By Theresa Edwards Makrush
The Jacksonville Armada Football Club, the city’s professional soccer team, is preparing for its second season in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Regular season matches begin on April 10, but until then several pre-season friendlies give the team and fans a chance to warm up. Thanks to the generous donation of tickets by team owner and CEO Mark Frisch, the crowd at a recent pre-season game included approximately 150 patients, caregivers, medical and administrative staff members of the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute.
The event at Community First Park in the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville was even more special for seven pediatric patients because they were invited to participate in on-field ceremonies. Six of the children took the field with the starting opposing team players as part of The Starting XI, a long-standing tradition in the English Premier League that has spread to other soccer leagues including the NASL. Each of the 11 starting players walks hand-in-hand onto the field with a “match mascot,” a child who aspires to be a professional player. In this way, the players pass along their love of the game to the next generation. One additional child had the honor of raising the American flag for the National Anthem. The children visited with the players pre- and post-game, posed for photos with them and got autographs.
Friends and family in the stands cheered and held up hand-made posters in support of the children and the team. The posters were part of the group art project at the art-in-medicine table in the days leading up to the match.
This up-close encounter is just one of several activities over the past year that the Armada has made available to the Institute’s patients. Last fall, the Armada provided complimentary tickets to a match and to a movie night at the stadium. They also sponsored holiday-themed mugs and hot chocolate at a gingerbread-themed family fun night last December hosted by the Zane Beadles Parade Foundation.