Even though the season opener is still a few weeks away, the NC State football program has already claimed its first victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.

On Saturday night, the squad went up in flames, playing the fight song every time a player crossed the goal line. The cheerleaders were there and Devin Leary was throwing touchdowns. It was like a game day – and that was the point.

For the third time in four years, the Wolfpack has hosted Victory Day, an event hosted by the State of North Carolina in partnership with GiGi’s Playhouse, giving children with cognitive and physical disabilities a chance to play football alongside the pack. Raleigh’s GiGi Playhouse provides educational, therapeutic and career development opportunities for people with Down syndrome.

On Saturday, 35 participants had the opportunity to be part of the NC State team. It started with a warm welcome from the Wolfpack players in the Murphy Center and a chance to individually exit the tunnel onto the pitch, where the entire football team greeted them.

“We’re with you tonight,” head coach Dave Doeren told the group before the evening started. “You are in our team. “

Participants had the chance to do different exercises and spend personal time with team members. Where else could you learn to tackle linebacker Payton Wilson, catch passes from Leary or run behind center Grant Gibson on your way to the end zone for a touchdown? The band performed with every score, the cheerleaders were loud and the smiles were contagious throughout the evening.

“Seeing the smiles on the faces of these kids also brings smiles to our own,” NC State linebacker Isaiah Moore said after the event. “We are just happy to have the opportunity to partner with the GiGi Playhouse. “

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Megan Czejkowski of Raleigh celebrates scoring a touchdown with North Carolina State soccer players on “Victory Day” with the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC on Saturday August 7, 2021 The Wolfpack has partnered with GiGi’s Playhouse Raleigh, an achievement of Down’s Syndrome, to allow participants to enjoy a game day experience with the players. Ethan Hyman [email protected]

Inclusion and acceptance

It was the first time Jim Murdoch and his 18-year-old daughter Grace had attended the event. At one point, Murdoch almost got run over by around 20 North Carolina state football players – and it was awesome.

Grace was running towards the end zone and the Wolfpack players were chasing her. Murdoch was trying to take a picture of Grace, who, instead of running in the middle, called her own audible and decided to sweep outside towards her father.

It was a clear indication to Murdoch that Grace had broken her shyness and was having a good time.

“Grace takes a little while to warm up, but once she warms up she’s totally in it,” said Murdoch of Cary. “The touchdown drill and then the race through the cones, she was definitely in it, I could tell.”

After Grace scored, the team formed around her, joining in a celebratory dance. No more smiles everywhere. Murdoch noticed how the players enjoyed the night as much as Grace.

“I think for them it was a great opportunity to spend time with people with Down syndrome or other developmental and intellectual delays and stuff,” Murdoch said. “One of the things we’ve been challenged with is the opportunities for acceptance and inclusion and it goes all the way to inclusion. Watching the players include these people in the drills and have the same smile as the participants and cheer them on and really have fun is more than it to me. For Grace she had a lot of fun, but for me it was more seeing the players and seeing how they included them in what they were doing tonight. The biggest impact is on the players tonight. I think it was fantastic.

Brock McKirgan is the Director of Football Operations at NC State and has been hosting the event since 2018. Not only are they teaming up with GiGi’s Playhouse for Victory Day, but also 321 Coffee, members of GiGi’s Playhouse who come. serve coffee at the Murphy Center on Monday. . Saturday, however, was all about football and giving them the best game day experience they could imagine.

“It warms your heart,” McKirgan said. “We got them out of the tunnel and it almost brings tears to your eyes.”

All the tears shed on the grass on Saturday were tears of joy. The event was a reminder that while the players are revered in the fall on the grill, they are still big kids at heart – big kids ready to have a night out, at the end of the first week of camp. fall, running on a perfect August night, doing whatever it takes to make the participants happy. That’s why the players, who trained during the day and were scheduled to show up at the Murphy Center at 7 a.m. the next morning, stayed until 10 p.m. to sign autographs and pose for photos.

“When we can come here and take a little break from camp and have some fun, that means the world, not only to them, but to us as well,” said Moore. “We still preach by chasing two dreams and wanting to improve the community around us, we had the opportunity to do it and we had fun with it.”

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NC State football players lead the way for Grace Chalker as she runs for a touchdown on “Victory Day” with the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC on Saturday 7th August 2021. The Wolfpack has partnered with GiGi’s Playhouse Raleigh, a Down’s Syndrome Success Center, to provide participants with a game day experience with the players. Ethan Hyman [email protected]

Build trust

When attendees arrived at the Murphy Center around 7 p.m., about 20 players from the state of North Carolina formed a tunnel leading to the gate. They applauded, gave high fives and words of encouragement as everyone entered.

GiGi’s board member Jeanhee Hoffman watched them enter one by one. Some participants, new to the event, had apprehension on their faces. It can be intimidating to have these great strangers greet you for the first time.

But Hoffman also noticed that by the time they had walked through the building and it was time to get out of the tunnel, that apprehension was gone. It only took a short stroll around the Murphy Center, hand in hand with the players, to put them at ease.

“It’s huge,” Hoffman said. “In society they might always be a little shy at first, then their confidence builds up and that’s what we do at GiGi’s Playhouse is build confidence. You see this transformation, they arrive a little shy, but by the time they are in the tunnel, they are ready to run and embrace the world.

At the end of the event, participants met at the 50-yard line and took a group photo with the North Carolina State Football Team. Everyone put up the Wolfpack panel with their hand and howled as the cameras took pictures. Doeren told the group when the night started that they were with them tonight and after three hours it was hard to deny the overall impact everyone had on each other.

“This is a testament to Coach Doeren and the entire NC State football family,” said Murdoch. The whole football program has been of great support to these people. These guys just got into the heart of training and took the time to do it, I think it’s a huge testament to their belief that there is a lot that these people can do and that ‘they just need that acceptance and inclusion, to give them a chance to do it and have fun too.

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered varsity recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.