BETHANY — As a pregnant mother, Regina Pence-Schatz dreamed of all the things her son would someday do.
Maybe he'd play football, or be in the band, or any of a million other things.
None of those dreams involved Chris Schatz being in a wheelchair, stricken with muscular dystrophy, unable to speak, much less catch a football or play a trombone.
That's why Friday night is so special — not only for Chris and Regina, but for several patients and parents from Bethany's Children's Center, as well as two high school football teams.
At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Bethany and Washington will kick off the second annual Children's Center Bowl football game, the culmination of a weeklong event unlike anything else in the state.
Chris attends Bethany High School for a couple of hours every morning, and on Friday, he'll be a part of the game, just like any other football-loving 15-year-old would want to be. He and several other patients from the Children's Center will be included in the festivities.
“You get used to your child not being involved in things like this,” said Regina, who attended last year's Children's Center Bowl between Bethany and Kingfisher with her son. “But when they are, and the other children accept them and greet them like they talk to them every day, it's very touching.
“They walk through and greet Chris, and he greets them. To see them interact like that is beautiful. It's wonderful to see that they accept him for who he is. And he adores these kids, you can tell.”
The emotional weight of the experience isn't lost on the players, either.
Hanging on Ryley Claborn's bedroom wall is a photo of Claborn and three other Bethany players walking out to midfield before last year's Children's Center Bowl against Kingfisher.
In the middle of the photo is Devin Campbell, last year's starting running back for the Bronchos, pushing the wheelchair of a boy named Luke, who was chosen to be a part of the pregame coin toss.
“That was the moment that really got me,” Claborn said. “We realize how blessed we really are here at Bethany.
“You're out there playing, and they're watching you. They look at you like you're a hero, even though they may not be able to say anything to you. You can tell that they look up to you.”
Other patients from The Children's Center will be on the field with the band at halftime, among other interactive events.
The schools did battle in Penny Wars all week to see which student body could raise the most money for The Children's Center. On Thursday night, players and cheerleaders from both teams were scheduled visit to the center and meet the patients, then compete in obstacle course events before sitting down at the same table to eat dinner together.
In many ways, it's a condensed version of what college football teams experience when they go to a bowl game.
“Last year, we were curious how our players would handle something like this,” Bethany coach Reagan Roof said. “They did excellent, and it was a good experience for everyone involved, especially our players. They get to realize the problems they have, in many cases, aren't really problems at all, compared to what some kids are dealing with.
“It was good to see our kids take a second to appreciate what they have.”
The importance of The Children's Center Bowl multipronged. It's a unique, valuable experience for the players and the patients, but it's also vital to the center itself.
The Children's Center is a nonprofit pediatric hospital for children with complex medical and physical disabilities. Though Medicaid reimbursements cover much of the center's operating costs, they depend on donations to purchase all of the equipment and other necessities for therapy and medical care, all the way down to clothes and school supplies.
For instance, The Children's Center spends roughly $5,000 a week on baby formula and nearly twice that on diapers.
The center has other fundraisers throughout the year, such as the Holiday Baby Basics gift drive, and last month's Spin Your Wheels noncompetitive bicycle tour, which raised more than $64,000.
Bethany's football booster club approached The Children's Center about the idea in the summer of 2010, and it quickly took off. Now, the Bronchos hope to make it an annual fundraising event.
“We have a good booster club, and our kids benefit from new uniforms and an indoor practice facility and a lot of things that kids at other 3A teams don't get to see,” booster club president Tim Hooper said. “So we came up with the idea of having something sort of like a bowl game and raising money that wasn't for us.”
In the inaugural Children's Center Bowl last year, Bethany and Kingfisher raised almost $7,200. The goal for this week's fundraising efforts was $10,000, and they'll find out at halftime of the football game if the schools reached that mark.
But the value of the experience is about more than money.
“We have a ton of respect for those kids and what they're going through,” Bethany's Collin Coffee said. “They have such a great attitude. Some of them go to school at Bethany, so we get to see them around occasionally. Seeing the look in their eyes when we hang out with them is awesome.
“We feel very fortunate to be able to help them out. It really hits home when you realize how expensive it is for all that treatment and everything they need throughout the year.”
The motives of The Children's Center hit close to home for Washington coach Brad Beller as well.
“When my grandfather was 9 years old, he had to go to The Children's Center,” Beller said. “He probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. He personally donates money to them every year, and he's really excited that we're a part of this.”
Beller toured The Children's Center in the summer and can't wait for his players to experience it.
“It's amazing how good those kids' attitudes were,” Beller said. “They have really tough lives, but they don't get down, and I think that's great for our kids to see — that you just have to stay after it and keep fighting.”
Words like that only go to prove how valuable an event like The Children's Center Bowl can be — for everyone involved.
“Chris doesn't speak, but uses his eyes to communicate, and his smile says everything,” Regina said. “He was so excited to be a part of this, and interact with the kids and watch the game.
“When you first find out your son has these problems, you're hurt, because you know he won't be able to enjoy the things you enjoyed growing up. This provided an opportunity for Chris to be a part of something I always dreamed he'd be a part of.
“It touches my heart.”