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Colts long-snapper an MVP to kids at Riley

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Indianapolis Colts players Matt Overton and Pat McAfee gave out ''free hugs'' after running out of ice cream while visiting patients at Riley Hospital for Children. Submitted photo.
Indianapolis Colts players Matt Overton and Pat McAfee gave out ''free hugs'' after running out of ice cream while visiting patients at Riley Hospital for Children. Submitted photo.

Indianapolis Colts long-snapper gets a thumbs-up from Mia Benge, a patient at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Submitted photo
Indianapolis Colts long-snapper gets a thumbs-up from Mia Benge, a patient at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Submitted photo

Note to the Indianapolis Colts’ Pro Shop: You may want to stock a few thousand more No. 45 jersey’s fast.

The guy who wears that number, Matt Overton, may not be the most famous or talented Colts’ player, but he is definitely an MVP of the summer.

As fans learn how No. 45 is spending much of his down time, they might to want to wear that number in support.

“Matt is an unbelievable person on and off the field,” said Keri Benge, a Colts fan from Speedway who has gotten to know Overton well over the past several weeks. “What he is doing around this town is really something for Hoosier Nation.”


Name: Matt Overton

Team: Indianapolis Colts

Position: Long-snapper

Age: 28

Size: 6-foot-1, 254 pounds

Home town: San Leandro, Calif.

Experience: Entering second season

College: Western Washington (2007)

Benge should know.

Overton, entering his second full NFL season as the Colts’ long-snapper, has made more news by his positive actions off the field than he has by his time on it.

Much of that involves his efforts to cheer up patients in the intensive care unit of Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, where Benge’s daughter, Mia, has spent much of the summer.

“Mia is an amazing young girl,” Overton said of 15-year-old Mia, who was diagnosed with a nonmalignant brain tumor at the age of 18 months and has been battling life-threatening complications ever since. “It is wonderful to bond with her.

“She’s a fighter.”

Indeed, Mia has proved how much of a fighter she is in the few weeks since she first met Overton.

A Bieber moment

The Western Washington graduate shares a guilty pleasure with many teenage girls, including Mia. Overton is an unabashed fan of Justin Bieber. He bid on a suite at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, including 10 tickets for the recent concert. He and another donor split the prize and agreed to surprise 10 Riley patients with a trip to the show.

“I was just really blown away by how awesome the hospital is for kids and family,” Overton said, who had help from the Colts and others to arrange for a limo ride and other perks for the girls who are confined most days to their hospital rooms. “It can be somber at times but most times it is all smiles and upbeat.

“I was just amazed. So I wanted to do something.”

Mia was selected to be one of the lucky ones.

“Mia has hit him,” Benge said of the bond that quickly formed between the frail patient and the muscular athlete. “You don’t realize what these kids have to deal with every day until you are here and see it.

“Matt saw that.”

But in a cruel twist as the concert approached, Mia took a turn for the worse.

When her tumor spread down her spine, extensive radiation was used to combat it. While that was successful, the shrinking tumor triggered a stroke and set off a new series of complications.

“The week of the concert, she was rushed in for emergency surgery,” Overton said. “That really put things in perspective. These kids have struggled their whole lives. Some days are good and other days are bad. That is reality for these kids.”

As it turned out, what should have been one of Mia’s happiest days almost was her last.

“During the concert, we received word that Mia might not make it through the night,” Overton recalled. “Her sister (who had gone to the concert in her place with instructions to take lots of pictures) left to be with her.”

The other patients remained, surely enjoying the concert, but also reminded of the bond of vulnerability they share with Mia.

“They don’t see many miracles on the floor where she is,” Overton said.

For reasons perhaps more rooted in grace than medicine, Mia made it through the night. And the next.

She has been progressing slowly, but steadily, since surviving that most dire prognosis less than two weeks ago.

“For her to be where she is now is a miracle,” her mother said. “It is because of prayer, hope, courage and the positive support of those around her.”

Among those who have not let that support wane is Overton, who has continued to visit Mia in the days since the concert.

“She calls him her buddy,” Benge said, while explaining that the two will bat a beach ball across the room to one another. “She’s tickled every time she sees him. They have things in common, a love for Justin Bieber, Taco Bell and playing ball.”

Overton also has taken to social media, reporting her progress and asking fans to “pray for Mia,” a phrase also imprinted on a T-shirt worn by the 6-foot-1, 242-pound lineman. “Mia says hello! Bumpin Bieber, eating Twinkies & playing some ball,” Overton tweeted on one recent visit.

“#MightyMia” has become a Twitter hashtag followed by many fans and friends to keep track of her progress. The Twitter connection has produced a wave of prayers and well wishes for the teenager, along with praise for Overton’s involvement.

“I really appreciate the family allowing me to grow close to her,” he said. “I’ve seen her on her bad days and good days. She inspires me and she’s spread hope throughout the ICU.”

