Oct. 23, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Autumn's arrival on the University of Notre Dame campus painted the leafy landscape a spectrum of oranges, reds and yellows, a perfect frame for a football Saturday.
Two hours before kickoff, Autry Keener, an 18-year-old from Churubusco, Ind., joined the Fighting Irish football team as it stepped into the brilliant sunshine from the Guglielmino Center for the pre-game walk to Notre Dame Stadium for the Oct. 11 college football game against North Carolina.
Winding through the historic campus under a majestic blue sky, Keener and the Irish went past a gauntlet of spirited Irish fans before reaching the Knute Rockne Gate at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium.
For Keener, the pre-game journey was one of many uniquely Irish moments on his Make-A-Wish weekend at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame opened its inner doors and its heart to Keener and his family as they forged the memories of a lifetime.
"This is a true Autry Keener make a wish," said Chad Keener, Autry's father. "This is what he wanted. We couldn't do a fraction of the stuff they're letting us do. That's where Make-A-Wish comes in and let's us go behind the scenes. This has been really special. Everyone has been so open. They're like, `Come on in.' We went to Coach (Brian) Kelly's office. He talked to Autry for a while. Autry was kind of star-struck.
"Notre Dame has done a lot more than we thought they would do. I was always a fan, but I'm a super fan now. It's incredible ... the atmosphere ... it's genuine. The kindness that Notre Dame has shown is real. It's like nothing else we've experienced."
On Thursday, Autry and his family received a tour of the Gug from Irish director of player development Duke Preston. They also spent considerable time with Kelly.
Friday's itinerary included the pep rally and a chance to meet the Irish men's soccer team. Autry, who plays power soccer (In 2013 he led his team with 23 goals and 26 points in 25 games. He played on the 2009 national championship team.), went onto the field with the Irish and was there to cheer on the thrilling overtime victory against top 10-ranked Louisville in a key Atlantic Coast Conference showdown.
Escorted by Jennifer Laiber from the Notre Dame administrative staff, Saturday featured the walk to the stadium and Notre Dame's 50-43 victory in football against North Carolina.
Autry's primary request on his Make-A-Wish weekend was to help Ryan Grooms, the Irish football head equipment manager, set up the locker room for Saturday's game.
Grooms found that Keener's favorite players are Jaylon Smith and Everett Golson, so he had Keener clean the visors on their helmets. Keener beamed a smile as bright as the golden helmets when Grooms handed him the Irish headgear for Smith.
After putting jerseys on shoulder pads and setting out the other football equipment, Grooms and the Irish student managers chowed down on pizza and shared their experiences as equipment managers with Keener.
"It was fun to be in the locker room," Autry said. "I'll always remember that."
Grooms said that he was touched that Keener's request was to spend time with the Irish equipment crew.
"I found out about it the previous Tuesday, that his Make-A-Wish was essentially to be me, to be the equipment manager for football, and it was pretty cool," Grooms said. "It makes you take a step back and realize what you get to do on a daily basis, and how fortunate, how lucky I am with what I get to do. Every day, people in our position, in our sports world, take it for granted, because it's what we do. It's work. It's our career. But at the same time, stuff like this really makes you realize how special it is, and how special it is at Notre Dame.
"I've got two healthy boys, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. I'm very fortunate. I don't know what Autry is going through, but I'm able to walk to and from the stadium, and that puts it all in perspective."
Chad Keener said the confidence the Notre Dame football players displayed is something that made a significant impression on Autry.
"This gives Autry more confidence," Chad Keener said. "It will help him come out of his shell a little bit more. He's on Cloud Nine. It's cool that he'll be able to say, `I was a part of the team for a weekend.'
Chad Keener also was grateful that the Irish players treated Autry like one of the guys.
"We're around a lot of people with disabilities, and we see how they're treated by some people," Keener said. "It meant so much that Notre Dame treated Autry like he doesn't have a disability. The players treated him like he was one of the guys. They didn't see the wheelchair at all. They came up to him, they were shaking hands with him, they weren't delicate with him and they weren't like they didn't know how to act around him. He was just another 18-year-old kid to them."
"We're from Churubusco, and Jaylon Smith went to Bishop Luers," Chad Keener said. "'Busco is a pretty good little school. We could win the conference, but we'd meet up with Luers in the sectional, and who played for Luers? Jaylon Smith. We were like, `Is he still there?' Everybody in the `Busco community knows Jaylon Smith.
"We got to meet Jaylon Smith this weekend, and he was great. Autry got an autograph. It was also special to meet Drue Tranquill, who played at Carroll in the Fort Wayne area. He's from Huntertown, about 15 minutes from 'Busco. He was great about coming up to Autry and talking to him."
For Tranquill, seeing Autry's smile made it a weekend that touched his soul.
"It was a weekend where you could see pure happiness on his face, despite all the stuff he has going on in his life," Tranquill said. "It's like he forgot about his situation. The fact we were able to do that, it's real gratifying. Whenever you can just go over and say a few words and see the big smile on his face, that's what matters in life.
"The (wheelchair) doesn't define who he is. He's him for who he is on the inside. When you're able to get to know somebody like that, even if it's just for a weekend, it's touching. It's touching to know that despite his circumstances and everything that's going on in his life, he's able to put a smile on his face, and that touches you."
As Autry made the Irish spirits soar, likewise, the Irish weekend made Autry's spirits soar.
"This weekend meant a lot to me," Autry said. "It was really cool. I liked being on the field, being in the equipment room, and the walk. It was all great."
Grooms said the Make-A-Wish weekend meant as much to the Irish as it meant to Autry and his family.
"There's really no place like Notre Dame," Grooms said. "I've worked for several universities, and the way this university opens its heart, to share what we have, it's special."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent