As you can imagine, we had a weekend we'll NEVER forget. As you know, Eli was invited by Gene and Jonna Chizik to come to the Kansas game this weekend, but it was much more than that. They invited Eli to be an honorary Cyclone Football Player. We went to practice on Friday night and Eli was immediately able to let his guard down because the Chizik kids came and he was able to play with them. He especially loved playing with their son because he was gracious enough to let Eli win at everything they played. :-) Before practice really got started, the team saw Eli had brought a replica helmet to be signed (an amazing gift from our friends John and Kris), so they signed it with silver sharpies. The guys were all smiles and were telling Eli that they had been looking forward to meeting him. Little did we know (but found out later) that they had posted a page of Eli's website for the players to see. They then made a book of all of the players pictures and had all of the players write Eli a note the week before the big Kansas game. The players were probably surprised to see Eli with his red mohawk with gold sparkles because the picture on the website that was printed out shows Eli as a chubby bald kid. Anyway, we hung out and watched the players walk through some things and the boys even played some football in the indoor practice facility.
At the end of practice, they called Eli over to their team huddle. Jason Scales (Running Back) presented Eli with a football autographed by the entire team! Then Coach Chizik told Eli that they were going to huddle up and break with a special word, and the word that night was going to be "Eli". So the next thing I know, the entire team swarms around Eli, scoops him up, and they shout, "Eli on three. One, two, three, ELI!" I got that part on video and you can see it below. It was amazing. Even more amazing was that immediately following the break, Coach Chizik told the team that if anyone wanted to stay, they were going to say a prayer for Eli. Nobody moved. With the entire team down on one knee, the team chaplain (Kevin) lifted Eli up in prayer. I don't think Lacey or I could have stopped smiling if you asked us to. At the end of the prayer, Kevin announced to the players that Eli had bracelets for anyone that wanted one. I ran to get a bag of the bracelets and when I turned around, there were dozens of ISU football players heading towards me with outstretched hands. I was dishing out bracelets as fast as I could and countering every "thank you" with a "No, thank YOU." There were a handful of bracelets left and R.J. Sumrall (Wide Receiver) asked if he could take them and get them to some players that he knew missed out. A few of the guys stayed back and chatted with us for a bit. Several of them already had on black bracelets they had received from FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), so it was cool seeing Eli's bracelet go on right next to those. Cameron Bell (Linebacker) compared scars with Eli, but quickly realized his little stomach scar was nothing compared to Eli's collection. Honestly, that experience would have been amazing in and of itself and Lacey and I left completely in awe of how great everyone was. We couldn't believe that there was more fun to be had, but of course that was only practice and the game was still to come.
Jonna had given us a parking pass for Saturday, so we pulled into Jack Trice Stadium at 9am and parked our dirty Ford Focus in the spot marked "Head Football Coach". :-) We waited for the guys to pull up in their buses with Jonna and of course Eli got to pick on his new buddies some more. We had never seen the "Spirit Walk" before, which is when the players walk from their buses to the Jacobson Building through a tunnel of people that are cheering and high fiving them. Euseph Messiah (Wide Receiver) said, "Come with me, Eli" and we followed him from the buses right into the locker room! Of course, Lacey wasn't allowed in, so she stayed outside with Isaiah. Jason Scales saw Eli and said, "Hey man, come this way." He took us over to a locker that said "Eli Horn" at the top, exactly like every other player's locker! It even had a small helmet, a Nike game football, and a small number 4 jersey that said Horn on the back. Eli was grinning ear to ear. We hung out in the locker room the entire time before the game and Eli played catch with Phillip Bates (one of the QBs for the Cyclones). A lot of the players that hadn't picked up Eli bracelets the night before came up to us asking for them in the locker room. #8 Chris Brown (Defensive Back) came over and said, "Hey Eli, check this out." The blackout under his eyes had words written on them in silver. Under his right eye it said "Eli" and under his left eye it said "Horn". Eli's locker was next to Kyle Slifka (Defensive Line) and he was awesome. My favorite quote from Kyle was when two guys walked into the locker room with video cameras. "Seriously, do they need to bring those things in here while we're changing?" :-)
About 45 minutes before kickoff, we all left the locker room and went down to the field where we got to meet back up with Lacey and Isaiah. We watched them run some drills on the field and that's when I noticed that most of the players had actually put Eli's bracelet on over their wrist wraps and were wearing them out on the field! Sure enough, if you watched the game on TV at all, you could see Eli bracelets all over the field. It was incredible. As we watched the drills, Cy came over to meet Eli and to give him a basket full of gifts. A shirt, a teddy bear, a hat, a blanket, and the book that all the players wrote in that I mentioned earlier. All covered with the new Iowa State logo of course. As I looked over at the student section, I saw the famous painted guys that have a letter on their chest and back so they can spell things like "GO CYCLONES" and "I LOVE CY". I noticed that three of them had the right letters and there was a guy with an exclamation point, so I walked over and asked them to arrange themselves to spell ELI! so I could take a picture. They readily agreed and I got one of my all time favorite pictures, even though Eli was shy and didn't want to be in it. :-)
We ended up watching the first half of the game from Jamie Pollard's patio, which is basically right behind the North End Zone (the field goal balls come right to you as you're watching the game). We could watch the game on the big screen while we snacked in his conference room, or watch it outside on the patio. It was certainly a view of the game I had never experienced before. After halftime, we went up to watch the second half with Jonna and Denise (the coaches' wives) and their kids in the upper UPPER suites on the West side of the field. Another amazing view and of course Eli got to play with the kids some more, so it was a huge hit.
Sorry to everyone that asked us about tailgating or catching up at the game, but as you can see, our schedule was quite packed. Mason, it was great to see you at the game, even if we only got to see you for a split second at the Spirit Walk! The Cyclones ended up losing 33 to 35 in an absolutely incredible game that kept us on the edge of our seats until the very end, but to be honest, Eli didn't even notice because he was too busy having fun at the game to, you know, watch the game. :-) We felt SO welcome and the entire team (and athletic staff) was so genuine and kind. Coach Chizik was determined to make sure everything was in order and that we had been taken care of, which of course we had thanks to him, his wife, his staff, and his team.