CHARLOTTE – After being hired as an honorary coach for the Carolina Panthers on Saturday, 8-year-old Jack Bolton was at a loss for words.
That's not to say that Coach Bolton was speechless.
In preparation for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Panthers turning his dream into a reality, Bolton penned a pregame speech to share with the team. But after the overwhelming experience of signing his contract, getting his gear and then spending time with his heroes in the locker room prior to Fan Fest, he couldn't bring himself to deliver his inspiring words.
Still, his mere presence inspired the Panthers even before head coach Ron Rivera stepped in and read Bolton's speech.
"He was a little too nervous to read it, but when Coach Rivera read it, hearing the response of the team was pretty awesome," said Jack's mother, Holly. "He's such a huge Panthers fan. He keeps up with everything they're doing."
After taking the field through the players' tunnel with Rivera at his side, Coach Bolton literally kept up with what his favorite team was doing, keeping stats on the sideline while keeping his whistle and challenge flag at the ready. In between his coaching duties, he collected autographs, memorabilia and most memorably hugs, handshakes and high-fives.
By the end of practice, Bolton had become so popular that his favorite player, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, knelt down and asked Bolton for his autograph.
"It's a pretty special day," said Jack's father, John. "The dimensions of this wish just go on and on. Just to be in the stadium was super-special, but this is unbelievable. I don't know how they pulled it together."
Coach Bolton knows that football teams face obstacles all the time, and his personal obstacle is one he tries to tackle head-on every day. Bolton has spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that severely impacts his mobility and respiratory health.
His parents are both carriers of the disease, meaning there's a one-in-four chance that each of their offspring will contract the disease. Coach Bolton's older sister, Eleanor, was diagnosed with the disease at age 2, about a month before he was born with it.
The long-term prognosis for the siblings steadily improves each year.
"There's no cure yet, but it's coming," John Bolton said. "We will have it in our lifetime no doubt because they've regenerated what they're missing. Now it's a matter delivering the cells to the body.
"We're very optimistic that even if the cure isn't here for a while that they'll be fine."
Coach Bolton has loved football his whole life, but because of his physical challenges, he had to find a different way of getting into the game.
"He's been coaching his friends at recess for several years, lining them up and calling plays," Holly Bolton said. "He's very interested in coaching, so when he got to make a wish, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to coach the Panthers."
Photo by Brian Christiansen
Coach Bolton's influence on the Panthers will last well beyond Saturday, but his coaching contract does not. So when the season gets under way, he'll be back to coaching and cheering from the living room.
"Jack is really a big fan," 10-year-old Eleanor said. "Every single game on TV, he sets up a little shrine on the table in the living room. He puts all of the Panthers things from his room on it, everything he owns."
The shrine won't be so little anymore.