Special Spectators was a project created in 2002 by Blake Rockwell while he was a participant in the Landmark Self Expression and Leadership Program. Blake is a huge sports fan and got the idea to give seriously ill children a chance to attend College Sporting Events. In the 5 years since the project began, Special Spectators has grown to include 40 participating colleges and universities.
At each of the events, children with serious illnesses who would otherwise not be able to participate in sports or attend games, are treated to an all day event. The day includes special VIP seating, tours of the stadium and locker rooms, visits with the players and a visit to the field during half time in which the whole stadium cheers for them. As the project has grown it has been covered by various newspapers and television and radio stations. Recently it was covered by ESPN.com:
‘Create moments that take your breath away’
By Ivan Maisel
Blake Rockwell isn’t sure of the exact day that he decided to change his life, and the lives of so many people around him. It may have been in the spring of 2002, when his wife became severely ill while pregnant and gave birth to their daughter 10 weeks prematurely. It may have been a few weeks earlier, when he lost his job with a New York investment bank swallowed up by a bigger firm.
But Rockwell knows for sure when he first began to realize that life is short — Sept. 11, 2001. Three years later, the anniversary of the attacks falls on a Saturday. Rockwell appreciates the significance of that. He will be at Memorial Stadium in Norman, seeing to it that his Special Spectators have a day that they never forget.
If you are interested in donating time and/or money to Special Spectators, visit the website, SpecialSpectators.org.
Special Spectators is the name of the program that Rockwell began in the wake of Sept. 11. The spectators are patients at children’s hospitals near college campuses. Rockwell arranges for the kids to go to college football games. The schools donate the tickets, and Rockwell sets up the quintessential Saturday experience: tailgate, cheerleaders, mascots, band.
On Saturday, patients from the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City will tour the Switzer Center, go down on the field before the game to sit in the Sooner Schooner, then watch No. 2 Oklahoma play Houston.
Oklahoma is one of 22 I-A schools that will host Special Spectators this season. A forest is burnt to the ground, and out of the ashes rise a few shoots. Three years later, Rockwell still thinks about the forest.
“Every time there’s a beautiful fall day, one of those days when you can really smell the fall in the air,” Rockwell says from his home in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. “You realize that summer is over. You no longer have to suffer the heat and humidity. A gorgeous morning. That’s when I think about it.”
Rockwell is 37, a Michigan boy, born in Grand Rapids, raised in Midland. His father Harold was active in Michigan State alumni affairs. Rockwell cheered for Michigan. Something about being tired of losing in the 1970s.
His sense of humor is sharp, his laugh quick. Rockwell went to Albion College, and is quick to ply you with details of their 1994 Division III championship. You don’t even have to ask.
He describes himself on that Manhattan morning as the chaser in us all. Chasing what, Rockwell isn’t quite sure. But he was chasing.
“I had been active in volunteering at Children’s Memorial Hospital when we lived in Chicago,” Rockwell says. “I got carried away with my own career and things I was doing to advance my career. There was a bit of a void in my life. There was some passion missing.”
He remembers the regular Tuesday morning meeting and the tone in Karyn’s voice when she interrupted it by cell phone.
“She yelled, ‘What’s going on?’ Rockwell says. “I thought she had discovered my mistresses. I didn’t have any but I thought she had found out I did.”
The images of that day remain with him, the images he saw on television, and the numbness and panic he saw around him. When your wife works two blocks away, and you can’t find her, you don’t forget that pit in your stomach. The attacks ended nearly 3,000 lives, and disrupted countless others. Rockwell came away from them with the early onset of midlife crisis. He wanted to know what he was chasing, and why.
“Karyn said to me, ‘Think about what you love to do,'” Rockwell says. “You love kids and the children’s hospital and sports.’ I am a college football nut. By the time August rolls around, I’m saying, ‘Honey, I’ll see you in early January.’ One of the things I learned from volunteering is how much the kids loved sports. They didn’t have the experience in sports. Their experience was from TV, or through a video game.
“The atmosphere around a college football game is unique, and so much fun,” Rockwell says. “Why not bring the kids to college football games?”
A few months later, Rockwell lost his job. Karyn became “very, very sick” in giving birth to Lauren, who remained in the hospital for eight weeks. She came home wearing a heart and respiratory monitor. Rockwell understood that he didn’t want to leave Lauren in someone else’s care. He also realized that New York was a long way from the Midwest, where his family and Karyn’s family lived.
They moved back to Chicago. Between naps, diaper changes and jars of food, Rockwell began calling I-A schools. In 2002, two schools agreed to serve as hosts. Central Florida and Arizona had plenty of good seats available. Last year, nine schools participated. This year, there are 22, among them teams that have no trouble selling tickets: Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma.
Some schools give only 10 tickets. Some schools give 200. The word has spread among the close-knit world of athletic directors: Special Spectators is a good program. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione is wary of falling for every warm and fuzzy request that crosses his desk. But once his department determines the request is legitimate, Oklahoma tries to grant it.
“If we can’t do some of these things, what are we about?” Castiglione asks. “It speaks to our values.”
That’s where Rockwell came in. He found a sponsor, Levy Cares, the non-profit foundation of Levy Restaurants, the Chicago company that moved stadium food beyond the soggy hot dog. Rockwell has become savvy enough in NCAA-speak that he refers to schools as “member institutions.” He is a stay-at-home dad, and he has become the favorite uncle of dozens of sick children around the country.
“I have a little saying I tell myself every day,” Rockwell says. “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take. It’s the moments that take your breath away. That’s what you’re trying to do. Create moments that take your breath away.
“Yesterday’s history,” he adds. “Tomorrow’s a mystery. Today is a gift. Live life to the fullest. What are you going to do with that gift? I wasn’t always like that. But I am now.”
Out of the ashes of Sept. 11, shoots have begun to rise.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at [email protected]
For more information or to bring Special Spectators to your school or Alma Mater visit: www.specialspectators.org