Since 2009, Indianapolis athletes and members of the media have been coming together to celebrate kids and one little girl in particular.
“I’m proud to say this is a decade – 10 whole years. This is a milestone. I’m happy to be part of it,” said Robert Mathis. “It’s a tribute to the city, the fans, and also the people at Indiana Children’s Wish Fund.”
But it’s also a tribute to him.
When Robert Mathis first got involved with the Celebrity Softball Challenge, he was a single man in the prime of his career as a defensive end for the Colts. Today, he’s a married father of five who’s in his second year coaching pass rushers for the team he used to play on. Over the years, his celebrity co-hosts have come and gone, but his name and his heart have been attached to the event from its humble beginnings.
Caroline Symmes was three years old when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Wilms Tumor Disease. The Indiana Children’s Wish Fund brought her together with Mathis.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “That little girl took my heart, man. I’ll remember her forever.”
“Caroline met Robert Mathis when she was asked to film the first commercial for this event and they became fast and true friends,” said her mom, Libby.
She was too sick to attend the first Celebrity Softball Challenge, but Robert stayed in touch with her family.
“I went to their house and sat down with her, we were coloring and touching the ceiling and just doing fun stuff,” he said.
“She painted his hands and he put his handprints on our walls,” Symmes said. “Caroline thought that she was the celebrity and Robert was just a guy that wanted to meet her.”
Described by her family as an old soul with a big smile, Caroline never cried and never complained. She lived life to the fullest until she lost her battle with cancer at five years old. For her family, the Caroline Symmes Celebrity Softball Challenge is a bittersweet way to celebrate her life.
“It’s this incredible tribute and we’re honored that the Wish Fund chose to name this after her,” said Symmes. “I don’t want to be selfish or anything, but there’s nothing like seeing her face on the screen and hearing people sing ‘Sweet Caroline.’ It’s incredible and it’s something that I never want to give up.”
She also knows what it means to the other families.
“There are so many families here in this audience with children who might not be as sick as Caroline, but they’ve got life-threatening issues. So, it’s a way for everybody to take a deep breath and relax and celebrate these children.”
Money raised from the event goes to support wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses. It’s also an opportunity for all families to get out and see the stars in a fan friendly environment.
“It’s an affordable ticket. It’s a $10 ticket, right? So, there are so many families that get to come out here and to see these personalities – I mean, whoever knew that Robert Mathis was such a goofball? But he is,” Symmes said. “We love the community of these athletes coming together for the Wish kids.”
For Mathis, it’s a way to get together with other athletes and compete – all in good fun. And all for a great cause.
“It’s great support from the Pacers and the Colts,” he said. “Guys really rally around great causes for the city. It’s a nice little fraternity and sorority because we’ve got our Fever sisters too. Everybody is involved.”
And they get inspiration from the real stars, the kids – who are tougher than any of them.
“They can’t control their situations, but at the same time, they’re the happiest people on earth,” said Mathis. “So, we can take a lot of lessons from them. You just want to give them something to smile about whenever you can.”
For the first time in years, Mathis’ team lost to the team captained by Pacers center Myles Turner. And although he was admittedly a little salty about it, he was able to put it in perspective.
“Ultimately, it’s not about the outcome,” he said. “I had a great time raising money for the kids. A lot of support, there were as many players as I can remember, so it was a great success.”
Robert Mathis hates to lose.
But he loves kids.
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.