The Maryland football team erupted into cheers as 9-year-old Callaghan “Cal” Taylor signed his official letter of intent. After officially putting pen to paper, Cal traded in his “FEAR THE TURTLE” shirt and red Maryland hat for a brand new No. 44 jersey and clean white “M” hat.
Maryland football head coach Michael Locksley then directed Cal to the front of the room and they led the team in the “Maryland Victory Song”, a tradition the Terps normally save for after a win.
“Everyone’s just been so supportive and everyone that we’ve met, the coaching staff, players, they all, just every single person just welcomed us with a hug and it’s just such a warm environment from the top down,” Shannon Taylor, Cal’s mother, said. “It just, it’s been amazing. They really make me feel so comfortable.”
On Sunday, Aug. 22, Maryland football officially added Cal to the team, however, he had been forming relationships with players long before that. Cal was matched with the University of Maryland in 2019 through Team IMPACT, an organization that offers children, ages five to 16, with serious and chronic illnesses the chance to pair with a collegiate athletic team. The overall outcomes as described by the program on its website include the participating child developing a sense of belonging along with empowerment, normalization, health promotion and resilience.
“It feels really great to have a lot of friends on the team,” Cal said.
Cal has juvenile dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the skin and muscles. In order to fight it, he takes a number of immunosuppressants which means that with the COVID-19 pandemic, Cal has to be even more careful than an average young boy.
He’s been out of school for 18 months and Shannon predicts he will not be able to return in person for at least a few more. Team IMPACT has made sure to keep him safe while also nourishing his relationship with the Maryland football team.
“[The communication during the pandemic] was a connection to other people, in a time when, you know, everyone was hoping for a connection,” Shannon said as she expressed her gratitude for the program and organization over the last few years.
The University of Maryland has deep ties to Team IMPACT as the football team is just one of many in College Park who have had the opportunity to partner with these remarkable teammates. According to Josh Walker, the Team IMPACT regional executive director for the Mid-Atlantic, Maryland is Team IMPACT’s top Division I partner. Track and field, women’s basketball, women’s soccer along with men’s baseball, men’s lacrosse and men’s soccer are all currently matched with children. Maryland men’s soccer and wrestling have also each graduated a Team IMPACT child and in May 2021, Maryland athletic director Damon Evans also joined Team IMPACT’s National Board of Directors.
“We would try to establish relationships within the athletic department with each school, and then build relationships with coaches and teams so that we can identify the right team,” Walker said about matching children with athletic programs. “Once we’ve identified that, there’s a training process we go through with the team.”
In 2015, the Maryland women’s basketball team drafted Ashlyn Barrett, who was five at the time, through this organization. As nearly six years have passed since Barrett joined the Terps, her relationships with Maryland women’s basketball head coach Brenda Frese and the rest of the program remain strong. In the summer of 2020, Maryland women’s basketball tweeted out a photo from its team Zoom and Barrett was one of the members on the call.
The bonds formed through Team IMPACT are not temporary rather they are deep and meaningful and Sunday it was Cal’s turn to officially join the Maryland family.
Before he signed his letter of intent, Cal was met by a familiar face in wide receiver Brian Cobbs. Since Cal first began communicating with the team in 2019, Cobbs connected with him and the wide receiver had the opportunity to tour Cal around the Jones-Hill House on Sunday.
“[Cal has been] probably a bigger impact on my life than I’ve been on his,” Cobbs said. “But every time we’ve interacted, every time he’s come to up to the University of Maryland, like, it’s been a great time.”
Cobbs and Cal have built what the wide receiver categorizes as a “pretty, pretty strong personal connection.” On top of attending the same elementary school, Cobbs described them bonding over video games, Terps in the NFL and playing baseball as kids.
After the duo reconnected in the lobby of the Jones-Hill House, Cobbs began his tour showing Cal the awards, accolades and old uniforms. The wide receiver pointed out Maryland history behind the class cases and Cal asked what each trophy meant as he absorbed the culture of his soon-to-be future team.
They then moved into the weight room where Cal had the chance to test out some of the equipment. His clear favorite out of the equipment was the treadmill as he bounced over to use it again after moving away from it and trying something else.
From there, they headed to Cal’s favorite place in the building: the indoor practice field.
Cobbs lined up on the 5-yard line and as Cal ran toward the end zone, Cobbs stepped into the quarterback role, let the ball go and watched as Cal made the catch for the touchdown and began his celebration. After jumping up and down and spiking the ball, Cal went on to running up to the nearest camera and showing off his greatest gameday face under his mask.
“Being able to do little things like that, play catch with him and see the joy that it brings him I feel like that kind of hits home for me and is a real special feeling,” Cobbs said.
When they arrived at the locker room, Cal settled himself into Cobbs’ locker as he looked around taking it all in before closing out his tour and moving onto the main signing event.
As the Taylor family entered the auditorium, they were greeted by the entire Maryland football team filling the seats eagerly awaiting the big moment. Before the signing, Locksley explained to the team that he believes Cal is an exceptional example of how one should deal with adversity, a sentiment shared by Shannon.
“He always has a smile on his face, no matter what is going on in his life which is huge. He takes a lot of medications that make him very sick and he will just go from being sick to running out to play with a friend,” Shannon said. “He doesn’t really let anything get him down for any period of time. He just kind of bounces back and is able to make the best out of any situation.”
Although this relationship between Cal and the team has been developing for years, this celebration was not the end but rather the beginning.
“Your new teammates, your new family members, man we are so excited to have you join our family,” Locksley said as he prepared Cal for his signing. “And, as I like to say, the best is ahead for you, and we’re gonna be right here with you.”