When Temple University football coach Rod Carey made the announcement on Sept. 30, it caught everybody by surprise: He had just signed Jaidyn Williams, 13, as the Owls’ final recruit of the year.
“He fits our core characteristics of being smart, tough, and relentless,” said Carey, “and serves as an inspiration to all the members of our program.” In short, he added, Jaidyn is “Temple TUFF.”
Which doesn’t mean that Jaidyn, a seventh-grader at Sankofa Freedom Charter School, will ever play a down for Temple — or for any other team, actually. He has hemophilia A, a genetic disorder caused by missing or defective factor VIII (FVIII), a protein that allows the blood to clot on its own. For people with the disorder, the smallest injury can become life-threatening. So twice a week, the teen receives prophylactic shots to keep him safe.
Still, Jaidyn’s condition prevents him from participating in some normal childhood activities.
”Jaidyn was interested in sports when he was younger, but I never let him participate because of his hemophilia,” said his mother, Sierra Akers. To help lift his spirits, she recently turned to a national program called Team IMPACT, which connects kids who have serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. The nonprofit’s goal is to create bonds of friendship in a team setting in which “kids and athletes accept, motivate, and inspire one another, changing the game for everyone involved.”
“I thought this would be something good for Jaidyn,” said Akers.
Team IMPACT is two-year program, said Lynn LaRocca, a Team IMPACT case manager who matched Jaidyn with the Temple Owls.
“We have match-up specialists who work with every individual family and team to determine what the child needs in terms of goal-setting,” LaRocca said.
At Temple, the person who got the ball rolling for Jaidyn was Owls receiver Branden Mack, who recently decided to bypass his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Mack earned his degree in human development and had done an internship with Team IMPACT.
“I liked what Team IMPACT was about, connecting sports and trying to give back, helping youngsters,” Mack said. “I asked Coach Carey if our team could be involved in a child’s life and [he] was all for it.”
The two sides got together and Jaidyn was “signed” to Temple’s recruiting class. Because of the pandemic, the teen has been unable to meet with his fellow Owls in person and take part in normal Team IMPACT-style activities — like attending practices and other group activities that create feelings of belonging on and off the field (although he and his mother did get to attend a game).
But that doesn’t mean Jaidyn is not part of the team. He has met everyone via regular Zoom calls and revels in how much they care about him, inquiring about his life, his interests, his goals. They even let him pick the music they’d listen to at a practice.
“I like the interaction — it’s fun,” Jaidyn said. “And talking to kids older than me — it was really interesting hearing what they had to say about things.”
Akers, who has been on some of the Zoom calls with her son (the guys don’t know she listens in, she said), can’t say enough about the way the Temple players have treated Jaidyn.
“I appreciate the guys on the team, they are so respectful,” she said. “They are great — they are always encouraging Jaidyn, and he feels good when talking to them.”
In one Zoom call, Jaidyn even felt comfortable enough with the players to admit that he isn’t a big sports fan.
“A lot of times, I connect with people I have nothing in common with,” said Jaidyn, with a shrug. Yet there was a common ground because the players have expressed so much interest in what he has to say.
Both Jaidyn and his mother are looking forward to the time when they can visit the team at a practice. Akers said her son’s association with the guys has meant the world to him.