When the Franklin College offensive lineman is on the football field, he knows his mission: Keep the Grizzlies winning and put on the best show for his best friend.

Samm Hayes, a college senior and Center Grove graduate, focuses on a set of eyes that he knows is on him and his teammates at every moment. Jeremiah McAdams, a 7-year-old Trafalgar boy and an honorary team captain, has come to love the team and his friendship with Hayes.

Just call him Samm Samm the football man.

And McAdams has high expectations. Give him a whistle and he’ll put the team through a set of up-downs. Give him a jersey and he’ll wear it proudly. Don’t get behind. Stay ahead by a lot. Bring home the win.

McAdams was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spinal column of a developing baby in the womb does not close all the way. In the most severe cases, too much fluid gathers on the brain, and the child also can experience a level of paralysis. Jeremiah uses crutches to walk and a shunt keeps fluid from building pressure on his brain.

He first came to the football field two years ago, when Hayes was a sophomore. He met dozens of football players. But he and Hayes made an instant connection that the college, Jeremiah’s family and the football program has allowed to grow — changing both of them.

“I wanted to make an impact in his life and allow him to make an impact in mine, and how I do things at Franklin,” Hayes said.

Example: Hayes’ perspective on football and his health. The friendship with Jeremiah has made football less of a challenge and more fun. His job is to put on a show, be a great role model, carry himself the right way and remember that Jeremiah is always watching.

He’s seen Jeremiah’s pain and struggles after dealing with recent infections and recovering from surgeries to improve his quality of life. He gets that he is fortunate to be healthy and able to play football, and should remember to be happy.

The rest of the team gained that perspective, too, Hayes said.

“It shows what we’re really playing for,” he said.

The 22-year-old doesn’t see Jeremiah’s crutches. He sees a typical kid. He’s not doing him a favor by giving him attention.

“I see him for who he is,” Hayes said.

He’s a funny kid who knows no stranger. His mom calls him an old soul because he is perceptive, likes to have conversations with adults, taught himself to read at age 3 and tells up jokes that make sense — for the most part. He and his siblings, Eliana, 9, and Josiah, 5, are home-schooled.

“It just doesn’t seem to slow him down that he has Spina Bifida,” his mother, Hannah McAdams, said.

He’s had a healthy childhood overall, but 2017 has been challenging because of a series of procedures to improve his quality of life and day-to-day living. The procedures have been a success, Hannah McAdams said.

He uses forearm crutches nearly full-time because he can’t move his ankles and has no feeling in his feet.

“That doesn’t stop him from walking,” his mother said.

His wheelchair is only used during long excursions — such as trips to the zoo where it’s just too tiring.

Hayes doesn’t run to his side only when he is hospitalized. While he wants to be a friend in those hard moments, it’s being a friend during the typical days that matter. They hang out at Jeremiah’s house too. They’ve gone to the zoo. He came to a pizza party with other members of the team.

During games, you’ll find Jeremiah on the sidelines, sometimes sitting on the bench. He’ll be ready to hang out and talk as soon as Hayes leaves the field. He’s not a football fanatic, but is devoted to the Grizzlies. Some of his other loves are learning the Rubik’s Cube and magic. They play games, although that’s not Jeremiah’s favorite, because Hayes never takes it easy on him. Hayes will beat him every chance he gets — except for arm wrestling. At that, Hayes let’s Jeremiah win.

“He’s a lot stronger than me,” Hayes said.

Hayes will graduate in the spring and is looking for a job as a financial or investment advisor. His football career will be behind him, but his relationship with McAdams won’t dwindle.

“I definitely don’t see us seeing each other any less,” Hayes said. “Football provided the connection, but this is definitely more than football.”

Jeremiah’s parents, Hannah and Chris, learned during an ultrasound when they were pregnant that their son was going to have Spina Bifida. They went to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and met with doctors to learn what to expect. They knew their baby would have hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, but did not know the severity of the spinal defect. They opted not to have fetal surgery done because of the risk to Hannah and Jeremiah.

At birth, his knees were hyperextended and Jeremiah appeared kind of folded in half, Hannah said. He was in the NICU for 13 days, and a couple of weeks later he could bend his knees.

His connection to the football team was borne out of a friendship his parents have had with a Franklin family since before Jeremiah’s birth but was cemented during his first weeks of life.

Evan Meade of Franklin was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2010 and was in Riley for treatment when Jeremiah was born. The Meade and McAdams families attended the same church, and Patty Meade would come to the NICU and sit with Jeremiah during the night.

The families shared meals, and the mothers would talk to each other when they were having bad days. The Meades gave Chris and Hannah McAdams a black leather-bound journal that Chris carries to every appointment still today. He takes detailed notes about everything that is done or said.

“We got really close to the Meades at that time and have stayed really close friends ever since,” Hannah McAdams said.

Evan’s younger sister, Claire, provided the connection between the McAdams family and Franklin College. She was raising money for Riley through a dance marathon at the college in 2015 and invited the family to talk to the football team, then to a game.

From the start, Samm Hayes was interested in Jeremiah and inspired by him, Hannah McAdams said. The football player was always saying hello, giving high-fives and taking pictures with Jeremiah. Claire Meade is friends with Samm, and one day she showed Hannah McAdams his social media pages, where Hayes was featured in uniform with Jeremiah.

Hannah continues to be impressed by the young people she meets in the community who are passionate about learning about Jeremiah’s story and disability.

“It just keeps happening,” Hannah McAdams said. “People like Claire. People like Samm, who take the time to really get to know someone else and their ups and downs, and their struggles and their life story.

“I’m really impressed with Samm that he cares so much about this little 7-year-old boy.”

Jeremiah texts Hayes from his mother’s phone every game day. Once, when the team lost, Jeremiah was so sad he could hardly speak to Hayes after the game.

“He’s very involved in whether they win or lose,” Hannah McAdams said.

“There are several things Jeremiah can not do,” she said. “But he can be a fan at a football game. That is something he enjoys doing.”

If you go

Franklin College Homecoming

Franklin College graduates have returned to the city for the college’s annual homecoming festivities this weekend.

Franklin College vs. Mount St. Joseph University

1:30 p.m. today

Where: Stewart “Red” Faught Stadium on the college campus, 101 Branigin Boulevard.

Cost: $5 per person.

Author photo
Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.