Salina — It was clear to Jerome Schoel that his son, Jon, was having a good time watching over a sea of fans clad in red and white cheering on the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
“He doesn’t speak, but you could tell by his facial features. He enjoyed it,” Jerome said.
It was the teenager’s dream to someday play football at Nebraska, but a nasty virus when he was in the sixth grade at St. Mary’s Grade School in Salina drastically changed his life.
Attending a game in Lincoln, Neb., his first, was the next best thing, and Overland Park-based Kansas City Dream Factory delivered last Saturday.
‘In seventh heaven’
The nonprofit chapter connects kids suffering from life-altering illnesses with dream experiences. Jon and family enjoyed top-notch treatment in Lincoln, and all expenses were covered.
Unfortunately, Iowa State beat Nebraska, 9-7.
“We lost, but it was awesome. He got to do something that we would have never been able to give him,” said Brenda Schoel, Jon’s mother.
“He was, like, in seventh heaven. It was wonderful to be there. We got to meet a lot of neat, neat people.”
Among them were legends Tom Osborne, the former Husker coach, U.S. representative and current athletic director, and former Nebraska and NFL defensive end Grant Wistrom.
The Schoels, including Jon’s sisters, Tina, of Lawrence, and Alisha, of Kansas City, watched the game from Wistrom’s luxury suite.
Jon Schoel was given a personal note and a signed NU football from head coach Bo Pelini and Osborne and several other gifts.
“Jon was so excited. He sat there and held onto the football for most of the game,” Brenda said.
The family stayed two nights at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel, courtesy of the management.
“It’s an awesome hotel, outta my league. I couldn’t afford one night,” Jerome Schoel said. “They were really good to us, catered to our every need. We had a real joyous time.”
Jon was stricken at age 12 with viral encephalitis, which causes swelling on the brain, and spent six weeks in a coma at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo., Brenda Schoel said.
He turned 18 on Thursday and is fighting back from a number of disabilities, his mom said, requiring him to repattern his brain.
Jon is a senior at Salina South and requires constant care. A nurse and a care assistant accompany him to school and at home, Brenda Schoel said. She is a paraeducator at Salina Central.
Jerome Schoel is a body technician at Conklin Cars.
KC Dream Factory learned of Jon’s dream from Alisha, who is training to be an occupational therapist at Kansas University Medical Center, said Peggy Phillips, the nonprofit group’s director of procurement.
The Kansas City chapter grants 75 to 85 dreams a year for children ages 3 to 18 in Kansas, Missouri and parts of Iowa. This one turned out well, she said, right from that first call to the university.
“I decided to call this Bo Pelini guy, and I got hold of him,” Phillips said. She didn’t know he was the Huskers’ head coach.
“I’m a little football challenged,” she said.
Pelini was eager to help out Jon and referred Phillips to Chris Anderson, associate director of community relations for the Cornhusker Athletics Department.
“She went far above and beyond the call,” Phillips said. “It was really the university that elevated the trip to a dream.”
Because Jon’s body temperature cannot be regulated, he needed to watch the game in a controlled environment. Wistrom offered his suite to the Schoel family. Osborne spent most of the game with the Schoels.
“Chris met them at the stadium, made sure they had parking right outside and made sure Jon had a personal attendant. They had all kinds of food in the suite,” Phillips said. “Afterward, Jon got to go on the field and met a lot of coaches and players.”
The Dream Factory’s goal is to put smiles on faces of children, Phillips said “for at least a few days or a few hours, and let them forget about all their problems.”
Mission accomplished, for the Schoels.
“They’re a fabulous family,” Phillips said, “truly one of the nicest I’ve worked with.”