When the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School football team plays its games this season, there is usually a “teammate” with fiery red hair stalking the sidelines. He’s the son of head coach Matt Shell, and — after battling cancer last year — he wasn’t expected to be around for the 2010 season.
“I really wanted to get back,” said 9-year-old Jacob Shell. “I like to watch from the field.”
Jacob was able to watch a handful of games from the stands early last season, but was forced to root on his team for most of the year from Albany Medical Center and the Boston Children’s Hospital. During his stay in Boston, the BH-BL football team made it to the Class A state championship game in Syracuse, and it was arranged for Jacob to watch the game from his hospital room.
“I may have been in the hospital, but I was still rooting for them,” said Jacob.
Even without attending games last season, his presence was felt on the field, as Jacob’s initials appeared on team jerseys and cleats.
“Last year, there was a lot of chanting of his name, whether he was at the game or not,” said Matt Shell.
Andrea Natalie, a junior at BH-BL, said that the feeling at last year’s games was a bit off. “Everyone felt like something was missing,” she said.
But now Jacob is out of the hospital, and while his weekdays are spent in the fourth grade, he spends game nights patrolling the sidelines whenever he can. Wearing a jersey with his name on it, Jacob fills water bottles, serves as a ball boy and retrieves the kickoff tee.
On the sidelines, Jacob said he enjoys hearing his dad shouting out instructions. “It is fun to hear him yell his lungs out,” he said.
Shell and his wife Kim are thankful for every day that Jacob is healthy and they think his appearance on the sidelines is the icing on the cake. “He had a long road to travel to get where he is,” said Shell.
Jacob’s return is reassuring for players and fans, according to his father. Matt Shell said he believes people find hope from his son’s example and that it provides proof that people can overcome challenges.
That sentiment is echoed by BH-BL fans, who characterize Jacob as a driving force in their lives. “[He] gives us hope that we can get through anything,” said Natalie.
Jacob’s presence at games is also appreciated by players, who greet him with high-fives.
“They’re ecstatic to see him on the sidelines,” said Scott Beatty, president of the BH-BL football booster club. “Jacob’s just another team member for them.”
Beatty credits the camaraderie in part to the fact that Shell treats the team like they’re family members, and so by extension, players treat Jacob like family. “He’s a special little kid,” said Beatty.
Freshman Nico Fargale said everyone goes crazy for Jacob because everyone knows him. “Everybody is excited to see him now that he’s back and healthy,” said Fargale.
As far as the team repeating last year’s success, Jacob is optimistic. “I think they have a pretty good chance,” he said.