Inside college football's coolest new tradition: Iowa's hospital wave

Iowa fans wave to patients, family members at children's hospital (0:46)

Fans at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium continue the new tradition of waving to the top floor of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital at the end of the first quarter. (0:46)

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Blair Smith lost her straight, light-brown hair amid increasing doses of chemotherapy, spinal taps and bone marrow aspirations that followed her cancer diagnosis last year. Her hair grew back, then it all fell out again.

On Saturday, as a crowd of 65,668 at Kinnick Stadium turned in their seats after the first quarter and looked up to wave to Blair, atop the adjacent University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital, her dad, James Smith, did not fight back his tears.

"This is an amazing thing that all the fans are doing for the kids," he said.

Blair, 9, was hospitalized Friday through Sunday for a scheduled infusion to increase the calcium levels in her bones, made brittle by months of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her cancer is remission. Eleven chemotherapy sessions remain over the next 10 months before Blair and her family start the process to move forward.

With an intravenous unit on wheels attached to a port implanted in her chest, she played with her sister, 7-year-old Norah, inside this marvel of a structure on the 12th floor of the hospital -- opened in February as an extension of century-old UI Hospitals and Clinics campus. Blair's hair is growing back curly, just as she had hoped. And as she peered through the window Saturday over Hawkins Drive into the stadium below, Blair smiled and found a momentary escape from cancer.

"Kids are kids first," said Gwen Senio, manager of the hospital's child life care staff, tasked to ease the mental strain on pediatric patients.

"Even if they're sick."

No football program in the nation treats sick kids quite like Iowa.

Much has been made of The Wave since Sept. 2, when Iowa fans at the season-opening Wyoming game turned a grassroots movement on social media into a touching moment.

Media flocked to Iowa City to document the new tradition. TV cameras on Saturday during the first quarter of the Hawkeyes' 31-14 win over North Texas crowded into the hospital "press box" -- the space designed to accommodate patients like Blair and their families for all Iowa games, home and away.

The same HawkVision feed that plays on the stadium scoreboard is shown on a four-screen display at the hospital. Iowa cheerleaders showed up Saturday. There are snacks and games for the kids, along with pom-poms.

The Wave and all of this additional newness serves only to underscore what has long existed -- a deep, impactful and unique relationship between Iowa football and children in need of help.

James and Maggie Smith knew 18 months ago that something was wrong with Blair. Normally full of energy and eager to play soccer and softball, she complained of a sore throat, then pain in shoulder, knee and back.

In Mason City, Iowa, Blair's pediatrician drew blood and sent the results to Iowa City, where doctors summoned the Smiths. Within a few hours of their arrival on March 26, 2016, they knew it was leukemia. Blair did not respond as well as hoped to the first rounds of treatment. She contracted pneumonia. Harsh doses of chemotherapy required her to spend nearly all of last summer hospitalized in Iowa City after she completed third grade.

"It's been a huge roller coaster," said Maggie Smith, a registered nurse at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa.

Because of her profession, Maggie said, she knows of the worst outcome for every situation.

"That's very hard," she said.

Regardless, James and Maggie Smith said they recognize Blair's situation is far from the worst. They've met patients whose conditions required them to leave Iowa for alternative treatments and others who were re-diagnosed with cancer after entering remission.

Blair's last treatment is set for July 20, 2018.

"She's one of the lucky ones," Maggie Smith said.

You know Kirk Ferentz as Iowa's coach of 19 years, a product of the early Hayden Fry era in the 1980s and the unwavering force behind a program built on the backs of overachievers.

Across the street from Kinnick Stadium, he's known as an equally powerful figure on whose back the lives of sick children are improved.

In August, the children's hospital announced a gift from the coach and his wife, Mary Ferentz, of $1 million to help create a program for neonatal research. On the 11th floor of the new hospital, the Ferentz name graces an infusion room, in which pediatric cancer patients receive chemotherapy and care like the treatment that was administered to Blair Smith last weekend.

The Ferentz leadership is a catalyst for the hospital's growth and ability to mend broken families. They set an example for Iowa student-athletes that resonates statewide through the 71,000 patients treated annually by the children's hospital and its affiliated sites.

"They're understated people, but there's nothing that's understated about that relationship," said Scott Turner, chief operating officer and executive director of the children's hospital. "It's genuine and authentic, just like Kirk and Mary."

Mary Ferentz has poured her energy into the hospital in a way similar to her husband's work in football.

For seven years, she has helped direct the Ladies Football Academy, raising $1.8 million for the hospital. She has chaired the Children's Hospital Council for the past 11 years and served among a group to help design the new hospital, traveling to visit facilities in an effort to create the ideal environment for kids in Iowa City.

"People in Iowa are very humble," Mary Ferentz said. "They put their heads down and go to work and don't expect a whole lot back. They take pride in what they do and take care of each other. But they need a person who can brag for them, so that was my role."

Of course, she did more. And the more she did, the more their Kirk and Mary's enthusiasm grew, and the more they wanted to contribute.

