Jack Graver (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) may not be able to look back on his senior year of UMass Dartmouth football with fond memories of playing the game he loves.
There won't be any recollection of a final career playoff push or making a veteran-like play right when it was needed most by his team. What will forever remain from his final year of competitive football, is a relationship that was developed through the game, and forged from circumstance.
Through the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's six-year partnership with Team Impact, a non-profit organization based out of Quincy, Mass., the Corsair football team has become role models for children with chronic illnesses. Team Impact, which was founded in 2011, has just one goal - to connect college athletes with children suffering from illnesses, forming life-long relationships and life-changing outcomes for everyone involved.
Graver, an engineering major, became exactly that to Adrian Leonard, a 14-year-old from Wareham diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Jack and Adrian have spent countless hours together playing video games, hanging out, and talking football on the sidelines.
"My thing is to try to treat him as normal as I can," Graver said about his relationship with Adrian. "He knows his situation and he's a good kid so my relationship with him, I just try to keep it the same as with everyone else."
The two became acquainted during the early portions of the spring practice schedule last season. At the end of a practice, UMass Dartmouth Head Coach Mark Robichaud gathered his team for a surprise announcement.
In characteristic fashion, the Corsairs head coach gave a well-thought introduction to his newest recruit before offering him a uniform, helmet, and a roster spot with the Corsairs. Adrian's new brothers promptly responded with an embrace.
"He loved it. Just to see the joy on my kid's face was priceless," said George Leonard, Adrian's father. "They opened their arms and took us in as players, as a family, as everything."
"That's just something [coach Robichaud] does," Graver added. "When we announced he would be on the team, Adrian's smile was ear-to-ear."
From that day at practice, Graver's relationship with Adrian and his father continued to develop and grow. The senior offensive lineman had already predetermined to his coach the desire to be more involved with Team Impact going into his final year and followed through on his word.
In the final months of the school year and leading into preseason camp in the summer, Jack split time playing video games with Adrian, discussing fishing with George, and preparing for his senior season of football.
As their friendship continued moving at a steady pace, they did more things together. Graver welcomed Adrian to his place of work at the Boston Globe's printing press in Taunton, Mass. And like any kid would, Adrian was enthralled by the experience which included a personal tour of the facility by Jack.
"It was very, very cool," said Adrian. "It was exciting for us because we never been to something like that. The pressers were going really fast, there was like 100 every couple of minutes."
"That's just one of the things with Jack. That's him thinking of us. They couldn't have picked a better mentor. I really can't say enough about Jack," George said of the experience with Graver.
In the coming weeks, Graver got bad news, as an ACL injury halted his season before it even began. But he was not alone in his rehab through the year or on the sidelines at games. Adrian and George both joined Graver on the Cressy Field turf. When the pressures of the game peaked, the three enjoyed each other's company on the sidelines, sharing a mutual love for the game.
"While everyone was high-tense during the game I was just able to joke around with Adrian and his dad. I clicked really well with his dad. It made it easier being at the game, made it more enjoyable. I was just there having a good time, I wasn't stressed out and focusing on the game and trying to win, I was just enjoying myself on the sidelines with them," Graver said.
Even though all three would have preferred that Graver played his senior season, the game always eventually comes to an end. Friendships like the one created on the sidelines, those do not.
"They're my friends now. It's not an obligation I have from football," stated Graver. "We're friends and I'm happy to be a part of Adrian's life."