Pulling up to Lucas Oil Stadium in a limousine isn’t a bad way to attend your first NFL football game.
But Sam Dooley’s dream night will only get better from there.
He and his family will mingle with players on the field before the game, get VIP seats near the south goal line and appear on the Jumbotron at halftime, all at the biggest regular-season Colts game of the year.
Sam and his family were specially chosen to attend Sunday’s game against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. A student at Damar Academy in Indianapolis, the 13-year-old has worked to control his autism, improve his grades and behavior, and overcome the tragedy of losing his home in a fire last year.
Damar and the Colts picked Sam for this special experience, in the hopes of rewarding him for his achievements.
“This was a family that was deserving of the opportunity to have a day where they could put their troubles aside and just enjoy the experience,” said Nicole Woods, spokeswoman for Damar Academy.
From the time he was born, Sam has been an avid football fan. He grew up in Wisconsin and was raised in a family of hardcore Green Bay Packers fans. Even after moving to Franklin three years ago, Sam decorated his room with Packers’ pennants, clocks and photographs.
Every weekend, he follows along on the TV and the Internet, tracking statistics of his favorite players and talking about the results at school the next week.
The Dooley File
Name: Sam Dooley
School: Damar Academy
Family: Parents, Jeff and Debbie Dooley; brother Jahnathan, 16.
Interests: Riding bikes, Nintendo Wii, traveling to Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers and his two cats.
But for this game, Sam is a true-blue Indy fan.
“I’m rooting for the Colts. It’s going to be fun,” Sam said.
Sam suffers from severe autism, as well as chronic static encephalopathy. The degenerative disease has damaged his brain, giving him the mental capacity of a third-grader.
The combination would cause him to act out unpredictably, said Debbie Dooley, his mother.
That is where his time at Damar Academy has come in. The private school is specifically for students with special behavioral and developmental needs.
Sam attends Damar five days a week, working on school subjects as well as behavioral issues. His favorite subject is math, so much so that he’s been scolded during English lessons for hiding a math book so he can work on problems.
“He does very well at math. He loves to participate with his friends at school,” said Erin Crick, principal at Damar Academy.
Sam has been progressing so well that he is expected to start full-time classes at Franklin Community High School.
His hard work made it natural for Crick to recommend him to attend this most-anticipated Colts game.
“Sam is a very special boy. He has a wonderful personality, and he’s always happy no matter what. No matter what he’s faced or what his family is facing, he’s always in a positive mood,” Crick said. “I thought this would be an amazing opportunity for them. They’ve been through a lot this year.”
Starting in September, the academy and the Colts started a partnership to help reward the school’s hardest-working students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
At each Colts home game, a Damar student and his or her family are provided with great seats, special perks and a chance to meet the players, Woods said.
“All of the families we serve at Damar overcome extraordinary odds, not only addressing the challenges of their children, but also from family struggles as well,” she said. “These particular families are ones that are dealing with exceptional challenges.”
The Dooleys more than meet that criteria.
In July 2012, the family was getting ready to travel back to Wisconsin for a vacation. Sam was unloading items from their van to a shed behind their home when he noticed smoke coming from the small building.
In the excessive heat and dryness, the shed had caught fire.
“He came right in and said, ‘The shed is on fire.’ He got me and his brother out of the house, and by that time the shed was all engulfed,” Debbie Dooley said. “He saved us. If not for him noticing that, who knows what would have happened.”
The fire caught the family’s home on fire, and the resulting blaze destroyed almost the entire structure, as well as most of their possessions. Staying with family members and living off of donations from friends, the period was a low point for the Dooleys.
But they worked hard to recover, using insurance to purchase a new home and get settled.
On Sunday, Sam, his parents and his older brother, 16-year-old Jahnathan, will get to take in their first professional football game. Beforehand, they’re planning a big dinner. Then a limo will escort them to the stadium, where a representative from the Colts will serve as their host.
They’ll get to stand on the field during pregame warmups, meet players and get their photos taken. During the game, they’ll be provided with a gift certificate to use for concessions.
Maybe the most exciting part will be when they are featured on the big screen to the whole stadium during halftime.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There were 500 kids that they were choosing from, and to pick Sam as one of them is pretty extraordinary,” said Jeff Dooley, Sam’s father.
For the past few weeks, all Sam has been able to talk about is the game, Debbie Dooley said. He’s told classmates, teachers and family members repeatedly what he gets to do.
Recently, he’s brought it up while helping his father at his irrigation system installation job at Warwick Irrigation.
“Sometimes, he’ll help his dad at work. And he’s been going up to all of the clients that he sees and tells them about the game,” Debbie Dooley said.
Considering the past two years, the family is looking forward to this night as a kind of vacation for them all.
“To actually do something that hasn’t been fire-related, it’s nice to have a fun time chilling out together,” Debbie Dooley said. “It’s about time something good happened.”