Eagle River kid’s NFL wish comes true

Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 08:55
  • Korben Senden, 13, meets with Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffery. Senden, an eighth grader who attends Gruening Middle School, visited the team as part of a wish granted by the Alaska & Washington chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (Photo by Kirby Senden)
  • Korben Senden, a 13-year-old from Eagle River, poses for a photo with Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera during a visit to Panthers practice in August. (Photo by Kirby Senden)
  • Photo courtesy Kirby Senden (via Make-A-Wish Foundation)
  • Photo courtesy Kirby Senden (via Make-A-Wish Foundation)

Fans inside Bank of America Stadium rose to their feet as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton prepared to take the snap. The 2015 NFL MVP shouted the cadence to his team, sending newly signed rookie Korben Senden in motion from his slot receiver position. As Senden neared, Newton took the snap, pivoted and handed the ball to the rookie. Senden did the rest, following his blockers around the end for a 5-yard Panthers touchdown.

The crowd went wild. Newton grabbed his new teammate and lifted Senden into the crowd, where the Panthers’ new offensive weapon handed the football to a young fan.

A month later, the 13-year-old Gruening Middle School eighth grader was still in awe of the experience.

“It was crazy, the whole thing,” he said recently during an interview at an Eagle River coffee shop. “It was like, unimaginable how you could do these things with these people.”

Senden’s big score was the culmination of a day he’d been dreaming about for more than a year — and a moment he’d used as motivation countless times as he slowly recovered from open heart surgery.

“Super scary”

Senden suffers from Noonan Syndrome, a genetic condition that prevents normal growth and development in various parts of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition can cause heart problems, and in Korben it led to an obstruction that required open-heart surgery in June of 2017.

The diagnosis was terrifying for Senden and his parents, Kirby and Kristi.

“Our stomach was in knots,” said Kirby Senden, a teacher and coach at Eagle River High School.

About six weeks before the surgery, the family was contacted by the Alaska & Washington ch Make-a-Wish Foundation, which told them Korben had been selected to make a wish.

“Our initial reaction was like, ‘Aren’t Make-a-Wish kids terminal?” Kirby Senden said. “But that’s not the case.”

According to the foundation’s website, any child with a critical illness between the ages of 2.5 and 18 is eligible for a wish. When the Sendens found out Korben had been selected, Kirby — a longtime area hockey coach who played at UAA — said he immediately started thinking about what it would be like to meet NHL superstar Sidney Crosby.

But Korben had other ideas.

“He said, ‘It’s my wish, not your wish,’” Kirby recalled.

Korben’s been a Carolina Panthers fan for several years thanks to his admiration for players like Newton, Christian McCaffery and Greg Olsen.

“I just like the players on the team,” he explained.

So it was decided: The Sendens would visit the Panthers once Korben was feeling up to it.

But first, he’d have to have surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“When I figured out I was going to have heart surgery, I was really scared because I’d never known anyone who’d had anything like that before,” he said. “So I thought it was super scary like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might die.’”

“The biggest miracle”

In the weeks leading up to the surgery, the family used the Carolina trip as a distraction. Rather than focusing on the grim possibilities, Kirby Senden said they’d instead talk about what it would be like to run onto the field alongside Korben’s NFL idols.

The technique worked.

“The underlying effect is that the biggest miracle is you’re not focused on the surgery, you’re focused on the wish,” Kirby said.

Korben came through his surgery with flying colors, but he ordeal was far from over. The normally smiling, witty youngster found himself lying in bed unable to smile or even sneeze.

“Going to bed was even worse,” Korben recalled. “I couldn’t lie on my stomach and could never get comfortable. That was the worst part of the day for me.”

As the days went by, Kirby and Kristi did their best to buoy Korben’s spirits by watching re-runs of “Friends.” One of the ways they were able to keep him going was by talking about the wish.

“I said, ‘Well, do you want to run on that field?’” Kristi recalled in a YouTube video detailing Korben’s story. “If you want to run on the football field you better get up and start walking.”

The motivation worked.

“It got him going,” she said. “I think the wishes really helped.”

“Undescribable”

Korben slowly healed, and the family was able to return to Eagle River. Shortly before the school year started, Korben’s big day finally came when the family flew to Charlotte, North Carolina for what turned out to be a dream come true.

On the day of his wish, Korben was driven to the stadium in a limousine, then brought in to meet Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who signed him to a contract as a wide receiver. Then Korben was brought in front of the media for a press conference, where he told the media about the contract talks.

“The negotiation was very simple,” Korben told the media. “I said yes.”

The press conference was filmed, and the Charlotte Observer newspaper made a video about Senden’s experience.

Korben even got his own locker in the Panthers’ locker room, where he dressed out and met his new teammates. Most greeted him warmly, including Olson, who walked right up to Korben and shook his hand.

One exception was hulking defensive end Mario Addison.

“He was talking all mean, like, ‘I’m gonna come after you,’” Korben said of his first encounter with the 6-foot-3, 254-pound Addison. “At first it was kinda scary. Then I was like, ‘ah, he’s just joking.’”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera took time to talk to Korben personally, and several players spent one-on-one time with the 13-year-old. Wide receiver Torrey Smith made a huge impact by playing catch with Korben, cracking jokes and helping the youngster feel at home on the NFL turf.

For Korben, the feeling of wearing an NFL uniform and strapping on the pads alongside his heroes was “undescribable.”

“I’ve never been able to play Pop Warner or anything so I’ve never been able to have that stuff on,” he said. “So just to have that gear on, to be on the field and to just catch the ball, it’s just cool.”

The reception Korben and his family got from the Panthers couldn’t have been better, Kirby Senden said.

“They all buy into it,” he said.

Korben’s wish was granted during the Panther’s “Fan Fest,” the first practice of the season open to the public. But while the event was designed as a showcase for local fans, Kirby Senden said the team went out of its way to make sure his son felt special.

“Korben was really the focus, that’s what it felt like,” he said.

In the YouTube video, Smith explained why he and his teammates were so eager to embrace their teammate-for-a-day.

“As much as he looks up to us, we look up to him and his strength,” Smith said. “So it’s pretty cool that he’s been able to be here and I enjoyed my night with him.”

“Awesome”

At the end of Korben’s visit, a representative with Make-A-Wish came up to him and said there was one more thing.

“It was like surprise after surprise after surprise,” Korben said.

Foundation representatives told Korben and his family they’d like to fly them back to Carolina for an actual game later this season.

“That was awesome,” he said.

Now that they’re back home in Alaska, Korben and his family are trying to get back to a normal routine. Korben is recovering well from surgery, and is able to play noncontact sports like tennis and even basketball. His prognosis is good, though doctors will have to continue to monitor his heart for irregularities.

The YouTube video showing Senden’s time with the team has more than 2,000 views, many of them from coworkers of Kristi and Kirby, who both teach at local high schools.

Chugiak principal Megan Hatswell said members of her staff watched the video multiple times during the first week of school.

“And every time someone tears up,” she said.

Korben said he’s grateful for the gift given him by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Panthers. Although he’s no longer on the team, he said he’ll always remember the day he spent as an NFL player.

“Even though the wish is over, I’ll still have the experience, I’ll still have the memories,” he said.

And he wants his former teammates and those who helped make his wish possible he’ll never forget their generosity and kindness.

“I couldn’t think of a word more than ‘thank you,’” he said. “If I could say thank you billions of times, I would.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]

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