Football players help make THON kids' wishes come true

University Park, Pa, —The Lasch Football Building was alive with excitement Saturday as more than 30 children tried on helmets and shoulder pads with the Penn State football team as part of The Penn State Dance Marathon and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The 37th annual Penn State Dance Marathon began Friday in the Bryce Jordan Center to raise funds for children with cancer. Nicknamed "THON," the event is the result of a full year of fundraising by Penn State students for pediatric cancer research and treatment at the Hershey Children's Hospital. THON has raised more then $52 million for the Four Diamonds Fund. The nation's largest student-run philanthropy raised $6,615,318.0 in 2008 and the total for 2009 will be announced Sunday.

It wasn't just the BJC that was full of fun and smiles on THON weekend. The Lasch Building became a dream come true to a number of boys and girls and their families. Approximately 25 Nittany Lions players served tour guides for the families. Among them were: All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark (Youngstown, Ohio), linebacker Josh Hull (Millheim), linebacker Michael Mauti (Mandeville, La.) and tailback Evan Royster (Fairfax, Va.).

Eight-year-old Janae Holmes was among the THON children who had their wish granted by Make-A-Wish by meeting some of the members of the Penn State football team and getting a tour of the football building. Janae, dressed with Penn State stickers, glitter and ribbon in her hair, looked the part of a true Penn State fan.

"She went through chemo and lost all of her hair, so she has come a long way [with her hair in a ribbon]. A little bit ago she decided to donate her hair and looks to do it again," said mom, Melissa Griffith.

"Janae was so excited to find out that she got the football tour as her wish," said mom, Melissa. "We know that the football tour is a popular event and not every child gets to do it, so we are lucky. The whole family was just as excited as she was. It is great what these guys do for the kids."

Her older brother, Skylar, mother; Melissa Griffith and Joe Griffith joined Janae on her tour. Skylar was also having the time of his life running on all the cardio equipment and playing catch with Mauti in the halls.

Janae was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that attacks the body's immune and blood-flowing systems, in July 2004 after her mother brought her to the doctors thinking she had a cold. The family would later get the news that Janae had a four-inch mass in her chest.

"She was four when we found out she had cancer and now, she has been in remission for four years, and her remission began in February, so having THON in February is extra special for us," said Melissa Griffith. "We are lucky to be where we are right now, she has so much energy and fight in her that someone her age shouldn't have to have. She is still having some problems with her lymph nodes due to the amount of radiation that was done on her chest."

The tours of the football building began in the squad room where each family was paired with one or two football players who then paraded them around into every room that the kids asked to see. Players took the kids and their families into the locker room to try on some equipment and learn the ritual behind the big "S" in the middle of the room.

"If you step on the 'S' you have to do two push-ups. It's just the rule, you can't step on it," said Mauti, who played last season as a true freshman.

Tours continued to the weight room, where the kids showed their strength going one-on-one in pull-up competitions. They explored each position unit's meeting room, adding their own x's and o's onto the white boards, sat down in the study area and to the lounge area where the kids could play some foosball and pool with some of the players.

One of the highlights for the families was the trip into Coach Joe Paterno's office. Each child got their picture taken behind his desk and some left notes to him so that he knew his fans were thinking of him

"This is even cool for me," said Royster. "I have only been in this office once before."

The tour also served as a chance for the parents to take a step back, and watch their child explore, being able to keep their mind off their health situations. Cameras and camcorders were in hand the entire time, catching every behind-the-scene secret and documenting every minute.

"The day went by so fast. I am so thankful that we finally had the chance to do this. Janae likes everything about THON and loves every moment, but I think this will be a memory that stays with her forever," said Joe Griffith.

The tours concluded in the locker room with ice cream and cookies served by Royster and Brett Brackett (Lawrenceville, N.J.), as last minute autographs and pictures were taken. A group picture was taken above the "S" in the locker room, to document the group as a whole. Each child left with a goodie-bag of Penn State football merchandise, including posters and folders.

"Being someone these kids look up to is a great feeling. I mean, they are the heroes, not us," said Mauti. "What they go through and are still going through is unreal, and for them to come in here with the energy and excitement that they did just makes all the difference. I am glad that we got to make the wishes of these kids come true, and I hope they know how much it meant to us that they wanted to meet us."

The day went by fast, but the memories will last a lifetime for the families and the players. Though it was sad to say good-bye, smiles continued to take over the locker room as hugs were exchanged and promises of meeting up at THON were expressed.

"Will you come watch me dance tonight at THON?" asked Janae to Mauti. "I will be on stage at 8 o'clock, I better see you. If you can't come you have to watch it at THON.org."

With a smile and a laugh, Mauti knelt down, hugged Janae and promised to watch her dance on stage.

The 700-plus THON dancers will finish Sunday at 4 p.m. when the total raised from the 2009 event is announced. The event is free and open to the public.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010