O'Brien gets his first taste of THON Make-A-Wish dance event

The scene at the THON Make-A-Wish dance marathon at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 (photo by Joe McIntyre)

Aaron Thomas is 12 years old and he has been battling leukemia for seven years. But this weekend, he got the chance to forget his illness and meet some people whose shoes he hopes to fill one day.

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State football team hosted its annual THON Make-A-Wish event in the Lasch Football Building with approximately 25 Make-A-Wish families in attendance. The event is part of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, where Penn State students, through a 46-hour dance marathon, raise money to benefit the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. Since 1973, the event has raised more than $78 million to fight childhood cancer.

For children like Thomas, who doesn’t get the chance to go outside of his home much because of his illness, days like Saturday are a godsend, his mother said. It takes him out of his home and into the locker rooms of the players he idolizes.

He spoke with new head coach Bill O’Brien one-on-one. He met his favorite player, quarterback Rob Bolden. Thomas, a York native, hasn’t been able to play football for years, but still wishes to wear the Nittany Lion white and blue someday.

“I don’t even know what to say,” Thomas said, a smile from ear to ear. “This whole day’s just been awesome.”

Their T-shirts and jerseys now covered with autographs, sometimes chocolate ice cream that the younger ones spilled on themselves, children got the chance to walk around the team’s weight-training room and study areas. They snapped a “team photo” in front of the historic “S” in the locker room with the players. Some tried on pads and helmets. Assistant coach Larry Johnson shook parents’ hands and exchanged words of encouragement. Sophomore punter Alex Butterworth taught a couple youngsters how to play some billiards.

While the day is a remarkable one for the children and parents, it’s just as rewarding for the players and coaches who play the role of team tour guide for the day.

First-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose teenage sons were in attendance and whose wife was responsible for scooping the ice cream, said Saturday is a chance to give his players some perspective.

“The magnitude of this is really mind-boggling when you think of it,” Roof said. “You almost can’t imagine what this weekend means to so many families. It’s great for our team, too, and all the people that participated in it.”

Bolden, who didn’t have the chance to show families around the football building last year because he was dancing in THON himself, was amazed at the interactions between the children and the players. To be able to put a smile on a child’s face, he said, is an unexplainable feeling.

“It’s a reality check. You always want to be that role model to a kid,” Bolden said. “You never know who’s out there looking up to you. Every day we try to pride ourselves on being that role model. So [Saturday] is a great opportunity for us.”

As the afternoon came to a close and families had to make their way to their homes, hotel rooms or back to the dance marathon at the Bryce Jordan Center, O’Brien told the crowd how much he had heard about THON from the moment he arrived at Penn State. Even when he was still the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, he heard about it.

It took him a while to comprehend what everyone was talking about when it came to the impact of this weekend, but now that O’Brien is the full-time coach of the Lions, and is in the midst of an event that last year raised $9.5 million, he’s taken aback by the whole thing, including the dedication to which his own players have to the philanthropic cause.

“We feel like we’ve got the makings of what could possibly be a good football team,” O’Brien said. “Again, the theme of the weekend is just incredible to me. The amount of money that’s raised, that whole story is kind of hard to wrap your brain around.”

-- Joe McIntyre