Children with serious illnesses receive their golden ticket to the big game.
NEW YORK — Shaline John, a life-long Seattle Seahawks fan, has a lot in common with her favorite team. Both had to fight, persevere and remain committed in order to attend Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday.
For the Seahawks, the battle was about the NFL's championship trophy. For John, it was her life.
John struggled with a kidney disease that kept her in and out of doctors' offices for 16 years. But Sunday, she'll be in an indoor seat watching the big game — the ultimate 18th birthday present.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants one wish from children with life-threatening medical conditions, is sending the teen and 12 other youngsters and their families to the championship. It's part of a decades-long partnership between the non-profit and the NFL.
This year, the group going includes children with leukemia, heart conditions and life-long chronic disorders like cystic fibrosis. Many, like John, wanted to go to the biggest game in football because they understand fighting and what winning on the gridiron will take.
"If things don't seem to be going well in the quarter, there's always the next quarter," said John, offering advice to the Seahawks. "Believe that there is always going to be a chance that things are going to get better. That's the only thing that kept me going. And, I believe that is the only thing that will keep me going."
John, a Seattle native and now a college student, was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a baby. She's been in remission for two years but continues to take daily doses of medication to stay healthy.
"I didn't make the wish thinking my team was going to play," said John, who found out she was going to the game six months ago. "It's crazy."
Her excitement about Sunday's game was echoed by other kids and the 47 family members they brought along for a weekend full of activities.
Since 1982, Make-A-Wish has partnered with the NFL to send 130 kids and their families to the Super Bowl. The league allowed the non-profit to buy the tickets at face-value prices. The kids and one parent will sit in indoor club level seats at MetLife Stadium. Other family members will sit throughout the stadium.
Make-A-Wish started in 1980 by granting the wish of 7-year-old Chris Greicius, who died of leukemia but got to be a police officer for a day. The organization now grants 14,000 wishes a year from children, ages 2½ to 18. After doctors confirm that the child has a life-threatening disease, the youngster makes a wish and staff members handle the logistics of making it come true.
For this year's Super Bowl requests, the NFL provided free transportation for the weekend to places like the Children's Museum of Manhattan and Super Bowl Boulevard. The league also welcomed the group to its headquarters in New York City on Thursday. For that day, St. Louis Ram running back Daryl Richardson, New York Jets tight end Zach Sudfeld, and New York Giants right tackle Justin Pugh stopped by to joke, snap photos and sign autographs with the families.
"It's just about being positive and energy," said Chris Draft, a former NFL player who has visited Make-A-Wish Super Bowl attendees for three years. "Reminding people that we are here. Today is a blessing. We can't go back. We can't go forward. We have to be in the present, so let's enjoy it."
Draft, who lost his wife to lung cancer in 2011, spent hours exchanging light trash talk, hugs and pats on the back with the crowd.
Dillon Simmons, 15, and his parents soaked in the sights and reflected on the chance to celebrate after fighting a cancerous brain tumor.
"I told him to think of something I can never give you," said Denise Simmons, crying as she explained the advice she gave her son as he was picking his wish. "He has had such an incredibly hard year, and he has fought his butt off to kill cancer, and he has. And if anybody deserves this, it's Dillon Simmons."
Dillon, of Estero, Fla., still shakes as he walks and has visible scars from when doctors cut out part of a golf-ball-size tumor. But, dressed in a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and hat Thursday, Dillon dwelled on his good fortune rather than the road ahead.
And, he made a prediction: "The Broncos are going to beat the Seahawks. I like the whole Broncos roster."
For Ryan Jensen, 16, an Atlanta Falcons fan and high school running back, Sunday will be about watching both teams give their all in person.
"I just love how it's a championship and every team puts everything on the line just to win the Lombardi Trophy," he said.
Ryan's wish came after battling cancer that showed up in a large lump on the left side of his neck. After months of chemotherapy and treatments for a blood clot in his heart, Ryan was declared cancer-free at 11. Now, he's back to playing football in Herriman, Utah.
Josh deBerge, national communications manager for Make-A-Wish, accompanied the group throughout their weekend. He said the experience is not just about pleasing kids but about getting them healthier.
"It's more than just a moment," he said. "It's a necessary part of a child's treatment."
Many said the trip to New York was a welcome getaway from lives often enveloped in pain.
"Our life is mainly nurses, doctors, hospitals," said Dan Gutierrez, 44, a truck driver whose son, Diovanni, 10, suffers from cystic fibrosis. "This allows him to show that he is special — that something really nice is coming out of this."