(WHTM) — The annual Big 33 football game, known as the Super Bowl of high school football, will be held on Memorial Day at Bishop McDevitt High School.
There’s a special part of this game that takes place off the field. It’s called the Buddy Program and it’s been an exciting companion to the sporting event for 37 years. It pairs Big 33 football players and cheerleaders with buddies who have special needs.
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abc27 was there when Bishop McDevitt standout Ryan Russo met his buddy, Caden Capitani, for the very first time. The two formed an instant connection.
Russo says making the roster was a dream come true. Sharing the experience with someone as enthusiastic as Caden makes it all the more special.
“Caden’s awesome,” Russo said. “He’s funny. He’s nice.”
Caden, 16, has been part of the program for a decade.
“He has Down Syndrome, hypothyroidism, chronic lung disease…pretty much from head to toe he has something going on,” mom Jessica Capitani said. “He sees a lot of specialists. He also has juvenile arthritis.”
Caden’s bedroom wall shows a collection of connections built over the past 10 years. Many of the former Big 33 players are still his buddy to this day.
“Even if we never talk to the player again, we still follow them online and we watch them on TV when we can,” Jessica Capitani said. “We follow them on social media…keep checking in on them. And Caden gets to live vicariously through them and have that athletic experience that he doesn’t get to have in his life. It makes it so much more personal.”
Gary Cathell, executive director of the Big 33, says he gets goosebumps just talking about it.
“I don’t know who gets more out of the relationship, the player or the buddy,” Cathell said. “I think there’s equal sharing with the relationship and these relationships go on for a long period of time and hopefully for a lifetime.”
“It means the world to me that he (Caden) gets this opportunity,” Jessica Capitani said.
Russo says he hopes to stay in contact with Caden long after the game itself.
“I really want to make a difference in his life and he’s going to make a difference in my life,” Russo said.
The Big 33 game is Monday, May 30. For ticket information or to learn more about the buddy program, click here.
Russo will leave the day after the game to start his football career at Rutgers University; where, no doubt, Caden will be watching.