UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State men's lacrosse team adopted a new teammate last fall, Gavin Royer, age 5. The pairing came together as a result of the Nittany Lions' and the Royers' participation in the Friends of Jaclyn Program.
Gavin Royer was diagnosed with a brain tumor just 10 days after his fifth birthday last March. Since then, Gavin's and his family were adopted by the Penn State men's lacrosse team through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a program that pairs both collegiate and high school sports teams with families of children battling pediatric cancer.
Not only did the men's lacrosse team adopt Gavin, but also the women's lacrosse team adopted Gavin's two sisters, Alaina and Victoria. The pairings have provided support for the Royer family throughout the past months of Gavin's treatment. Head coach Jeff Tambroni explained that the Royers have provided priceless comfort and support to his players.
"For us, it's more about just kind of that contact in perspective with like 'this is what he's going through, [Gavin] needs a support group, let's make sure we provide that for him' and vice versa," said Tambroni. "Their family provides a wonderful support group respective to our guys."
The men's team went all in when meeting Gavin and the Royers for the first time in December. Gavin was given his own locker in the team's locker room, as well as his own equipment including sticks and jerseys. Gavin proudly wears his Penn State lacrosse attire whenever he gets the chance. He displayed his Penn State pride at both men's lacrosse preseason scrimmages, as well as their home opener, a victory against Vermont.
"First and foremost we're locker buddies," said senior captain Kyle Zittel. "His locker is right next to mine. But just welcoming him in, I guess I took on responsibility because I felt the first connection with Gavin when he first came in and was excited and I got to interact with him from the get-go."
The Royer family, hailing from Morrisdale, Pennsylvania, has made it a goal to be in attendance for all the home men's lacrosse games. The family gets to hang out on the team's side of the field, watching the game with the same view as the players. Being at the games further connects the Royers to the young men that have become family to them.
Gavin and his family are fully involved in gameday rituals, from pregame fist bumps with the players, to the post game team handshakes. Senior captain Kyle Zittel has been one of the more involved players with the program and became instantly attached to the team's newest member.
"Everybody feels a connection with Gavin," said Zittel. "So when we run on the field and your mind is at the game you see Gavin and it's just in the back of your head that he's there and a fist bump is all it takes for us to connect with him initially and you feel it. It's not something I can describe in words because a fist bump doesn't look like much but when you're running by him you just feel it inside in your heart."
The connection with the team doesn't stop there. The Royers hang out at the postgame tailgates, mixing amongst the players, coaches, and families alike.
"He's always sitting on the stairs with his family, and as we go through and get food and interact with our teammates and family and other guys' families on the team, he's there as well," said Zittel. "He's another family member of ours."
This weekend's game against Penn will be slightly different for the Royer family. Penn State men's lacrosse plans to honor Gavin and his family during halftime, in recognition for their continued support and involvement with the team.
While Penn State men's lacrosse is a vital support system for the Royer family, the team believes Gavin and his family have impacted them in an equally important way. Gavin's fighting spirit has brought a new wave of motivation for the Nittany Lions to succeed, not only for themselves, but also for their extended family on the sidelines.
"We say this to our guys, it's a game," said Tambroni. "We get wrapped up in it because it's a profession and it's a way of life, but at the end of the day you look around and look at someone like Gavin who's constantly smiling with all that he has going on in his life and it really forces you to step back from everything that you're doing and stop complaining about the little things and realize that a lot more people out there, including Gavin, have it much more challenging. For that I think he has done a lot more for us than we've done for him."
The Nittany Lions take on Penn this Saturday in Holuba Hall at noon.