San Diego • Jacob LeBlanc was bouncing around the room in his new Utah State jersey and Christmas cap, but coach Matt Wells slowed him down.
"Let's see, did everybody sign this thing?" Wells said, turning the giggling 10-year-old around.
He counted the signatures on the back of the jersey once. He counted again, mouthing the numbers to himself.
"Nope, I think we're missing a few," he said. "Let's go get 'em."
To Wells and to the players who came to the San Diego Make-A-Wish reception on Monday night, it was important to take their time to make sure each of the families drew something special out of the experience. Jamie Makosian, Chuckie Keeton, D.J. Tialavea, Connor Williams, A.J. Pataiali'i, Joey DeMartino, Quinton Byrd and Travis Reynolds joined Northern Illinois' Rod Carey and a cadre of Huskies in giving gifts and spending an hour with six Make-A-Wish children.
Jacob LeBlanc, a 10-year-old in remission, will be the Aggies' honorary captain in Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl, which has partnered with the San Diego chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation to raise $300,000 for the charity in its nine-year history.
Jacob and his family went a Disney cruise from Make-A-Wish, an experience that helped his stay motivated through his bout with leukemia. Now in remission, meeting football players has been a more interactive experience.
"This is amazing," said Joseph LeBlanc. "We came last year, and I got so choked up, I couldn't even speak. Make-A-Wish isn't even about one wish, but they keep your kid involved. It really can give him hope on a day when he's throwing up, or when he has to deal with the shots and everything that goes with being sick."
Chapter president Chris Sichel, who serves as a Poinsettia Bowl redcoat, said the relationship between the bowl and the charity is rare, if not unparalleled. The bowl donates one dollar from every ticket sold to Make-A-Wish - an imperative of the title sponsor San Diego County Credit Union - and hundreds of wish kids and their familes will be out on the field Thursday for pre-game ceremonies.
Even though most of the kids aren't too familiar with the teams or players before they meet - and the LeBlancs are San Diego State fans - Sichel said there's still something meaningful behind the chance to be doted on by athletes.
"There's a sense of very important, very busy and very talented people taking a pause and saying, 'There's something bigger happening here,'" Sichel said. "That's big for these kids, and these athletes. I hope each one of these athletes goes home, whether they pursue the NFL or not, and decides to try to care about someone."
The LeBlancs and other families talked openly about their struggles, which included the sicknesses, the juggling of family responsibilities, the difficult salvaging of hope throughout the dark times. Joseph LeBlanc talked about how Jacob's twin, Calder, didn't want to be separated from his sick brother he had spent a lifetime with. The assembled crowd listened silently.
Afterward, the Aggies and the Huskies presented the children, and their siblings as well, with team gear. NIU brought caps and gloves, while USU brought Santa-style blue hats with the school logo. Everything got autographed.
Tialavea, who lost his father earlier this year and whose sister grew up with cerebral palsy, said he could relate to some of the struggles of the wish kids. But he also felt inspired by them.
"These kids are a blessing to these families," he said. "It's wonderful to see their smiles and their spirits."
— Kyle Goon
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