02:54 - Source: CNN
CNN Hero Blake Rockwell

Story highlights

Blake Rockwell volunteered with sick kids; they loved sports, so he wanted to help them participate

He started Special Spectators, which gifts ill children with VIP trips to sporting events

The nonprofit has sent more than 10,000 kids and family members to college games

Oklahoma City CNN —  

Blake Rockwell grew up playing sports with other children in his neighborhood. But a congenital heart defect had prevented one of his older brothers, Chuckie, from doing the same.

“He wasn’t even allowed to run,” Rockwell said. “So, the kids, they made him the referee for every game. … To be a part of it, in that way, was extremely important to him.”

CNN Hero Blake Rockwell
Kathleen Toner/CNN
CNN Hero Blake Rockwell

Chuckie passed away when he was 10 years old, several months before Blake was born. But Blake’s life was deeply shaped by the brother he never met.

In the early 1990s, Rockwell became a volunteer at the children’s hospital where his brother had been treated. For four years, he visited young patients one evening a week.

“So much of their lives were controlled by their illnesses … we’d do whatever they wanted,” Rockwell said.

He was surprised by how often these bedridden children wanted to talk about, or watch, sports.

“They were probably bigger sports fans than a lot of kids I knew who were healthy,” he said. “But very few of them had ever been to a game, and that seemed absolutely crazy to me. I always wanted to take them to the games.”

Since 2002, Rockwell has done just that – and more. His nonprofit, Special Spectators, has given more than 10,000 seriously ill children and family members all-access, VIP experiences at college sporting events around the country.

Football season is Rockwell’s busiest time of year. He works with children’s hospitals to find families, then partners with universities to roll out the red carpet for them.

Game day usually starts off with a behind-the-scenes tour, where kids meet coaches and players and try on gear in the locker room. After that, families enjoy a tailgate that’s often attended by cheerleaders, the mascot or the marching band.

Every event is unique. Recently, at the University of Oklahoma, children tried on diamond-encrusted championship rings in the head coach’s office and sat at the anchor desk in the Sooners’ broadcast center.

Families enjoy prime seats for the game, and usually the children walk onto the field and receive an ovation from tens of thousands of fans – a moment that always gives Rockwell goosebumps. But he says the experience is about much more than going to a game.

“A lot of these kids, they’re in it for a long haul” he said. “Their treatment protocol might be three years. And their tanks start to run low.”

“Days like this restore the spirit in these kids to continue to fight.”

CNN spoke with Rockwell about his work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

CNN: Who gets to go to your events?

Rockwell: Our game day experiences are for the entire family, because they’re all impacted by the child’s illness. It’s an opportunity for everyone to just relax and have a sense of normalcy.

We connect with them ahead of time to understand what their needs will be and coordinate that all in advance to make it easy, because their whole life is an ordeal. We want the families to just be there together and have a great time.

CNN: What kind of impact does the day have on everyone?

Rockwell: The coaches and players are phenomenal with our kids, and it’s incredible to see these little kids hanging around these giants of young men. Sometimes you’ve got a big offensive lineman and he sees a little guy or gal with no hair, standing there, and he just goes over and gives them a fist bump. That’s a magical moment. I know the kids inspire the players and the players inspire them, so that’s kind of a cool place to stand, to see two parties inspiring the other.

The transformation of the children on game day is amazing. When they arrive, they are maybe a little shy, but over the course of the day, you see them smiling more and laughing, maybe for the first time since their diagnosis. And the reverse is true as well – kids will see parents smile for the first time in months.

To see the pure joy on their faces, that’s the payoff.

Special Spectators has sent thousands of seriously ill kids to events like this Oklahoma Sooners game
Kathleen Toner/CNN
Special Spectators has sent thousands of seriously ill kids to events like this Oklahoma Sooners game

CNN: Does the experience have a lasting impact for the family?

Rockwell: We’ve had children who have taken a turn for the worse shortly after going to a game. Their parents tape up pictures of their family and pets to their hospital bed. But they also put up pictures from the game day they had with Special Spectators. For some of them, it’s one of their last great days. To be able to offer that to a child, but also the family, it’s pretty incredible.

CNN: You recently left your job to do this work full time.

Rockwell: This is my calling. This is what I was put on earth to do. And we have 200 volunteers all over the country who are just as passionate about this as I am. We’re trying to give families powerful memories that put a smile back on their face.

We want to do this all year-round, not just during the fall with college football, but in the winter, spring. We’ve got a heck of a lot more kids to serve, and we want to make it happen.

Want to get involved? Check out the Special Spectators website and see how to help.

To donate to Special Spectators click the CrowdRise widget below.