PEMBROKE — Connie Lainez couldn’t remember the last time she saw her grandson Malachi Townsend as happy as he was on Saturday.
Townsend, a 12-year-old that suffers from muscular dystrophy, Lainez and several other family members were hosted Saturday by The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team as a part of Coach To Cure MD — a partnership with the American Football Coaches Association and the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. The cause pairs college football teams with children who suffer from the disease, while also raising awareness and funds to help find a cure.
From the age of five, Townsend has suffered from the disease that took away his mobility a year ago, but it hasn’t taken away his spirit and the love for the game of football — or his charismatic smile that left a mark with the Braves.
“He loved it so much and it gave him so much self esteem,” said Lainez, who is also his legal guardian. “I haven’t seen him that happy in forever.”
Wearing a smile from ear-to-ear, Townsend was in the locker room with the team before and after the game, as well as honored on the field during halftime of the Braves’ 49-35 win over North Greenville. While spending time with the team, Townsend struck a connection with senior linebacker Elijah Williams.
“He had a bright smile and I enjoyed that. He loves football and loves to be around it, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to play it. So me personally playing the game, I get a burning pain like I’m playing for people like him,” Williams said. “It just makes me speechless seeing him smile and get really excited. I enjoyed it. I felt his love, and got many pictures with him.”
Along with the photos, Williams and his teammates also gave Townsend his own football and football fan gear that he didn’t let go of the whole night. It’s safe to say, the Braves picked up a new fan on Saturday as he spent the game cheering on his new friends on the sidelines like quarterback Patrick O’Brien and kicker Matt Davis.
“Everyone was into Malachi and it meant so much for them to take time after the game to take pictures and talk with him,” Lainez said. “They didn’t treat him like he had an illness. It was great to see that.”
She commended the players and was taken back by how respectful they were of the situation. As much merriment it brought to Townsend, the feeling was mutual among the Braves.
“They really gravitated toward him,” UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. “They really responded well when he came into the locker room. Of course, he was probably just taken back by having 100 guys in his face hootin’ and hollerin’, but it was a neat experience because he really opened up and was all smiles.”
One of the main points in the philosophy for the UNCP football program is the privilege the players have to play college football. Richardson said this was an example of being thankful for the position they are in as well as a humbling experience for the 4-0 Braves.
“We talk about not everybody gets to do this, not everybody gets to be in your chair, your seat or your position,” he said. “Seeing that up close and personal, it made them realize how blessed and how thankful we should be to understand that there’s people out there that will never get to run around and hit people and play this game that we love.
“They really realized that it really is because you got a little boy in a wheelchair that will never get to do what these guys are doing. It really brought a great reality check and it was a really neat moment pregame and even postgame in there with Malachi.”
Richardson is a member of the AFCA and was like mostly every college coach across the country over the weekend donning the Coach To Cure MD patch on their sleeves. He saw his team giving back as a way to bring joy to Townsend, while also breaking the stigma that is often associated with football coaches and teams and their connections outside of the sport.
“I think it’s easy to be perceived that we only care about X’s and O’s or winning games or the game of football by itself,” Richardson said. “It’s really healthy to make sure that people understand that this game is much more than lining up, blocking and tackling and running around. It’s about life lessons, it’s character and giving our guys an experience that will be well rounded and balanced so they can be better individuals.”
For Townsend’s family, it was also a getaway from reality. Lainez said that the most of trips the family has taken recently is the three-hour trip from their home in Lenoir to Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital. The trip to Pembroke over the weekend was just as long as the trip to Durham, but to him, it was an escape to watching a sport he loves.
“We don’t get out a lot because money is a little tight, but it was good to have a break and enjoy the night as a family,” Lainez said. “It was amazing to see him light up being with the players.”
Living just 30 minutes away from Lenoir-Rhyne University, the trip Saturday to meet the team won’t be the only time that Townsend gets to see the Braves. UNCP travels next Saturday to play at Lenoir-Rhyne, and Townsend will be in the stands once again supporting the Braves with the contagious grin that impacted so many players and coaches.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.