IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nine-year-old Maddox Smith can no longer play football, not after being treated for a golf ball-sized brain tumor and a rare genetic disorder that caused tumors to grow on his nerve cells.
Maddox has spent many, many days in the hospital. Like dozens of other children slogging through long weeks of recovery, he also has been part of college football’s newest and most heartwarming tradition.
“The Wave” has become a national sensation, with nearly everyone in 70,585-seat Kinnick Stadium turning to wave to the pediatric patients watching from University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital – a 12-story building that sits right across the street – at the end of the first quarter.
The gesture was born through a combination of limited space, social media and the “Kid Captain” initiative, a partnership with the Iowa football program designed to highlight the youngsters fighting so bravely nearby.
“We were looking for ways to do something special,” said Cheryl Hodgson, the communications director for the hospital. “It’s so interesting to us to see how ‘The Wave’ has captivated everybody.”
The Hawkeyes honored Maddox before a recent game through the “Kid Captain” program. He got a jersey, tickets, a standing ovation at midfield and, most importantly, a welcome distraction.
The hospital – with pristine views of the field – was opened in February. According to Scott Turner, the executive director of the hospital, designers accentuated the locational quirk with what they call the “press box,” an event and game-watching space for patients and their families, on the top floor.
On game days, patients and their families can watch the game and, after the first quarter, wave back.
The viewing perch has helped strengthen the bond between the Hawkeyes and the hospital, one coach Kirk Ferentz – who in August donated $1 million to bolster research into helping premature babies– made official in 2009 with the “Kid Captain” program. Thousands of parents have nominated their children to be part of the program, which has also led to similar efforts at UCLA, Minnesota and Iowa State.
While the proximity of the hospital and the stadium, the relationship between the team and the kids, and the fan base known for being “Iowa Nice” laid the roots for “The Wave,” Facebook brought it all together. Iowa fan Krista Young posted the idea of waving to the hospital’s press box on the “Hawkeye Heaven” page, which has over 100,000 followers, in June.
The idea soon caught fire and after the first quarter of Iowa’s season opener Sept. 2, tens of thousands of fans got up from their seats and waved. The kids and families responded, and “The Wave” was born.
The Hawkeyes and their opponents have joined in on the fun, with Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck calling it his favorite tradition in college football.
“It’s really the unique thing about Iowa,” Hodgson said. “People care about kids and families everywhere, but we have noticed – first through the ‘Kid Captain’ program and now ‘The Wave’ – how much it means to people even if they don’t have a family member directly affected. They really kind of adopt those kids, and it feels like they’re their own and they want to go out of their way to support them.”
As the Hawkeyes prepared to play Minnesota last month, She thought about “The Wave” and what it means for the children – and their loved ones.
“I guess for me, it brings a sense of excitement to the kids that are here getting treatments or here for long term. And it makes them feel excited and normal for a minute to get out of their rooms and come up here and enjoy themselves,” she said.