Sunday, November 15, 2015

Some Hoops Dreams Come True Off The Court

Heart pounding. Unblinking eyes glued to the court that bears Lou Henson's name. Sweat pouring like rain drops.

It was pretty much everything you would expect from a small town kid making his debut in front of a couple thousand University of Illinois basketball fans.

Family selfie at Grace's first-ever college basketball game!
And I'm not for sure, but I think Dylan Miller might have been nervous too.

As soon as the University of Illinois released their schedule, I had Nov. 15 circled on my calendar. With the exception of it being on a Sunday, a busy day here at the paper, it was the perfect storm for a Hillsboro sportswriter.

Cheering for Grace's favorite North Dakota State Bison, Dylan Miller
 Just an hour away from Topper Country, Miller would be returning "home" with his new teammates from North Dakota State to take on the University of Illinois at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, the Illini's home away from home while the State Farm Center is being redone.

The biggest name in Hillsboro High School basketball over the last three years and the first D1 men's basketball player from HHS since 1974, against the biggest college basketball program in the state made me almost have to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

Kyle had a blast shooting from courtside!
 In reality, I knew there was a chance that Dylan might not play that much, if at all, but I held out hope that he would at least see the court.

Mary and I bought tickets the day they went on sale, knowing that even if I wasn't able to procure media credentials, we wanted to take Grace to the game. Just a few short months after Grace was diagnosed with Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy, the Hillsboro boys basketball team provided one of our most memorable moments as Dylan helped Grace "dunk" or as close as she will ever come to it (way closer than her daddy ever will).

Dylan talking with some teammates at the game.
 With a guarantee to get into the game already taken care of, I reached out to Wes Offerman, the media contact for the North Dakota State men's basketball team, and he was kind enough to point me in the right direction to get credentials through the University of Illinois.

In addition to my request, I also sent Wes a link to the blog Mary did about Grace's experience with Dylan. We have made it our goal to give Grace every experience possible for as long as we have her on this Earth and to spread awareness about INAD to anyone who would listen. And thankfully, Wes listened.

We enjoyed getting to meet Coach Richman too!
Saturday morning, I received an email from him asking if we could be at the game about 45 minutes early, so we could take Grace down to meet the players and coaches. This remarkable invitation is something that Mary and I may have hoped for, but never would have asked for or expected from a group of complete strangers.

As we got to the game, the nerves hit me pretty hard. The familiar orange and blue of the Illini hardwood and watching some of the best players in the country warm-up brought on a little bit of stage fright. Hence the aforementioned sweating and near cardiac arrest that occurred even before the game started.

We managed to meet up with Wes, despite some cell phone technical difficulties, and he brought us downstairs to the team's locker room.

Grace and mommy cheered from the stands.
 Coach David Richman was kind enough to take a few moments to meet Grace, Mary and I before the game. He's in his second year as the head coach of the Bison, where he has been a member of the coaching staff in some capacity since 2003, but looks like he could still play for them.

As it often does, the conversation turned quickly to kids. Coach Richman has four girls, including a pair of four-year-old twins that reminded me a lot of my own little blond haired sprite.

After the quick conversation, we made our way into the locker room, where Coach Richman introduced us and Grace went around and gave out high-fives to all of the players, with an assist from Mary.

We realized later that neither of us had bothered to take a photo of the meet and greet, but ultimately you don't always need a picture to remember something unforgettable.

The game itself was fun, with North Dakota State leading for most of the game before Illinois got hot late and ended up winning 80-74. Dylan did get to play about two minutes toward the end of the first half, to the joy of the pockets of yellow clad "Miller #42" fans throughout the arena.

Grace and I posed for a photo before the game too!
 He didn't play badly, nor did he set the world on fire, but he played and that's something that only a handful of people can say has happened to them and no one from Hillsboro in the last four decades.
The coolest part of the watching the game from the floor for me was seeing senior guard Kory Brown call Miller over after he was taken out and talk to the true freshman. I have no idea what Brown said, but you could see his leadership in that brief conversation and he quickly became my second favorite player on the NDSU roster.

The opportunity to see that conversation and to photograph a University of Illinois game from the floor are bucket list items for me normally, but they were just icing on the cake on Sunday.
The really special moment was meeting Coach Richman and the team. I know that Grace may not have gotten a lot out of it (she slept through about 75 percent of the game), but the opportunity for her to do something like that is forever etched in my memory.

Grace slept through more than half the game, but I certainly didn't mind the snuggles!
 INAD is awful. I wouldn't wish it on the child of my worst enemy. But it's through this traumatic disease that we have been able to give Grace life experiences that most kids can only dream of.
Sometimes God brings special people into our lives that help make the hard times a little easier to manage by giving us good times that are beyond measure. Thanks to Wes Offerman, Coach Richman, Dylan Miller and the entire Bison Family for being those people.



  1. This is why we all love the Bison

  2. Once a Bison Always a Bison! Welcome to Bison Nation and the Bison Family. Go Bison!