Overton and punter Pat McAfee, who form a special unit on the football field, have a similar team that makes frequent visits to Mia and other patients at Riley.

The upbeat attitude of the pair is infectious. “1 of the many reasons I love our Colts. They’re not just the best players ever they have hearts of gold too!,” one Riley nurse tweeted.

Want an example of the zaniness? One Riley volunteer tweeted that the two Colts’ player were on her unit asking those around to pull them in the little red wagon that the hospital uses for transport.

For Overton, it just makes sense to use his newfound celebrity in a positive way through the hospital.

“They don’t see many miracles happen,” Overton said. “It’s one of those things that we can do. Sometimes the smallest gestures mean a lot.”

Long-snap odds

While the 27-year-old Overton has been blessed with good health, unlike Mia, he does know a thing or two about beating the odds.

It all started 19 years ago in his hometown of Tracy, Calif.

“The path I took all started when I was 8 years old,” recalling a time when he developed a drive to succeed against expectations to the contrary. “I got cut playing football from the local Pop Warner. I will always remember that day.”

While it would be easy to chalk it up to a coach who could not judge young talent, it was a scene that Overton would face repeatedly, even as he developed football skills.

“Going through high school and college, I was always the underdog,” he said. “I had to fight adversity every day.”

When a successful high school career did not produce any scholarship offers, Overton went to community college and then to Division II Western Washington.

That wasn’t exactly a fast track to an NFL career. But you won’t convince Overton.

“If you want it bad enough, you’ve got to keep fighting,” he said. “That’s the theme of my career. I’ve had the drive and the motivation to work through it.”

While he was a talented-enough lineman for the Vikings, Overton knew he was going to have find a niche to make it to the NFL.

That niche was as a long-snapper, a specialized center for punt and field-goal formations.

“Long snapper was my niche,” he said. “In college, I really started to take long snapping seriously.”

Those talents were good enough to get him a tryout with the Seahawks after graduation in 2007, but Overton was cut.

Cut, but not defeated.

“I felt I had what it took,” he recalled. “I wanted it more.”

The problem was how to convince an NFL executive of that.

The next year was spent in a semi-pro league and plotting how to get another look.

For Overton, an avid user of social media, Facebook was the answer.

“That is how I got a UFL tryout,” he said, explaining that he posted videos of his long-snapping workouts on Facebook, YouTube and any other site he could find.

It may be an unusual way to seek employment, but it worked.

“I got a message online from a punter with the (UFL) Florida Tuskers to give the coach a call. I did and they saw the video.”

After a tryout, he signed with Florida. A stint with Omaha followed in 2011. He was able to get on the field and make an impression.

Then, the Colts called before last season, looking for a possible replacement for veteran Justin Snow.

“Fortunately, I was at the right place at the right time,” Overton said. “Justin was a great mentor for me with the Colts.”

Since then, Overton has made an impression with the Colts, honing his specialty and building a rapport with those who count on him to get the ball in the right place quickly and consistently.

“Making the roster was an awesome feeling,” he said. “(Placekicker Adam) Vinatieri and McAfee are two of the best. I’ve thrived off their passion and their energy.”

Even his five-year path to the NFL makes sense to Overton, who will draw $480,000 this season.

Not bad for a guy who estimates he was on the field for a total of 11 minutes of playing time last season.

“I appreciate where I am now more than I might have a few years back,” he said.

Looking forward

On Saturday, Overton, the kid who was cut from his peewee team two decades ago, will go to his second training camp as a Colts player.

Certainly, he is grateful to be in the NFL and even vindicated to reach a goal that many — make that most — thought unattainable.

Savor the journey, Overton says he tells younger players now about making it big.

“We all have dreams, but focus on the present too and enjoy the moment,” he said he has learned along the way. “Not everyone gets to the NFL. Work hard, but enjoy where you are now. Dream big and keep the faith in yourself.”

Part of that faith is giving back to those around him, including Mia.

“He is not done,” Benge said. “He did not want to end there. He’s planning to visit again.”

Indeed, Overton and McAfee were back at Riley Friday, dipping out ice cream to all. On Saturday, Overton was at Coby Fleener’s charity event for Riley.

The schedule is gloriously hectic at a time supposed to be reserved for rest.

With the season starting, moving on but holding on too is very much Mia’s theme as well.

If plans go as projected, her remarkable recovery will take another step forward this week. With most tubes already removed, she is starting to walk again. Those steps will take her to a rehab facility to begin to relearn those skills lost to the stroke, a remarkable rebound from the dire predictions the night of the Bieber concert.

“We are taking it one day at a time,” said Mia’s mom. “She is resilient. Her smile and knowing that her Colts players are behind her motivate her. She wants to do great for them. “

Doing great, yes. And, just like many Colts fans, wearing her No. 45 jersey, a symbol of what a difference one player can make in his community.

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