How social media spawned football’s coolest new tradition

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It all started with a Facebook post this past May.

Krista Young was browsing “Hawkeye Heaven,” a Facebook page for fans of University of Iowa athletics, when she had an idea.

She had seen pictures online of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which opened its new facility earlier this year just a stone’s throw from Kinnick Stadium, where the Iowa Hawkeyes play football. The new hospital towers over the east side of the stadium, sporting a birds-eye view of the action below from its 12th floor “press box” — a space where young patients and their families can take in the excitement of Iowa football.

Her idea was simple: During each game, fans in Kinnick Stadium would turn and wave to the children looking on through the hospital windows above.

“It was just a quick thought,” Young said. “I just typed it on a whim and that’s all it took.”

‘It’s working!’

Young didn’t expect the moderator of “Hawkeye Heaven” to read her post — let alone respond — but within an hour, they replied and said they’d be “pushing for this.”

A month passed and Young didn’t hear much else. But over the summer, Facebook photos like this one began appearing and signaled that perhaps she had started something big.

At the Hawkeyes’ home opener on September 2, Young was in the stands as the team took on Wyoming.

As the first quarter came to an end, she wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but she pulled out her phone and hit record.

On the video she captured and posted on Facebook, fans around her begin to turn around, and before long, the entire stadium is standing and waving toward the hospital.

Astonished at the scene unfolding around her, all she could muster was to say “It’s working!”

Handprints, smudges and ‘good medicine’

Gwen Senio, manager of child life at Stead Family Children’s hospital, works with children and their families to tend to their psychosocial needs as they undergo treatment and recovery. Many of the young patients she sees are facing severe and chronic illnesses, so simple acts — like getting out of bed — can be exhausting.

But on fall Saturdays, no matter the pain it inflicts or energy it requires, kids will do whatever it takes to get up to the “press box” windows to experience “The Wave.”

“They’re not thinking about how they’re feeling — they’re just thinking about what’s happening beyond that window,” Senio said. “Being a part of that is good medicine.”

To her, perhaps the most powerful reminder of the impact of this new tradition comes towards the end of the game, when most of the children have returned to their rooms … and to the reality of the ailments they’re facing.

“What I noticed early on is that after The Wave, the windows are covered with little handprints and smudges,” Senio said. “To me, that was just such a heartwarming recognition that there was a connection between the children here in the hospital and what’s happening out in the stadium.”

‘I just can’t envision it ever stopping’

In the months since “The Wave” was born, it’s shown no signs of stopping.

“The Wave” has made its way to Iowa away games, like this clash against Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan.

And even to the set of ESPN’s college football pregame show, “College Gameday,” for its broadcast from Blacksburg, Virginia.

Kirk Ferentz, now in his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach, knows that he won’t be leading the Hawkeyes forever. And many of the traditions he’s implemented may not last beyond his tenure.

But for “The Wave,” Ferentz doesn’t see an end in sight.

“I think it’ll be there as long as the stadium and the hospital are side-by-side,” he said. “I just can’t envision it ever stopping.”