Even though the season opener is still weeks away, the N.C. State football program already secured its first victory inside Carter-Finley Stadium.
On Saturday night the band fired up, playing the fight song each time a player crossed the goal line. The cheerleaders were there, and Devin Leary was throwing touchdowns. It felt like a game day — and that was the whole point.
For the third time in four years, the Wolfpack hosted Victory Day, an event N.C. State hosts, partnering with GiGi’s Playhouse, giving cognitively and physically impaired children a chance to play football alongside the Pack. GiGi’s Playhouse of Raleigh provides educational, therapeutic and career building opportunities to individuals with Down syndrome.
On Saturday, 35 participants got the opportunity to be part of the N.C. State team. That started with a warm welcome by the Wolfpack players into the Murphy Center and a chance to individually run out of the tunnel onto the field, where the entire football team greeted them.
“We’re with you guys tonight,” head coach Dave Doeren said to the group before the evening got underway. “You’re on our team.”
The participants got a chance to go through different drills, getting personal time with members of the team. Where else could you learn how to tackle from linebacker Payton Wilson, catch passes from Leary or run behind center Grant Gibson on the way to the end zone for a touchdown? The band played with every score, the cheerleaders were loud and the smiles were contagious all around throughout the evening.
“Seeing the smile on these kids’ faces brings smiles to ours as well,” N.C. State linebacker Isaiah Moore said after the event. “We’re just happy to have the opportunity to partner with GiGi’s Playhouse.”
Inclusion and acceptance
This was the first time Jim Murdoch and his daughter Grace, 18, attended the event. At one point Murdoch almost got run over by about 20 N.C. State football players — and it was awesome.
Grace was racing toward the end zone and the Wolfpack players were in high pursuit. Murdoch was trying to snap a photo of Grace, who instead of running up the middle, called her own audible and decided for the outside sweep towards her dad.
That was a clear indication to Murdoch that Grace had broken away from her shyness and was having a good time.
“Grace takes a little while to warm up but once she warms up she’s totally into it,” Murdoch, from Cary, said. “The touchdown drill and then running through the cones, she was definitely into it, I could tell.”
After Grace scored, the team formed around her, joining in on a celebratory dance. More smiles all around. Murdoch noticed how the players were enjoying the evening just as much as Grace.
“I think for them it was a great opportunity to experience hanging out with and spending some time with individuals with Down syndrome or other developmental and intellectual delays and things,” Murdoch said. “One of the things we’ve been challenged with is opportunities with acceptance and inclusion and this goes all the way to inclusion. Watching the players include these individuals in the drills and having as big of smiles as the participants and cheering them on and really having a lot of fun, that’s more what it is for me. For Grace she had a lot of fun, but for me it was more seeing the players and seeing how they included them in what they were doing tonight. The bigger impact is on the players tonight. I think it was fantastic.”
Brock McKirgan is the director of football operations at N.C. State and has organized the event since 2018. Not only do they partner with GiGi’s Playhouse for Victory Day, but also 321 Coffee, members of GiGi’s Playhouse who come serve coffee at the Murphy Center on Monday’s. Saturday, though, was all about some football and giving them the best game day experience they could imagine.
“It warms your heart,” McKirgan said. “We have them running out the tunnel and it almost brings a tear to your eye.”
Any tears shed on the turf Saturday were tears of joy. The event served as a reminder that even though the players are worshiped in the fall on the gridiron, they are still big kids at heart — big kids willing to spend an evening, at the end of the first week of fall camp, running around on a perfect August night, doing whatever it took to make the participants happy. It’s why the players, who practiced during the day and had to report back to the Murphy Center at 7 a.m. the next morning, stuck around until after 10 p.m. signing autographs and posing for pictures.
“When we can come out here and have a little break from camp and have some fun, it means the world, not only to them, but to us as well,” Moore said. “We always preach chasing two dreams and wanting to make the community around us better, we had the opportunity to do that and had fun with it.”
As the participants arrived at the Murphy Center around 7 p.m., about 20 N.C. State players formed a tunnel leading to the door. They cheered, gave high fives and words of encouragement as everyone walked in.
Jeanhee Hoffman, a board member at GiGi’s, watched them come in one by one. Some participants, new to the event, had apprehension on their faces. It can be intimidating having these big strangers greeting you for the first time.
But Hoffman also noticed by the time they had made their way through the building and it was time to run out of the tunnel, that apprehensiveness disappeared. All it took was a short walk through the Murphy Center, hand in hand with the players, to put them at ease.
“It’s huge,” Hoffman said. “In society they are always maybe a little bit shy to begin with and then their confidence builds and that’s what we do at GiGi’s Playhouse is confidence building. You see that transformation, they come in a little timid, but by the time they are at the tunnel they are ready to run out and embrace the world.”
At the end of the event, the participants met at the 50-yard line and took a group photo with the N.C. State football team. Everyone put up the Wolfpack sign with their hand and let out loud howls as cameras snapped. Doeren told the group when the night started they were with them tonight and after three hours it was hard to deny the all around impact everyone had on each other.
“It’s a testament to coach Doeren and the whole N.C. State football family,” Murdoch said. The whole football program has been super supportive of these individuals. These guys are just getting into the heart of training and to take the time out to do this, I think is a huge testament to their belief that there is a lot these individuals can do and they just need that acceptance and inclusion, give them a chance to do it and have some fun as well.”