May 15, 2012
By Jocelyn Vinoya Serranilla
"This is it," responded head coach Joe McKeown when asked how he planned to celebrate his May 12 birthday. He stretched with the `Cats and danced the Cupid Shuffle under cloudy skies and threat of heavy rain Saturday in downtown Chicago. By the time he was done thanking supporters of autism awareness and "teachers and parents who do so much for our children," the dark clouds had cleared and even if the sun was not quite shining, at least the drizzle was gone.
McKeown spent his big day at Soldier Field with thousands of volunteers participating in the 5K Walk for Autism Speaks.
The Chicago Bears' football field, wet from precipitation prior to the walk, became party central as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to McKeown after his remarks. Kate Popovec and the women's basketball team took center stage and were joined by student-athletes from the field hockey and women's golf teams, as well as the Northwestern cheerleaders, leading the crowd in warm ups and stretching before the walk. To the crowd's surprise and delight, McKeown and the Wildcats hopped, kicked and danced to the Cupid Shuffle to start off the walk.
Cheerleaders Emily Basham, Naomi Chun, Kristin Bernstein and Amy McGary, who came in their spirit squad uniforms and signature purple pompoms, said that although they were not personally affected by autism, they were participating in the walk for a very important reason: "We love Coach McKeown." Basham explained that "[h]e is very kind. He comes up to personally thank us all the time after each game. We're here to support him."
Former All-American Amy Jaeschke, who returned two weeks ago from China and Slovakia where she played professional basketball, also participated in the walk to support her former coach. "It is really important for me to come out here and support families affected by autism," she said. "It is definitely a special time to be out here with Coach McKeown as his son Joey is affected by autism."
"I just want to be out here to show support," was a common theme among the student-athletes who showed up for the walk, most of them not directly affected by autism.
Field hockey player Colleen Petronchak said she and her teammates learned about the autism walk from their head coach.
"During off-season we try to maximize our community service as a team," she said. "The best way to bond is to do activities together and it cements our relationship as a team. Our head coach called us about this walk and we knew our women's basketball coach was personally affected. We came out to support the women's basketball team and Coach Joe McKeown.
Amanda Wirth, another member of the field hockey team, explained that her mother works with autistic children in New Jersey. She has previous experience interacting with kids affected by autism but had not participated in any kind of direct fundraiser for autism. "I'm really excited about it. It's a really a neat event. I heard so much about them," Wirth said. "Autism Speaks does so much for autistic kids."
After the walk, the women's basketball team held a shoot-around with children in a makeshift basketball court in front of Soldier Field's gate O. Dannielle Diamant, Inesha Hale, and Kendall Hackney attracted a group of girls and boys who took turns shooting baskets with the `Cats.