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April 8, 2009

A lesson in encouragement and belief

It all started as a lesson for an eight year old boy, but it has grown into much, much more. Wyatt Chaffey's parents were talking to their son about what it meant to be a Barnabas, a Biblical lesson on the Son of Encouragement.

This discussion led to Wyatt making a decision that he wanted to encourage his favorite football team, the Oregon State Beavers. So last August, during the heat of fall camp, Wyatt sat down and made a simple sign..."153 Days until the Rose Bowl". Little did he know that so much would come from his plan to encourage the team.

It was more than a sign, however, as Wyatt knew that the players would be hot and exhausted after practice. So he asked his Mom, Laura, if he could use his allowance money to buy popsicles for the team too. After a trip to Wal-Mart and a 45-minute drive from Salem, Wyatt sat on the sidelines of Prothro Field, sign in hand for all to see.

"I wanted to get them to believe that they can get to the Rose Bowl," said Wyatt. "All they have to do to get to there is to believe that they can go to the Rose Bowl."

That first practice, Wyatt had trouble carrying the heavy cooler filled with popsicles. Lucky for him, James Rodgers came to the rescue with a helping hand. The two have since become friends and Wyatt hosted Rodgers at his elementary school for lunch.

Wyatt doesn't keep track of how many practices he attends, he only keeps track of how many days it is until the next Rose Bowl. So it wasn't a surprise after a breezy, cold practice in Reser last Wednesday, when most were thinking of getting something warm in there hands, center Alex Linnenkohl was standing by a blue cooler, holding an Otter Pop with a big grin on his face.

"Angie, is this the biggest Otter Pop you've ever seen?" Linnenkohl asked as I walked toward him shivering.

I asked him if he was crazy to be eating a popsicle when the temperature was barely above freezing. He grinned and said, "Wyatt brought it".

And so an hour long conversation began about the signs, popsicles, and how a little boy who set out to encourage a team has been blessed and encouraged in the process as well.

There he stood, at the ramp of Reser, holding his sign "274 Days until the Rose Bowl", with most every player stopping to say hi or grab a popsicle, all with big smiles on their faces.

"We talked about what it meant to be a Barnabas, and he wanted to encourage them, so he figured that he had to keep coming back," said his Mom, Laura. "He brought his popsicles and his countdown sign because he wanted them to see the vision."

Wyatt and his family have been coming to Beaver games since Wyatt was in diapers. Sitting in section 14, Wyatt has been a Beaver for life. But his encouragement has led him to gain some lifelong friendships that he treasures.

It started before the signs though. When Sammie Stroughter battled depression two years ago, Wyatt made a button that read "Pray for Sammie". He wore the button to school, to the grocery store, everywhere, his Mom remembers. Last year when Sammie returned, Wyatt had the chance to talk to Stroughter.

"Because you're better, I can give you this now," Wyatt told Stroughter, handing him the button. Touched, Stroughter hugged him.

Wyatt had to give a speech this year to his class. Of course it was about Oregon State football. He then asked Coach Mike Riley and Dan Van deRiet if he could give the speech to the team. Both said yes, without even seeing a word of the speech.

So this year at the annual football banquet, in front of 300 people, Wyatt took to the podium to kick-off the festivities. His five minutes on stage were filled with touching stories, but one stood out.

Wyatt had asked many men in his life, a question - "What does it mean to be a great man?" He posed that question to the group.

"Some of the answers cracked me up," said Wyatt. "But the best answer came from one of the players, who told me that 'a great man is someone who will change his life because of what he believes'." That player was Sammie Stroughter.

After the speech, Wyatt was presented with a signed football and a jacket. Laura filmed the event and it is the contagious laughter of Stroughter in the background that they will remember forever.

"It was a continuation of him wanting to come down to be encouragement to them, but what has happened was the opposite," Laura said. "The team has now encouraged him. All of these boys, I would be proud to have my son emulate any one of them. They take the time to bend over and talk to him."

"My eight year old kid just wanted to be there," she added. "He didn't ask for a football or autographs or any of that. He just wanted to be there to encourage them. I think they recognize it wasn't part of the plan. It was an extra experiment in what it means to be encouraged and to feel like you're part of a team."

Wyatt was able to attend the Beaver game at the Rose Bowl last season, where he was given the royal treatment.

"I had to go to eight tailgate parties and I had to eat at all of them," Wyatt recalled. "I had to tell Mr. Croom that I couldn't eat one of his bratwursts."

Last year, Wyatt believed when no one else did. He said that he was nervous as the team kept inching closer to the Rose Bowl, but that he just had to keep coming to practice to help them have more vision.

The 2008 team came so close to that ultimate goal, and after dealing with the Civil War disappointment, Wyatt is back on the practice field with his signs and his popsicles, even though his own track practice now gets in the way from time to time. And his Mom now shares the cost of the popsicles with her son.

"We probably could have paid for our Rose Bowl tickets with what we've spent on popsicles," Laura laughed. "But it is what we do."

"It is a life lesson that can't be unlearned...when you're willing to give yourself to a situation," Laura said. "Last year was so special. This has just been a really great experience, with a really great group of guys."

Wyatt finished his football banquet speech with a closing thought for the team.

"You might not remember the cute girls and you might not remember a little kid with popsicles, but I will always remember you," he said.

Beaver Nation is a family and Wyatt Chaffey exemplifies that. He gives us a lesson in life and encouragement that will not easily be forgotten. And I have a feeling that the Oregon State players will always remember Wyatt too.


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