By Jon Cole
In July, 2016 I was helping at the South Dakota High School All-Star Football game in Vermillion. Local Special Olympic Athletes were selected as honorary team captains and one of them was an athlete named Jon Manning. Jon was given a jersey of his own with his name on the back. Of course seeing the iconic name of “Manning” on the back of a South Dakota jersey was kind of cool. I began to talk with Jon and he told me that he was a New York Giants fan and liked Eli Manning. It got me to think, since they did share the same name. I knew of a connection with the New Jersey Torch Run that might be able to see if Eli would sign Jon’s football jersey.
After contacting Jim Sepp in New Jersey he reached out to his Giants friend Adam Gettis (Offensive Line) to see about getting the jersey signed. Gettis is an avid supporter of Special Olympics and helps out whenever he can and will do what he can for the athletes. After a couple of phone calls and some planning the Manning jersey was on its way to the East Coast to get signed by Eli. Jon was unaware of what was going on at the time.
Eli signed the jersey and it was sent back on its way to South Dakota where Jon was surprised to get his jersey returned with a signature from Eli Manning.
After talking with Sepp more, I was informed that Eli and Adam were a little disappointed that Jon couldn’t get to meet Eli when his jersey was signed. That was when we knew we had to connect the two Mannings. After reviewing the Giants schedule I saw that they would play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football October 3rd. With Minneapolis being only a five hour drive away, I figured that would be the best opportunity for Jon to meet his idol who shared his name.
Together, Eli, Gettis, Sepp, and myself were able to figure out a time and place for Jon and Eli to meet up the night before the game at Eli’s hotel between team meetings. The visit would be short but I knew it would be memorable for Jon.
When talking with Jon and his parents I found that Jon had never been to a NFL game before. I knew that going to a NFL game and meeting Eli would give him a smile bigger than the stadium itself. Due to the game being Monday Night Football in the Vikings U.S. Bank Stadium’s inaugural season, tickets were not easy to come by. Many people were struggling to help Jon out. As luck may have it on a return flight from Phoenix I sat next to Bill Fish from Special Olympics Minnesota. I shared the story and Fish volunteered to help out. Fish contacted the Vikings Organization to see if they can help with tickets for the Mannings. The Vikings were gracious enough to provide tickets for Jon and his family to attend the game and watch even knowing he was a Giants and Eli Manning fan. I was proud of my home team to recognize the big picture of making a Special Olympic Athlete’s dream come true.
On Sunday, October 2nd, Jon went to Minneapolis only knowing he was going to the game the next day. He was brought him to the hotel that Eli and the team was staying at and after waiting for a few minutes here came Eli around the corner. Jon didn’t see him at first since as he had his back to him, but Eli knew who he was right away and said “Hi”. Jon was star struck and forgot to even stand up from the chair he was sitting in to shake Eli’s hand. With a smile from ear to ear, he shook Eli’s hand and got to speak with him one on one. They talked about his trip and distance he traveled to see the game and football. Being that Jon is from Vermillion and home of University of South Dakota, he gave Eli a USD t-shirt and ball cap to wear and remember his South Dakota Manning family. Eli signed some more autographs and took photos before having to get back to his team meetings.
The next day Jon went on to enjoy his first live NFL game as the Vikings took on the Giants. It was a fantastic of how so many people and organizations stopped at nothing, to make a dream for one person come true. No matter the outcome of the game it was a memory that Jon Manning will never forget.
A little about Jon Cole:
I’m the School Resource Office with the City of Vermillion Police Dept. I’ve been involved with the Torch Run since 2009 and am the Assistant LETR Director for the State. I got involved when my Sgt. at the time asked me to participate and when I met a young athlete named Mia in Gettysburg I was hooked. I participate when I can and even get my own children involved with events, including the Polar Plunge. I love what I do and love what the athletes do for me and all of us in law enforcement.