"Because of Mary's association, we've gotten to know so many of the doctors," Kirk Ferentz said. "You meet the people who are actually doing the work. They're phenomenal."

But why did they feel such a tug to help in the first place? To begin, the first four of the couple's five kids were born at the Iowa hospital campus.

In February 2004, their oldest, Brian, now the Hawkeyes' offensive coordinator and then a junior offensive lineman at Iowa, underwent knee surgery at the hospital to repair a torn MCL in his right knee. He developed a staph infection that led to concerns of amputation and later operations to remove pieces of bone and soft tissue.

The same year, Iowa lost Jeffrey Parker -- the adult son of Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker, also now deceased -- who was born with Down syndrome.

"As parents," Kirk Ferentz said, "it's hard when your kid is sick or hurt."

In the parents of pediatrics patients, Kirk and Mary saw a piece of themselves.

When Steve Ferentz, their youngest, graduated from Iowa City High School in 2012 and walked on at Iowa, Mary made it her purpose to give to the hospital. Two years later, Brian Ferentz and his wife, Nikki, lost a daughter 21 weeks into her pregnancy.

Hence, the new neonatal unit, dedicated to raise the survival rate of premature babies.

"We signed up to do what we could, and one thing led to another," Mary Ferentz said. "As we see more, we truly understand how important it is, and it's become that much more important to us. We've been inspired by those people over the years.

"They inspired us."

In turn, Kirk and Mary Ferentz helped inspire a crusade of action that raised a hospital from the ground next to a football stadium.

Daxon Phippen never got sick, he said, before last month, when he began to experience headaches at the start of his senior year at Waukee High School.

A sinus infection hospitalized Daxon in Des Moines, Iowa. Doctors cut open his head to relieve pressure caused by a subdural empyema, a pocket of pus that formed after the infection traveled to the layer of tissue above his brain.

Daxon and his parents, Lori and J.D. Phippen, arrived in Iowa City on Sept. 4, spending six days at the children's hospital as doctors operated through his nasal cavity. A return trip last week followed after Daxon's symptoms worsened.

He hopes to go home this week.

"There's not much to look forward to when you're sitting in a hospital," Daxon said.

Until Saturday, that is, as he awaited an afternoon trip to the 12th floor. The fans below waved at Daxon and his parents. They proudly displayed Iowa T-shirts -- symbols of their new allegiance to the Hawkeyes.

Before the experience in Iowa City, the Phippens had no favorite team in the state.

"This is pretty convincing," J.D. Phippen said.

Look no further than Iowa's Kid Captain program for solid evidence of the bond between football players and sick children.

Since 2009, the children's hospital has solicited some 3,000 nominations, choosing one pediatric patient for every game, in Iowa City or elsewhere, to serve as the Kid Captain. Those who are selected are featured on trading cards and mingle with the Hawkeyes at an August event.

At each home game, the Kid Captain receives premium seats and an introduction to the crowd before participating in the coin toss and other pregame festivities.

"It's always a goosebump moment," said Cheryl Hodgson, co-founder of the Kid Captain program and director of marketing for the children's hospital.

So, you see, the foundation was already laid when Hawkeye fan Levi Thompson noticed a post on his popular Facebook page, named Hawkeye Heaven, in June of this year. The suggestion, submitted by follower Krista Young, called for Iowa fans, each home Saturday in the fall, to "wave to the kids" in the new hospital.

Thompson liked Young's idea and came up with the twist to make it happen at the end of the first quarter. He asked for fans to submit photos of their Kinnick view from the hospital. Every Sunday over the summer, Thompson posted a photo and pushed the concept.

Like that, The Wave was born.

"I didn't expect it to go national, but I had a good feeling it was going to work," Thompson said. "If nothing else, let's get them to smile."

Smile? Oh, did they ever smile.

Here are the words of James Smith, in a Facebook post on his family's Team Blair page after the Saturday moment:

"Words can not describe the feeling it was to watch Iowa Hawkeyes fans turn and wave to all the kids after the first quarter of the football game. All these kids are going through the worst thing ever, and to see them so happy when the fans do this it brought tears to my eyes and chills down my back!! The Iowa Hawkeyes fans are the best fans any team can have and we all proud to be Hawkeye fans!! ... Team Blair always and forever!!"

The resiliency of sick children continues, after all these years, to amaze Mary Ferentz.

Still, she said, those kids need more help than doctors can offer. They need more than a wave or a day to meet the team or a spectacular view of the next game. They need a partner.

"Who better to partner with our most vulnerable than people who are so blessed physically?" she said. "You see it and you realize how uplifting it is for the kids."

Hospital leadership readily recognizes the impact of emotional support in the recovery process. For pediatric patients in Iowa City, the perfect system for support exists right next door.

"It's why children's hospitals across the country focus on family," said Turner, the hospital's executive director, "but what we're talking about here is family extending into athletics and football. It's because we're all friends, colleagues, neighbors.

"This is about knowing that you're not fighting by yourself."