There is a moment in the video embedded below. It is a pre-game sideways glance from Sporting Kansas City right back Graham Zusi down the leather seats of the locker room at one-armed cancer battler Kalen Ricketson, he the honorary player signed only days before per his wish.
In Zusi’s eyes, joy twinkles. In his subtle but sure smile, appreciation glows, and likely much admiration, from the World Cup veteran to the 18-year-old. From Kalen’s face beams laughter, the type that only wonder can bring, the type of wonder that despite all that came before, only each moment of right-now matters.
Creating those moments that ease burdens and inspire victory are what Sporting Kansas City’s Victory Project is about. Yet what is at the core of Sporting’s foundation that began in 2013 transcends those tangible moments of intangible emotions.
Alan Dietrich, the Chief Operating Officer of Sporting Kansas City and the bridge as the position of The Victory Project director changes hands, was kind enough to talk on the phone with The Blue Testament Tuesday about one of the common bonds that ties together all at Sporting KC and its fans.
“Part of our cadence. Part of our DNA.”
“It is our foundation,” said Dietrich. The emphasis on “our” runs deep. The impetus came from the Sporting Club (then OnGoal) ownership group that purchased the team from Lamar Hunt in 2006. All in the local group had been touched by cancer in some way – a fact that came home last year when both co-owner Neal Patterson and wife Jeanne Lillig-Patterson passed after their cancer battles.
Thus, the decision to create The Victory Project was heartfelt. And since then, they have put the weight of the organization behind the stated mission to unite players, staff, and fans to help children battling cancer – and all of life’s challenges – and make a tangible difference in their lives.
What the fan who attends Children’s Mercy Park will see is the celebration of one of 125 different children so far at each match, a celebration that begins with a visit to training earlier in the week and being given some complimentary gifts. Then it is the VIP treatment for the patient and his or her family on game day: on-field during warmups; hosted in the luxurious Victory Suite during the match and seated in the honorary orange seat; recognized in the pregame (that includes a chant of the child’s name from The Cauldron and the supporters’ groups that organically spreads to the entire crowd); and ending the match on the field.
It sounds expected, generic for Dietrich to say that all at Sporting Kansas City love being involved in the celebration. But it is genuine. When employees fill out their annual survey, the celebration and being involved in The Victory Project is always prominent in what they enjoy about working for Sporting KC.
“[The Victory Project] is part of our cadence. Part of our DNA,” Dietrich stated. “Our foundation is a part of the habit and routine of who we are and what we do.”
The celebrations at the stadium, even some of the week that Kalen spent with the team just like a real teammate, can be perceived as for the show: “Look at Sporting Kansas City and the great things we do.”
What many don’t see is that during those moments, a bond between a player or players and the children battling cancer is manifested. That bond solidifies when players spend time at the hospital when children go in for treatment, or just simply visit while the child is limited to those walls. All players participate in this, but Zusi, Tim Melia, and Seth Sinovic go to a hospital at least one day every month to be with the children. They play games. They interact. This is where the real moments happen, where understanding is fostered.
“When you go there and see [the children’s] outlook on life and their determination to get through…,” said Zusi Wednesday over the phone. “We are looking up to these young children just as much as they look up to us.”
The appreciation of parents and those involved in the trenches with the children, and the children themselves, can be life changing. In the midst of a battle, someone is going out of their way to show they care.
“The kids may be a little naïve to what’s going on. It is what the parents say to you that really hits home,” said Zusi, his emotion palpable. “It puts what you do into perspective. At the end of the day, we are playing a game and these kids are battling for their life.”
Giving of one’s time is giving of one’s soul. And children, of all people, cherish it most.
“It is crazy to see from our side what it means to these kids,” Zusi expressed.
The hospital time, the treatment, the fear. Those are many of the biggest realities in the battle for a child’s life in the face of cancer or terminal cancer. The Victory Project now encompasses the financial realities.
In conjunction with Children’s Mercy Hospitals, the Firsthand Foundation (a Cerner founded nonprofit), and other organizations, The Victory Project funds care and pays utility bills, etc, for children and their families battling cancer with financial needs not covered by insurance. “There is a lot of need out there,” said Dietrich.
Sporting Kansas City and The Victory Project recognize the financial need as much as they do the need for being present. Thus, they are deliberate. The giving isn’t subject to convenience. As the season came down to the playoff stretch, and as it continues in the playoffs in the run to the ultimate prize in MLS, the MLS Cup Championship, dedication to giving did not, and will not, faulter. It actually intensified. A blood drive, an auction of game-worn jerseys, the signing of Kalen as a Sporting player, the Pitch Black event, the celebrations, the financial grants, and the hospital visits were, and will be, omnipresent.
“What this club has committed to do is incredible. It has always been a club to put community first and be a positive influence,” said Zusi. “I am honored to be a part of a club that does that.”
Kalen’s wish – granted by the new Sporting Wishes program that will be discussed in Part II – was to be a Sporting Kansas City player. In the video, is the moment of Zusi’s glance. He holds it just long enough to cherish it himself. Then there is that moment when Kalen walks out onto the field as a member of the team before the National Anthem. In the washing-over of emotion read on his face is the realization of a dream.
“That was a really cool week. It’s pretty awesome that his wish was to be a Sporting player. He is an awesome kid who fit in perfectly well,” Zusi related, before relaying a comment that all who follow Sporting intimately will likely chuckle at. “He was wide-eyed the entire time. [After the game we walked together, and I] ask how it was on the bench, and he said, ‘Man, it was pretty intense. I didn’t realize how intense Peter was.’”
The week Kalen spent with the team went beyond a collection of tangible moments of intangible and isolated emotions. As a bundle of those moments, the week meant Kalen’s mind was off his battle for perhaps the longest time in his life. The week meant Kalen was accepted in a world he only could have dreamed of before. It meant that those who had no reason to care before, did. And it cultivated understanding of each other. All each of us want is to be accepted and understood. If those things are possible, anything is.
Look for Part II of “Sporting KC’s Victory Project: Even in change it’s a part ‘of who we are’” tomorrow here on thebluetestament.com. How has Sporting Kansas City inspired others to give? How will The Victory Project move forward after its matriarch, Brandi Thomas, the former Director of Community Programs at Sporting Kansas City, has moved on? What new initiatives are coming that will increase its effectiveness?