Ben McFadden and his parents fly to Seattle today, where the 10-year-old will get to spend several days with the Seahawks, his favorite NFL team, and attend Friday night’s preseason game against the Vikings. The trip was made possible through Make-A-Wish Connecticut, with the support of Splash Car Wash, which is based in Greenwich, the town where McFadden resides.
It is important to note that the Seahawks are McFadden’s preferred NFL team, because he will be leaving his favorite football team behind for a few days.
By the time McFadden returns, Greenwich High School, No. 1 in his personal poll, will be starting preseason conditioning, the first step to a new season. And McFadden, as those who have closely followed the program know, will be a regular presence, on the sideline, in the locker room, in team huddles, with unfettered access.
Asked why the Cardinals have made him part of their football family, McFadden said, “Number one, we both love football. I don’t know maybe to make me happy. It makes me feel really happy.”
At a time when we all need some positive stories, it doesn’t get much better than the relationship between the Cardinals and McFadden. To outsiders, the story is about a high school football team bringing joy to a young fan. In reality, it is a symbiotic partnership, because the Greenwich players and coaching staff are unanimous when they insist they receive more than they give.
“It’s not charity or doing something for publicity because our kids genuinely appreciate him being around,” Greenwich coach John Marinelli said. “He has fun with the guys, he’s very intelligent. He’s just part of the team.”
It all started nearly a year ago. McFadden has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism in which the growth of long bones by ossification of cartilage is retarded, resulting in very short limbs. Sports director Frank Granito of the HAN Network, which has an affiliation with Mike-A-Wish, allowed McFadden to interview the Greenwich captains prior to a game against Trinity Catholic.
“I thought it was funny, and then we went to play a game,” Marinelli said. “After the game he was around, and then the next game he was around and the following game and the following game. Our kids connected with him in a way — I had nothing to do with it. I had nothing to do with Ben bonding with my players.”
The Cardinals, particularly captain Paul Williams, took an immediate liking to McFadden, who is outgoing, personable and charismatic. McFadden was treated like a member of the team, the lone difference being an ineligibility to take the field.
“I’d see Ben on our sideline and say it was pretty cool, but I had no idea our captains kept asking him to come back,” Marinelli said. “He’s become part of our family.”
McFadden even turned up in the most unlikely of places.
“At first I was worried about a little kid on the sidelines, but he is so self aware,” Marinelli said. “We were in an offensive huddle in a game against Staples and it was a big drive, and I look down and Ben is there as we broke the huddle with his hand out. I don’t even realize he’s there half the time.”
McFadden’s father Drew is a former Greenwich player, a member of the 1983 team that went undefeated, winning league and state titles.
“What a confidence builder for the kid,” Drew McFadden said. “He’s a really well rounded person in anything he does. “He was class president. All the positive stuff. It is something that is going to be with him for life, this relationship. The kids, the way they took to him. It says a lot about the parents of the players who are on this team. The way they are teaching these kids on and off the field, as well as this coaching staff. All of that is so appreciated. How proud I am being a former Greenwich football player. I wish we did this for kids when I played.”
This has become more than just a four-month affair. Last spring McFadden played Daddy Warbucks in his elementary school’s production of Annie. McFadden was stunned to look into the middle of the audience and see a crowd of about 50 people there to support him: Greenwich players, coaches, even cheerleaders.
“I was really surprised,” McFadden said. “I didn’t know it was going to happen. I felt really special because not all high school football players will come out to an elementary school play to watch kids.”
Marinelli said it is important to stress this is not a charitable effort by the Cardinals. During a 15-minute interview he used the word organic repeatedly to describe the process.
“It’s a special thing that can happen in sports, with football specifically,” Marinelli said. “You build this family together between players, coaches, parents, community in one direction and something like this brings everybody closer. This was truly organic and it was amazing. It is what football can do.”
As mentioned before, anyone associated with the Cardinals will tell you that McFadden gives more than he gets.
“Ben has done more for us than we have done for Ben,” Marinelli said. “He’s an inspiration but he gives us laughter, he’s a funny kid. It’s an indescribable situation that happened with the amount of support the players gave to have him on the sideline. We’ve given him another family extension and given him something to look forward to, but it is probably double that from our side. It’s unscripted. It’s amazing that way and I think because the kids did it. They understand something is going on with Ben but they just really like him.”
McFadden will return to the Cardinals next week, no doubt with stories to share about his trip to Seattle. Then, like the rest of the team, in his unique way, he will prepare for next month’s season opener against Trumbull.
“If we’re losing I get nervous, but then I know we will always come back to win,” McFadden said. “We’re going to have a great team. I can’t wait for the season to start.”