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Make-A-Wish Foundation turns boy’s dream to coach Panthers into reality that keeps on going

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Holly Bolton is due in three weeks. She’ll have a boy. Her 9-year-old son, Jack, has picked out a name.

The baby will be Cam – or Captain, Steve, Star, Greg, Luke, Drayton, Jonathan, Jordan, Ben, Mike or Thomas.

After Carolina rookie cornerback Melvin White’s touchdown two weeks ago against Atlanta, Jack also lobbied for Melvin.

The baby will not be named Melvin.

———

Jack has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a degenerative muscle disease. The body grows but the muscles fail to keep up. Jack uses a motorized wheelchair with a Carolina Panthers bumper sticker on the back.

When Jack was in first grade, he began to diagram football plays for his friends, often during recess. Jack would watch the John Madden video game. He’d watch football on TV and, when there was a penalty, try to guess the infraction.

A third-grader at Davidson Elementary, Jack told the Make-A-Wish Foundation he wanted to be a coach. On Aug. 13, the Panthers made him associate head coach for Fan Fest.

What was supposed to be a one-day wish has yet to end. The Panthers invited Jack to practice Friday.

Players give him gloves and cleats and fist bumps.

Jack gives them letters of encouragement.

Holly offers letter-writing advice but Jack ignores it.

“Coach to coach communication,” she says.

On Nov. 25 Jack writes: Dear Panthers: every game is hard. The win over the Patriots was amazing! But again every game is hard because every body wants to win. Tampa Bay (Carolina’s next opponent) really wants to win.

Happy Thanks giving

coach Jack

“Jack is part of who we are,” says Ron Rivera, Carolina’s other coach. “He really is part of the organization. Mike Ditka (for whom Rivera played in Chicago) always said, ‘When you stop playing, people will forget certain things about you. But they’ll always remember how you treated their kids.’ 

———

Jack’s first act at Fan Fest is to sign a contract with general manager Dave Gettleman. He meets team president Danny Morrison and is given a locker next to Rivera’s. Jack picks out Panthers gear and receives a whistle. He wants the whistle.

Rivera calls a team meeting that had not been scheduled and tells players they all have challenges and opportunities. He wants to introduce them to a young man who has challenges and opportunities. He introduces Coach Jack.

Players stand and cheer. Because they are rambunctious Rivera tells Coach Jack to blow his whistle. Coach Jack does and players immediately sit. Jack has written a note. He’s shy, so he asks Rivera to read it.

“Today I will be looking for mistakes when I’m on the field,” Rivera reads. “But for the most part I’ll be in the stands or watching you on TV. But just because I’m not watching from the field doesn’t mean you can goof off.”

Coach Jack ends the note with: “Everybody knows the Panthers are awesome.”

After the meeting, players escort Coach Jack to the locker room and players introduce themselves.

Tackle Jordan Gross makes a request.

“Hey coach, I’m thinking it might be time for me to have a day off,” Gross says.

Coach Jack looks up from his chair at Gross, who is 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds.

“No, you’re practicing,” Coach Jack says.

This was five months ago. On Thursday Gross says: “When a kid can have any wish and he chooses to hang out with us for a day, that’s pretty awesome. His presence was incredibly calm. He wasn’t nervous being in front of the team, he wasn’t nervous talking to us. His confidence and his belief in himself was pretty inspiring.”

Receiver Steve Smith doesn’t lobby for a day off. He lobbies for the ball. He tells Coach Jack that if you want to win, get the ball to 89.

“It’s always a good idea to get the ball to 89,” Smith says this week.

Rivera invites Jack to join him when they leave the tunnel at Fan Fest. Fans at Fan Fest receive a flip card that lists the players, and Coach Jack is on it. When his name is called, the applause is long and loud.

Coach Jack wheels past the players as they stretch, a bristle-haired drill sergeant inspecting the troops. He receives a playbook and headphones. Rivera puts him to work, asking him to track passes and receptions. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson steps out of his golf cart, drops to one knee and talks to Coach Jack.

When Fan Fest ends, Coach Jack is asked to sign autographs and probably signs 50.

Or 51; Cam Newton wants one. Newton reciprocates by pulling off his cleats, signing his name and handing them to Coach Jack. Coach Jack puts them on when he gets home.

———

“Dear Panthers,” Coach Jack writes in mid-December, “Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.”

———

The floors in the Bolton household are made of hardwood and impeccably clean. Eleanor, Jack’s 11-year-old sister, also has SMA. Neither parent realized they were carriers until Eleanor was 2 and Jack was a month from being delivered. John Bolton says the odds were 50-50 their children would be carriers and 1 in 4 they would have SMA.

The family rule is that inside the house the chairs travel no more than 3 mph. The rule is followed when neither parent is looking.

As we talk, Coach Jack’s cellphone buzzes. The cover of the cellphone is a football.

“Well it was just amazing,” he says about his time with the Panthers. “All the players were really nice, coach Ron Rivera was really nice, everybody was really nice. And it was fun trying out being the coach.”

Coach Jack shows some of the plays he has diagrammed, each with Xs and Os and arrows.

Why football?

“It’s the first sport that I really got to understand,” he says.

He’s attended six games this season, including the rain game at Bank of America Stadium against New Orleans. The Boltons sat in the deluge, plastic covering the controls to the power chairs. On the railing beneath a very wet Coach Jack was a sign: “Coach Jack says … I’m Watching You.”

Coach Jack, if you were coaching against San Francisco Sunday, what would you do?

“I would just be calm at any time, like even if they were beating us by, like, 7,” says Coach Jack. “Because I know that the Panthers can do it. Because they’ve done it before.”

Would you get the ball to 89?

“Yes,” Coach Jack says.

Eleanor: Since your brother is Coach Jack, do you have to do what he tells you?

“Definitely not,” she says.

———

John Bolton, 47, signs Jack out of school late Friday morning. He usually writes Doctor. Friday he writes Panthers.

Heavy rain slows to a drizzle as John Bolton and Coach Jack wait for players. Riley Fields, the team’s director of community relations, holds a team umbrella above Coach Jack.

Players pass by on their way to the locker room. Smith is first and he greets Coach Jack warmly. Greg Hardy calls Coach Jack “Boss Man.”

“I got something for you buddy,” Drayton Florence says, and offers gloves.

Gross, safety Mike Mitchell and tight end Ben Hartsock walk up as if they have known Coach Jack all his life.

Players look as if they’ll be soaked for life. Yet, as far I can tell, they all acknowledge, greet or stop to talk.

John Bolton looks as if he’s going to cry. He had hoped back at Fan Fest that his son would get to watch from the side of the field. He didn’t expect this. The family is given passes that will enable them to hang out on the field before the San Francisco game.

“How do you get an assistant with an umbrella and I don’t?” Rivera asks Coach Jack.

Olsen offers gloves and advice: Don’t put them on because they’re too wet.

Newton asks, “Still living off that bonus money, coach?”

He drops to one knee so they see eye to eye, and they talk about Christmas and X-box games.

After the field clears, Coach Jack is asked who his favorite player is.

“All of them,” he says.

———

The Bolton baby due in three weeks will not have SMA or be a carrier.

He will have a name. It probably won’t be Cam or Captain.

“DeAngelo has a nice ring to it,” Holly says.

As running back DeAngelo Williams walks out of the locker room Friday he says: “If they name that baby DeAngelo, I’m coming to visit.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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