KINGSTON, R.I. – Rhode Island Head Coach Joe Trainer is excited about his entire recruiting class for the 2013 season. But there is one newcomer to the team that gets Trainer just a little more excited.
His name is Evan Huddon, who officially joined the team on Aug. 11, just a week after training camp opened. Huddon is a 13-year-old from Warwick, R.I. who was diagnosed with Spina Bifida at birth. Spina Bifida is a birth defect that results in an incomplete development of the spinal cord.
As a result, Huddon is wheelchair bound and has undergone 21 surgeries on his brain and back to help alleviate some of the adverse effects of his condition. In addition, he has hydrocephalus, which is described as excess fluid in the brain. To help drain the fluid, Huddon had a shunt placed in his skull and has had a number of follow-up surgeries to fix the shunt when it has failed.
Through a partnership with Team IMPACT! the Rams have essentially adopted Huddon for the 2013 season, making him a part of the program. He has his own locker in the team's locker room, has been given a team jersey and has an open invitation to attend all team functions throughout the season. He even has the code to the team's locker room, allowing him to come and go as he pleases.
"We couldn't be more excited to have him as part of our family," Trainer said. "He's an incredibly engaging young guy. He's got a ton of energy, and you can tell right away he has an infectious personality."
Trainer worked with Team IMPACT! to bring Huddon into the Ram program. A non-profit chartered to improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses. The Boston-based Team IMPACT! pairs children with sports teams throughout the country. The children are drafted onto teams and made official team members for the duration of their treatments and beyond.
Part of an athletic family, Huddon's father, Jason, coaches high school track. His mother was a gymnast in college, and his brother Luke is an athlete at Bishop Hendricken. Huddon himself competes in Challenger's Series sailing and baseball, and is a bowler as well.
"Evan sees a lot of what his brothers do," said his mother Julie Huddon. "One brother is off at college, and his other brother competes on several different teams. This experience makes Evan part of a team that really is going to respect him and inspire him to be the best he can be.
"With the sailing, he really feels loved there, but with his peers, although they are great friends, I think he knows and feels he is different. I think that makes him feel sad. Being on this team, I don't think they will make him feel any different from anyone else."
As much impact as the football team will have on Huddon, Trainer sees the affable teen having an equal impact on the Rhody players.
"I'm not trying to be critical of young culture today, but we all tend to live in a world with a sense of entitlement," Trainer said. "There is a 'What's in it for me?' mentality in society today.
"When you can bring in somebody who has faced challenges head on, and who has met every adversity that he has had in his life, that attitude and that competitive disposition is going to rub off on our players. It gives them an opportunity to realize how blessed they are to get the chance to play college football."
Senior defensive end Shomari Watts will serve as a direct mentor to Huddon throughout the year. Trainer said he thought of his own sons when deciding who to tab as a mentor for Huddon.
"Shomari is one of those guys who is grounded. He's got a ton of life experience," Trainer said. "He's a guy who can relate to everybody, and he's probably as authentic and conscientious a kid as we have ever had here. When you make these kinds of decisions, you think, 'What would I want for my own son?' You can find no better mentor than Shomari from that standpoint."
Huddon and Watts will share side-by-side lockers in the Rhode Island locker room, and have been sharing emails to each other for several weeks already.
"I feel it's important because Evan needs some 1-on-1 time with an older guy," Watts said. "I've been here five years, and I can really show him the ropes. I can show him how we do things here at Rhody."
The experience of becoming a Ram made a strong first impression on Huddon.
"I'm a little bit overwhelmed, and I don't think I can sleep tonight," Huddon said the night he officially joined the team. "Coach Trainer is a very nice guy. I love him so much. Team IMPACT! is a really awesome organization. I had a dream last night of being part of the URI Rams, and guess what? It came true!"