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Make a Wish: Eagle River teen became NFL pro for the day

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (KTUU) - Since 2018, Korben Senden’s, from Eagle River, most prized possessions have been memorabilia from a trip to North Carolina. There, he lived out his dream of being a Carolina Panther for a day. It was a trip made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation that he’ll never forget.

He was 13 years old when he went. Senden got a jersey riddled with signatures of his favorite Panthers at the time, like Cam Newton, Greg Olson, Christian McCaffrey, and the player he got the closest to on the trip, Torrey Smith. He’s also received a signed pair of McCaffrey’s cleats, and a nice hardcover scrapbook the National Football League organization put together of the day.

“There’s not really a word to say like how it felt, because it was just unreal I guess,” Senden, who is now 16, said. “Unreal, crazy, awesome, tons of that.”

Senden said even at such a young age, he knew what he was doing wasn’t exactly something you could just buy. To this day, he feels nothing but gratitude to Make-A-Wish for making it possible.

His parents, Kristi and Kirby Senden, explained that their son has Noonan Syndrome. It’s a condition that affects his heart and stature. His father said Senden’s condition specifically affects his heart the most. They said they found out when Senden was four.

“The first thing out of the cardiologist’s mouth was, ‘he won’t be able to play sports, but he’ll be able to do many other things,’ and we kind of looked at each other like, ‘oh,’” Kristi Senden said.

It was a major blow for a bit, they said, because the Sendens come from a very athletic and competitive family. Senden’s big brother is a serious hockey player, and his father is even a physical education teacher at his school.

His parents said they worked around his condition. The Sendens started picking up more artistic hobbies like drawing, painting and piano lessons. Senden did eventually start to get into low-impact sports later on, like tennis, which he said is his favorite sport to get competitive in.

About a year before his trip to North Carolina, Senden had to get open-heart surgery. Six weeks before the surgery, the Sendens said Make-A-Wish called.

Kristi and Kirby Senden said they almost hung up the phone because they thought the organization was offering their son a wish because he was going to die. Make-A-Wish clarified that terminal illness isn’t the qualifier these days, but the surgery definitely made it a possibility.

So Senden thought a considerable amount before deciding that he wanted to be a Carolina Panther for a day.

“I think they were really cool and everything, so I thought they’d be a fun team to meet,” he said.

Senden wasn’t going to die, he was going to live like he never did before. The Panthers really put out the red carpet the way he described his week.

He said it began at a fancy hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina. A limousine took the scenic route to Bank of America Stadium. Upon their arrival, he said the mascot, Sir Purr, took him to meet the team. On the way inside, he was greeted by a pep squad, a marching band and the Panthers cheerleading team.

“Like (an) out-of-this-world type thing,” he said.

Inside, Senden was introduced to the team, given his pads and helmet with his own locker and even signed a contract. The then 13-year-old pro got a sweet signing bonus too — all the candy and junk food he could handle.

In the locker room — and for the whole day, really — he was star struck. There, Senden was just a kid hanging out with these larger-than-life celebrities. All of whom welcomed their new teammate with open arms.

Then another big bonus.

Senden spent a lot of time with Torrey Smith. The two really hit it off as Smith was helping him learn the routes and coaching up Senden’s catching game.

Smith asked Senden who his favorite NBA player was. Without hesitation, he told his new friend it was Steph Curry. Smith replied telling him that was his son’s favorite NBA player, too. Moments later, Smith called up Curry on Facetime and casually introduced him to Senden.

Before long, it was time for practice — the first public practice of the season.

Senden ran out of the tunnel with his fellow Panthers and got to work on warm-ups and passing routes. As is the norm with any football practice, he got plenty of sideline chat too. He was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, but never stopped smiling.

“They were just like, ‘Man what’s your favorite TV show?’ and I was just like, ‘I don’t know — I mean what, what?’” he said.

It all led up to the final play of the scrimmage, where he truly learned what it felt like to be on the team, starting with a hand-off from Cam Newton.

“It was like the biggest part of the thing, I think,” Senden said. “I got the ball, I ran in for a touchdown, Cam held me up so I could pass the ball to the fans which is like what they do.”

The Sendens couldn’t say enough about the Make-A-Wish Foundation and what it did for their son.

“I can think about it three years later and think the world must be good because hundreds of people wanted to make his day,” Kristi Senden said.

“He sees the value in it as well, and he knows now looking back three years the difference that it’s made,” Kirby Senden said.

Being a somewhat shy person, there’s a reason Senden worked up the courage to be interviewed by Alaska’s News Source. He said it was because he wants other kids to have the same type of feeling that he did. That no matter what, everyone deserves a moment in the spotlight and pure joy.

“I wish everyone could do this because it’s awesome,” he said.

According to Hannah Moderow with Make-A-Wish, those kinds of trips haven’t happened for a year during the pandemic. Now, they are trying to stock up on resources so that when it’s safe, they can grant the wishes of those deserving children.

Information about Make-A-Wish can be found here.

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