When the Miami University football team signed 5-year-old Liam Kaufman to the squad in June, the support didn't end there. The RedHawks joined their newest and youngest member Thursday night at the Light the Night Walk in Cincinnati.
Liam was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in February and has been undergoing treatment at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. His treatment will continue for three more years.
The Light the Night Walk is a fundraising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) and its funding of research to find blood cancer cures. The walk takes place in 200 cities across the country.
Jim and Heather Kaufman, Liam's parents, organized a team for the walk in September, but didn't know what to expect.
Steve Brockelbank, associate athletic director for football, frequently communicates with Heather. When he found out about Light the Night, he told head coach Chuck Martin. Martin was all in.
"Chuck loves to do those kinds of things," Brockelbank said. "He's really invested in Liam and his situation … sometimes, you need to look at life from someone else's perspective. And this gives our kids the opportunity to do that. They've reflected on all the gifts they've been given and realize how fortunate they are."
It was Martin's idea to have football team members join Liam's team, and 113 players and coaches signed up. With their help, Team Liam raised $12,859 - far beyond the $5,000 goal.
Fifteen Miami players attended Light the Night: seniors Trevan Brown, Spencer McInnis, Drew Kummer, Kent Kern, Mitch Winters, Sam Shisso and Austin Gearing; junior Grant Niemic; sophomores Zach Hovey, Kyle Row and Luke Adams; and freshmen Evan Crabtree, Kendrell McFadden, Josh Allen and Leonard Ross.
Martin, Brockelbank, cornerbacks coach John Hauser and their families also attended.
"Any life experience, when you get perspective, is a good thing," Martin said. "If you haven't been affected by cancer, you will be, so everyone has a similar story. There's somebody that they love, there's somebody that they knew. It doesn't matter where you are or where you're from, everybody gets affected by it. When you feel people affected by it, you realize how great you have it."
On the day of the event, the Kaufmans observed the "Survivors Parade" - an experience Jim described as emotional, "but in a good way."
A few weeks earlier, a fifth grader had heard Liam had cancer and told him he would die. Naturally, Liam had questions, which led to conversation with family and doctors. The family's doctor said she wouldn't promise anything, but Liam's outlook was favorable, and she would never lie.
That's why the Survivors Parade, a Light the Night event, was so meaningful. At the parade, every survivor of leukemia or lymphoma received and wore a red cape.
"He was able to see kids, adults, young and old, wearing these capes," Jim said. "I pointed them out and said 'Look, Liam, that person over there has a cape. That means he had leukemia or lymphoma and he's doing well.'"
"I had him on my shoulders, and I started noticing that as I would point people out, it comforted him a little bit."
After the parade and a welcome speech, Team Liam - a group of family, friends, coworkers and Miami football coaches and players - proceeded to the walk. During the walk, each participant held a lantern of a different color, symbolic of the roles in the fight against cancer. Leukemia and lymphoma survivors received white lanterns, those who walked in support held red lanterns and those who walked in honor of the deceased held yellow lanterns.
For the most part, it was a sea of red.
"It helped [Liam] see that he's not going through this alone," Jim said. "There are other people that have gone through the same kinds of things that he's had to do."
But for Liam, having members of the Miami football team there made it even more special.
"It's funny because he's a 5-year-old and these are 20-year-old guys, and he looks at them as his friends," Jim said. "He said his friends all came to the walk, but he didn't get to play football."
Liam looks up to all the players, but he's the most comfortable around McInnis and Shisso. They were the first players Liam met when he signed with the team in June.
"Liam's amazing," Shisso said. "He just loves life … it's been awesome to see him work through this with a smile on his face all the time. It would be tough for anyone to go through, especially a kid, and the fact that he's handled it so well, it's encouraging to everyone else. It's encouraging to me."
Before the night was over, one of the football players had a message for Liam.
"Liam, when you come to the game Saturday, I want you to find us before the game starts so I know where you're sitting at," Jim recalled Niemic saying.
"It's neat to see these big guys who are in college who have a whole lot of different things on their mind and things they can do and not do, but here they are, interested in what my 5-year-old son is doing."
The Kaufmans received free tickets to Saturday's game against Northern Illinois University. Liam played on the moon bounces in the fan section and sat in the balcony level of Yager Stadium for the first time.
"He was able to see the entire field and see how the plays were developed and how people were lining up." Jim said. "He liked that."
Anyone who knows Liam understands how he lives and breathes football. He watches the games on TV and plays football video games.
"Even when he's in the living room with his big brother or when he's by himself, there's a football in his hands," Jim said.
At home, Liam starts pickup football games in his front yard with his neighborhood friends. He'll use football terminology, but no one understands it as well as he does.
"It's weird that a child his age knows so much about football. He knows more about football than I do," Jim said. "If there's a play on the field and the referee calls holding, [Liam] knows that its holding before it comes on over the loudspeakers. He gets the game."
Liam's passion for sports, especially football, makes his relationship with the Miami football team that much more important.
The Kaufman family was at Miami's first game of the season against Presbyterian College Sept. 5. The RedHawks won 26-7, claiming their first season-opening win in seven years. Afterwards, Liam and Jim went to the locker room. Liam received the game ball, and Martin honored him in a speech.
"It made me teary-eyed," Jim said.
The Kaufmans expect to visit for Miami's remaining three home games and attend practices when their schedule permits.
Team Liam's fundraising campaign continues through January 2016. Those interested in donating may visit lightthenight.org.