanie the outside of the venue. They happened to find an unlocked gate and stepped inside.

“Her eyes got as big as diamonds when she looked down at that field. She was so amazed by it,” Vickie Bible recalls. “She said, ‘Mom, do you ever think I can get to go down there?’ I told her, ‘maybe one day you may actually get to go down there and touch the field.’”

Nearly eight years and two more cancer battles later, Stephanie’s wish finally came true.

Stephanie, 12, was part of a large group from East Tennessee Children’s Hospital that attended the Tennessee football game against BYU last Saturday.

The trip was organized by Special Spectators, a nonprofit that provides VIP all-access game day experiences for seriously ill children. Founded in 2002, Special Spectators has hosted more than 10,000 patients and their families at nearly 450 games across the country.

The relationship between the organization and Tennessee Athletics dates back 12 years. It’s grown from only a handful of kids receiving tickets only to a game to a group of nearly 50 receiving numerous exclusive perks.

“It is pretty amazing how just taking a kid to a game completely changes who they are in so many ways,” explains Blake Rockwell, executive director of Special Spectators. “We have had doctors, nurses and hospital administrators say to us a kiddo has been receiving their cancer treatment for three to four years and came back from that game a completely different child. “They tell us some kids attack their therapy and illness with a whole new vigor.”

The Tennessee children and their families were given first-class treatment for last weekend’s game. They tailgated in Vol Village with a spread catered by Calhoun’s. They took part in the Vol Walk before the game, and were able to walk down the tunnel behind the Tennessee players and watch them warm-up on the field.

Special Spectators, a nonprofit helping kids with cancer, gave young Stephanie Bible a fun-filled day away from treatment and the hospital at UT’s game against BYU. The children, including Stephanie, are patients at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. 

-- Photograph Provided

Before finding their seats in the stands at kickoff, they met the Tennessee cheerleaders and Smokey the mascot on the sidelines.

“It was so much fun. I was excited because I had never been to a game before,” Stephanie Bible said afterwards. “I really liked being on the field and the tailgating. Those were my favorite parts.”

Trey Sudderth, 8, rushed home from his own football game earlier in the day to get ready to attend the Tennessee game.

As soon as Sudderth got to the tailgate, he began throwing a football around with the other children.

“I was really excited to get to do this,” Trey said. “It was really fun to meet the players, and being out on the field was exciting.”

Sudderth’s parents knew how much he was looking forward to the experience.

“Every day he has been saying, ‘Mom, how many days now?’ And the next day, it’s ‘how many days now?’” his mother Robbie Sudderth adds. “Finally yesterday, he was like, ‘it’s tomorrow, it’s tomorrow.’”

Casey Pruitt, the wife of Tennessee head coach Jeremey Pruitt, asked to be a special escort for the children once she found out they attended a football game every year.

Pruitt provides the kids with a signed football by her husband and Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer and a goodie bag filled with UT items.

“We just make a special effort to make this game very memorable for them in any way possible,” Casey Pruitt explains. “It is the first time most of them have ever been to a game here. Any time you can put a big smile on their faces, it is worth it.”

Pruitt and the other wives of the UT football staff make regular visits to ETCH throughout the year to spend time with the kids. During the offseason, she will often bring players or her husband to meet with a few patients.

“If they have been stuck in the hospital for a really long time, it is something that makes their world for the head football coach at Tennessee to walk through their hospital room door and play with them or talk with them,” Pruitt says.

Children from East Tennessee’s Children’s Hospital were celebrated at UT’s football game against BYU. Special Spectators, a nonprofit, made the day possible along with UT Athletics.

-- Photograph Provided

“I see their parents light up just as much as the kids. It’s nice to be able to provide the parents with an experience like that since I am sure they don’t have a lot of times they are smiling when their kids are sick at Children’s.”

ETCH has a strong bond with many of the athletic teams at Tennessee. The Vols are frequent visitors at the hospital, and many athletes stay in touch after they graduate.

“The media tends to focus on the negative headlines, but there are so many good things these athletes do,” notes Cheryl Allmon, director of Volunteer Services and Programs at ETCH. “I have been able to call UT and ask if they could send a player over to meet with the kids, and they show up by the afternoon. We definitely value that relationship.”

Director Rockwell started Special Spectators to honor his older brother, who was born with a congenital heart defect and died during his second open heart surgery. Rockwell’s brother loved sports, but he wasn’t allowed to participate because of his condition.

Once he got older and began volunteering at Chicago Children’s Hospital, where his brother was treated, Rockwell got the idea for Special Spectators.

“A lot of these kids were more passionate about sports than healthy kids. But what was even more surprising is that very few of them had been to any type of game,” Rockwell points out.

“I thought that was crazy and that we could not only take these kids to games, but make them a part of the game and really give them a sense of what it’s like to be on a team and to hear the roar from the crowd.”

Allmon has helped organize the event at Neyland Stadium for the last few years. She has seen kids come straight from their chemotherapy treatments to get to the game.

“It is truly a magical day for them,” Allmon adds. “The memories the families create during this day are priceless. They are so grateful to get this experience together.”

As she watched her daughter climb out of her wheelchair and walk around with the UT cheerleaders on the sideline, Vickie Bible couldn’t help but reflect on all Stephanie has endured.

Stephanie was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age 3 and then diagnosed with thyroid cancer two years ago. After having a 5 ½-hour surgery for the thyroid cancer, the neuroblastoma returned in January.

Stephanie just completed six rounds of chemotherapy, and her radiation treatment is scheduled to begin soon.

“Getting to do everything she’s done at this game are things she should have been doing as a kid. But instead, she’s been having to stay in the house and throwing up and not feeling good,” Vickie says. “This is her chance to actually be a kid and have fun and enjoy life and experience something that kids do.”

Stephanie was grateful to have a happy event to focus on after all the bad days she’s faced recently. She’s tried to stay positive since being diagnosed with cancer for the third time.

“I was kind of scared and kind of aggravated. I don’t know why that happened to me,” Stephanie explains. “But I am done with chemo and I am going to get radiation. I am kind of nervous about radiation, but I just think, ‘Stephanie, get this radiation done and then you won’t have to do this whole thing anymore.’”

After a full day and night at Neyland Stadium, Stephanie fell asleep on the car ride home from the game. The exhaustion was a welcome sight for her family because it came from a joyful activity and not cancer treatment.

“Just to see her get back to her old self and have a smile on her face means the world to me as a mother,” Vickie Bible says.

“This is a day we are going to cherish forever.”

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