Confetti fell on the field at Raymond James Stadium as Clemson pulled off the improbable come-from-behind victory to beat Alabama for the national title. Amid the celebration Monday night, 12-year-old Jake Parker sat in the stands with his family in disbelief that his wish had actually come true.
"It was phenomenal," Jake's dad, Giles, said. "The Clemson family embraced us to get us there."
Jake, a fifth grader at Flaherty Elementary School in Massachusetts, has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that is crushing to the muscle system. Most inflicted with the disease can no longer walk by age 12, and the average life expectancy is 26. Three years ago, walking became too difficult for Jake, leaving him to rely on a motorized wheelchair.
Last year, through an organization called Team Impact that connects kids with various medical conditions, like muscular dystrophy, with college sports teams, Jake became mascot of the UMass-Boston baseball team and MIT football team. Being around college athletes, Jake started watching more and more college sports. During the 2015 college football season Jake and Giles watched the Clemson-Miami game together. Despite the 973 miles that stand between Jake's hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, and Clemson, South Carolina, the 12-year-old adopted the Tigers as his favorite team.
After watching Clemson fall to Alabama last year, Jake wanted nothing more than to see the Tigers get revenge on the Crimson Tide this year in the national championship game. With their son having a terminal illness, Jake's parents try to make all of his wishes come true. So when Jake asked his parents if they could go to Tampa for the game, his father was determined to find a way to make it happen, despite the financial challenge.
Jake's mother no longer works full-time so she can give him the care he requires before and after school, and to transport him to frequent doctors appointments. With the family's reduced income plus the high cost of travel to Tampa and game tickets, the Parkers needed help. So Giles created a GoFundMe page to get his son to the game.
"Jake actually assumed we would be able to go," Giles said. "I think it's just his positive attitude. He always believes we can make anything happen."
Jake was right. The response was incredible. Along with donations from family and friends, strangers from the Clemson fan base got word of Jake's wish and contributed to get him to the big game. In one week, the page received 71 donations for a total of $4,975, enough for the whole family to make the trip from Braintree to Tampa.
Before arriving, the Parker family was able to connect with Clemson's band director who promised Jake some Tigers gear to sport at the national championship game.
But when Jake and his family arrived, what the band gave him was beyond his wildest dreams.
"We were priming Jake that he might have a hat for him or a T-shirt or even a flag," Giles said. "When Jake saw the band director pull out a football he was immediately stunned, and then to see it was signed by Coach Swinney specifically for him. We were blown away."
For the Parker family, being able to make the trip to Tampa and attend the national championship game was one thing. But when DeShaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow to score the winning touchdown with just one second left on the clock, it became truly unforgettable.
"He can go back to school and for a moment be a normal kid that can talk to his friends about the game or about his favorite team," Parker said. "I think he'll always remember this as the top experience of his life."