CHESHIRE — Local 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 on a Special Olympics soccer team 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,” Hayden said. “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, Hayden 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,” said 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,” Holle said. “We have been so fortunate to have someone like Sam in our corner...”
Hayden invited the team to a Halloween party 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 — 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 party.
“They’ve (the team) really been so accepting and understanding,” said Hayden’s mother, Marcie. “They’re so nice and they really just love having Sam around. It’s been a great experience for him.”
Even though the season is now over, Sam will still get to participate in team dinners and other offseason events.