Initially, the two young boys, one using a motorized wheelchair, might look out of place at the North Andover practice field of the Merrimack College men’s lacrosse team. But that image is quickly dispelled the moment the Warriors take the field and immediately greet Matthew and Noah Davidopoulos as their own. As teammates.
“It’s one of those things you don’t think about,” said Warriors lacrosse player Scott Corcoran, a 19-year-old sophomore from Haverhill. “It just happens.”
This, however, is no chance meeting. The Davidopoulos brothers of Westford — Matthew is 4½ and Noah is 7 — joined the Warriors last spring through Team IMPACT, a Quincy-based nonprofit that connects children with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses with college athletes.
Team IMPACT (Inspire, Motivate, and Play Against Challenges Together) is an immersion program, with the youngsters getting their own signing day, lockers, uniforms, and a place on the sidelines. For Matthew Davidopoulos, who has the neuromuscular disease Type 1 spinal muscular atrophy, it is a dream come true.
“Type 1 is the most life-threatening,” said the boys’ father, Paul.. “Most Type 1 kids who aren’t as strong or as healthy as Matthew normally don’t make it past their second birthdays. This is what we were told when he was diagnosed in Boston, that he would not live beyond his second birthday.
“Since the very beginning, Team IMPACT has been amazing,” he said, adding his boys were drafted together to recognize the challenges unaffected siblings also face. “We never really understood how deep a bond there would be between the guys on the Merrimack lacrosse team, the coaching staff, and my boys.”
Team IMPACT is the brainchild of several close friends, most of whom attended Tufts University together, including Dan Kraft, son of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Jay Calnan, who provides office space for the organization at his J. Calnan & Associates business in Quincy. The group decided it wanted to take the traditional model of a mentoring program to a new level, according to Dan Walsh, Tufts class of ’87, who recently stepped down as Team IMPACT’s executive director when the group hired a new chief executive.
“The concept itself has been around forever,” said Walsh. On the group’s website, www.goteamimpact.org, he said, “we reference at least a half-dozen other programs. Among the oldest is ‘Picking Up Butch’ at Middlebury College. It’s a really simple concept, really powerful. Everybody wins.”
Walsh and his friends began working with a nonprofit specializing in brain-tumor patients, but quickly decided the scope was too limited.
“We thought this needs to grow,” he said. “There are so many kids who can benefit from this idea.”
The friends provided the money to start Team IMPACT, and launched the program with the St. Anselm’s College hockey team in Manchester, N.H., in 2011.
Today, Walsh estimates that Team IMPACT oversees partnerships in 37 states nationwide, with roughly 1,200 children participating. The lacrosse squad is one of eight Merrimack College teams with a Team IMPACT child on the roster. Walsh’s alma mater, Tufts, has six. Those numbers are in constant flux, as the program looks to match more children with teams.
There is also the heartbreaking reality that some children do not survive.
“With miracles of modern science, most of these kids will make it,” said Walsh. “But these are life-threatening illnesses, and we probably have as many as 46 different afflictions. We have lost children. We’re finishing up our second full year, and we’ve probably lost eight children,’’ including two at University of Massachusetts Lowell since the program’s inception. “That’s clearly one of the most difficult parts of the program.”
Ninety percent of the children survive, Walsh said, “but we do know with a number of them going into it that their prognosis is poor.”
Most coaches are quick to accept even seriously ill children, and that is part of the learning experiences for the teams.
“It gives them an opportunity to show their character,’’ he said. “The response among the athletes and the coaches has just been overwhelming.”
Brenda Davies knows firsthand. Her son, Bryen Davies, is a 13-year-old from Lawrence who has cystic fibrosis. He is also the newest member of the Salem State University hockey team, joining the Vikings earlier this year.
“They’re like big brothers to Bryen. He really loves being a part of this team,” said Davies, adding that the Vikings welcomed her son without any fanfare.
Viking cocaptains Kyle Phelan and Ian Canty acknowledge that they have come to appreciate one of the underlying principles of the program. While most athletes initially see Team IMPACT as a way to give back, most eventually find that the program and the children taking part enrich their lives as well.
“We get a lot of inspiration from Bryen, probably more than he gets from us,” said Phelan, a senior from Barnstable. “Just seeing him puts things in perspective, when you don’t want to do those sprints at the end of practice, and you just think about the battles he’s been going through every day since he was a kid.”
“It’s really cool, because he’s a part of the team,” said Canty, a junior from Connecticut. “He’ll have his own spot in the locker room, his own uniform, his own seat on the bench. He definitely gives us more motivation.”
Still, obstacles remain, including recruiting children and their families. References can come from any number of directions, including medical professionals, social service agencies, schools, and even friends.
However, the pool of available teams currently outnumbers participating children.
“One of our biggest challenges is just getting families on board,” said Team IMPACT case manager Erin MacNeil. “When we talk to coaches and when we talk to teams, it’s very rare that a team doesn’t want to get involved. It’s a pretty contagious concept.
“So it’s a situation where we have teams signed up and waiting,” she said. “And we know those kids are out there; that’s the most frustrating part. We know there are so many kids that could benefit from this, but they just haven’t heard about us yet.”
Even those families who know of Team IMPACT can be hesitant to join.
“The major concern is that these kids have been through so much, whether it be weeks, months, years,” MacNeil said. “If it’s a chronic condition, it could be their whole life. And they know they’re going to be facing some really rough days. So for the parents to trust Team IMPACT, they have to really have the certainty that these athletes and these coaches won’t let them down. These kids have faced a lot of loss, a lot of heartbreak, a lot of disappointment, so our job at Team IMPACT is to make sure these teams get it.”
For Courtney Davidopoulos, the rewards far outweigh any risks.
“In the SMA [spinal muscular atrophy] community, I know there are so many kids who could benefit,” she said. “I know a lot of parents are afraid of germs, or outings, because that’s what would be dangerous for our kids. But the quality over quantity is so huge in my world, it’s worth that little bit of risk.
“I’m thrilled for my boys, that they can have these relationships,” she said. “When Matthew’s on the field, I let him go. I let him be independent. And the guys watch out for him. They’re having practice, and three guys will surround him. So it’s nice to just sit back and have my boys enjoy something for what it is. They’re part of something bigger than them, and they know it.”
That phenomenon, said Corcoran, is a two-way street.
“Since we drafted Noah and Matthew, we’ve come a long way as a team, and it’s brought us together,” he said.
“Coming in, I thought it would be more in that one direction, that we’re going to do a great thing, we’re going to help out Matthew and Noah and their family,” said Merrimack lacrosse coach Mike Morgan, who first learned about Team IMPACT from Warriors hockey coach Mark Dennehy.
“But what you realize, as time goes by, is that these guys have such an impact on our team. If you watch our guys, they’re so excited when the boys are at our practice.”
Morgan said he is proud of the way his team has stepped up to the challenge.
The Davidopouloses are simply grateful.
“It’s such a great balance between what I believe my boys get, and what the boys at Merrimack College receive regarding inspiration,” said Paul Davidopoulos. “It’s almost as if they feed off each other.
“These kids are really something special in the way they’ve embraced my sons.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.