Local Cheshire student Sam Hayden is a lot like most teenagers.
He loves his family, is involved in the cooking club at Dodd Middle School, and he loves sports — especially soccer.
While he was born with a developmental disability, Sam hasn’t let it get in the way of his love of sports, having competed in the Special Olympics Soccer multiple times. But Sam’s sports “career” has expanded beyond anything he could have possibly imagined. He has officially signed on to be a part of the Quinnipiac University Men’s Soccer team.
Team IMPACT is an organization based in Massachusetts that aims to match children dealing with chronic illnesses with college athletic teams in an effort to “form life-long bonds and life-changing outcomes,” according to the group’s website. Through IMPACT, Sam will be with the QU team for the next two years. After that, it will be up to the team and Sam’s family to decide if the partnership will continue.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Sam. “I get to watch their practices, hang out in the locker rooms with the team, and go to the games. I even get to bring them chocolate chip cookies when they win.”
Sam was signed to the team on Oct. 14, at the People’s United Center in Hamden, and has been on the official roster ever since.
“It has been a really eye-opening experience for me,” said soccer player and QU senior Eamon Whelan. “It’s really awesome to see Sam as excited as he is when we come into the locker room. He is just a big ball of fun and is always ready for anything”
Wherever the QU team goes, Sam is sure to go with them or to send encouraging videos when he can’t make it, even during the off season. What makes the relationship stand out is just how dedicated the team is to Sam.
“The team has really just accepted Sam as one of their own,” mentioned Sam’s father, Derek Hayden. “A lot of the team members are from out of state and they treat Sam as their little brother.”
Teammate and QU sophomore Alex Holle, who was injured this year, got the chance to spend a lot of one-on-one time with Sam while he recovered, solidifying a strong bond between the two.
“I got to kick the ball around with Sam and shoot goals at him,” explained Holle. “We have been so fortunate to have someone like Sam in our corner who is there for us like we are for him”
This year, for the Halloween party that was sponsored by the Cheshire High School Best Buddies — a club dedicated to celebrating students with a variety of disabilities and integrating them into the school population — Sam invited the team to come, expecting only one or two members to show up, given their busy college schedules.
In a big surprise, almost the entire QU team came to the Halloween party to see Sam, who dressed up as Iron Man, and celebrate with his classmates.
“We weren’t expecting much when he put out the invitation,” explained Derek. “They’re busy college kids who have a whole set of classes on top of their soccer practice schedules. When they all showed up, we couldn’t believe it. Sam was so happy to see them, as well as the other kids in the club.”
“They’ve (the team) really been so accepting and understanding,” continued Sam’s mother, Marcie. “They’re so nice and they really just love having Sam around. It’s been a great experience for him.”
While the QU men’s team lost a playoff game last Thursday, effectively ending their season, the loss was arguably a bit easier to bear with Sam around to give out hugs to any upset team members.
Even though the season is now over, Sam will still get to participate in team dinners and any other events they may have as the year progresses — further solidifying his place on the roster and as an invaluable member of the squad.