Yale’s football team has 34 new freshman members this year, and most will toil in relative obscurity until they earn playing time as upperclassmen. But when Dante Chiappetta of North Haven joined the team, he got a press conference in a booth high above the Yale Bowl. While the cameras rolled, Chiappetta signed his name and committed himself to the team, then tossed a football to head coach Tony Reno in celebration. Those in attendance cheered.
But Dante’s addition to the Bulldogs’ roster was distinct in other ways as well. The most obvious is that he is only six years old.
Dante has cortical visual impairment and cerebral palsy, conditions that together nearly blinded him and have left him unable to walk without the assistance of leg braces. He attends physical, occupational and speech therapy daily, and can communicate only with basic words and sentences. His “draft” by the Bulldogs was arranged by Team IMPACT, a Boston non-profit that uses sports to improve the lives of children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.
Only a few weeks later at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the Yale men’s basketball team offered a similarly uplifting gesture to fourteen-year-old Riley Mack. A native of Florida who now lives in Trumbull, Connecticut, Riley was diagnosed at age three with a debilitating brain tumor that has sapped his energy and health. But now, thanks to the largesse of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation — like Team IMPACT, a nonprofit pairing sick children with sports teams — Riley wears a No. 1 jersey while he looks on at Yale men’s basketball home games.
For kids and teams alike, the experience has been transformative. Dante’s and Riley’s parents say partnerships with the teams have given their kids energy and strength, while players say the kids’ presence helps power them through tough stretches. In an age of statistical analysis and sports by the numbers, some may be skeptical that such emotional gestures can have real returns. But if there are skeptics, those on the court or the field aren’t among them.
According to tight end Jackson Stallings ’17, “Dante is at the center of the growth of our team” — a team that is now 3–0 to start the season.
But the stories of Dante and Riley are more than just heartwarming. With professional sports constantly mired in scandal and players demanding multimillion-dollar salaries to play games designed to pass the time, their stories hint at questions of why we play sports in the first place.
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Dante’s “draft” took place on Sept. 11, in the company of his father and mother, Joe and Jeanine, as well as his two brothers, Nate and London.
“The night of the draft, it was evident from the smile on his face, from ear to ear, that he loved being the center of attention,” said Joe Chiappetta, adding that Dante has taken to the team and will be dressing as a Yale football player on Halloween.
Stallings and defensive end Marty Moesta ’17 have been instrumental as liaisons between the football team and the Chiappetta family, but their job has been an easy one: Players say having Dante around has been completely natural.
When asked about his role in setting up the event for Dante, Stallings was quick to offer a correction.
“Well, it [wasn’t] really an event,” Stallings said. “We have a family-type relationship with the Chiappettas. They come to most practices and all of our home games. We have dinner together sometimes, and Dante is at the center of the growth of our team.”
The Bulldogs’ growth has been on full display this season as they currently boast a 3–0 record, highlighted by a remarkable 49–43 overtime victory against Army. And according to Stallings, Dante’s presence has played a vital role in the team’s success.
That sentiment — that the teams benefit just as much as the children they take in — is felt just as strongly up the street from the Yale Bowl, at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
That was the venue where, just a few short weeks after the football team drafted Dante on Sept. 11, the Bulldogs’ basketball roster also grew by one, and point guard Javier Duren ’15 could not be more grateful for 14-year-old Riley Mack’s presence.
“He’s going to be able to impact us more than we can impact him,” Duren said in an interview for an article last week. “Whenever we’re feeling down, whether it’s because of practice or it’s because of games, we know that we can look at Riley for support and he’ll be there for us.”
After head coach James Jones presented Riley with a Yale jersey bearing the number one, the team welcomed the youngster with open arms and his very own stall in the locker room where he could hang up his new Nike top. Adorned with a nameplate, the stall will be Riley’s to call his own indefinitely.
“This relationship is for as long as Riley is alive. He’s going to have that locker in there and he’s going to be No. 1 at their games wearing their jersey,” said Denis Murphy, the founder of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. As Team IMPACT provided the platform for Dante to join Yale’s football team, Murphy’s foundation united Riley with the Elis’ basketball team.
If anyone understands what parents like Joe or Jeanine or Donna — Riley’s mother — are going through, it is Murphy.
The “Jaclyn” in “Friends of Jaclyn” is Jaclyn Murphy, Denis’s daughter. Her story inspired Riley’s.
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Jaclyn was nine years old when, in 2004, she received news that would forever change her life as well as her family’s. Jaclyn was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor.
But Jaclyn is now 20 years old, in remission and studying at Marist College. And neither she nor her family could have predicted that her diagnosis would change thousands of lives besides their own — and for the better.
The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation was the Murphy family’s response to a magical relationship Jaclyn had the fortune of experiencing. The year following the devastating news of her tumor, Jaclyn happened to become connected with the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team.
After building a most unlikely friendship, the team adopted Jaclyn as an honorary member. Even more unlikely, the team that had been established just three years prior went on to capture Northwestern’s first NCAA national championship in any sport in 64 years.
Inspired by Jaclyn, the team went on a run for the ages. One title would certainly have been enough for everyone to walk away happy and thankful to have witnessed such a feat.
Instead, the team went on to win the next six national championships.
The Murphys hoped to replicate the unique bond that only sports can produce, and in the nine years since FOJ was founded, over 500 children have been adopted by collegiate athletic programs across the country — Riley was the 520th. But Murphy says the experience will never grow old.
“It’s hard because we’ve lost 103 children. I’m around death. People see me and they run,” Murphy said in an Oct. 1 interview for an earlier article in the News. “You don’t know how long a child’s journey is going to be, whether it’s a day or a week or a year — that’s how insidious this disease is. But one day at a time, that’s why we live in the moment and play in the moment.”
For FOJ and Team IMPACT, the missions are one and the same: to improve the quality of life for children who have been fighting uphill battles for the majority of their lives.
It’s hardly a surprise that sports are a key ingredient. Murphy fondly recalled the memories of his family attending practice at Northwestern, and the wondrous sensation of immersing themselves in the midst of that team’s storybook run to the title.
For a couple of hours at a time, sports enabled Jaclyn and her family a release from the immense pressures and stresses of real life.
Eleven years later, sports are doing the same for Riley.
According to Murphy, Riley suffers from chronic fatigue that makes completing his physical therapy near impossible. Nevertheless, Riley played for over an hour on the court at Payne Whitney, dribbling and shooting with his new teammates with energy his mother hadn’t seen in some time.
Though Riley’s turnaround on that day may seem inexplicable, Duren, the point guard — who has experienced the adrenaline rush of sports many a time — offered as straightforward an explanation as possible.
“Sports can change lives, man,” he said.
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Murphy declined to accept praise for what he has created with FOJ, noting that he’s “nothing but a brain tumor dad” trying to make Jaclyn’s vision come to life.
Like Duren or Stallings, he doesn’t see what he’s doing as one-sided charity. Teams give something to the kids they adopt and the kids give something back, whether they realize it or not.
All the same, Murphy acknowledged that what he does can be difficult, as is inevitable when in such an emotional and potentially heartbreaking line of work. But if you ask the players who have gotten to know Riley and Dante, the strength that such difficulty requires is what makes the relationship special.