Friday was a special day for one young Red Wolves' fan who has overcome extreme adversity in his life, and, in turn, also a rewarding experience for the Arkansas State football players and coaches who spent their 17th fall-camp practice with 8-year old Owen Church.
Owen, the son of Brian and Kelly Church, and his family spent their morning interacting and building relationships with the Red Wolves while taking in the team's latest practice. Owen's engaging personality was on display as he issued handshakes and high-fives with the team after he and his parents shared his courageous story.
Owen recently completed chemotherapy treatments at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis and is now healthy with a good prognosis from doctors after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the last four years. Brian, Kelly and their three other children, daughters Kellen (11) and Peyton (9) and son Dawson (6), all stood with Owen while delivering a powerful message of perseverance to the Red Wolves.
Arkansas State head football coach Bryan Harsin's relationship with the Church family developed through the friendship Owen has with his seven-year old son, Davis. The two attend school together and once Harsin became aware of Owen's situation, he said the decision was made to extend an invitation to the family to meet the team.
After Owen and his family huddled with team on the practice field, Harsin thanked them for sharing their story and presented them each Red Wolves' t-shirts . . . and for Owen, an A-State jersey with his name on the back.
"Owen's a fan, and we felt like this was a great way to give something back to him," said Harsin. "We wanted to tell him we're proud of him, and while you can't fully relate to his situation unless you've been through it, we know what hard work is and he's done it in his life."
Harsin and his coaching staff also understand the great impact Owen's message had on the team.
"I think this is a reminder that although we're out here doing something really hard, it's a game and we're blessed to be on the field doing what we love," said Harsin. "When you see a young person overcoming great adversity while we're out here dealing with a negative play, it just puts things in perspective. Today our guys heard from people battling real-life situations, and there are going to be challenges our players will have to face outside of football as well. This was a very inspirational message today by Owen and his family."
Owen broke the team huddle at the end of practice by making the Red Wolves hand sign with the players and staff and leading them in a "SunBelt Champs on three!" shout.
"It's great to come out here and meet the team, especially for Owen," said Brian Church, an Associate Professor in the Health, PE and Sport Sciences Department at Arkansas State University. "They were so accepting and such a good audience listening to his story, so we're very thankful for that. Owen's a big football fan, like we all are, so for him to be down here on the field shoulder-to-shoulder with the coaches and players was really exciting for all of us.
"The coaches and players did a great job talking to him and welcoming him," continued Church. "When the players came up after to meet him and shake his hand, he said he felt like he was part of the team."