As the sun climbed high into the Thursday morning sky, the Atlanta Falcons practiced as if nothing was unusual; however, 19-year-old Ben Masters, who has Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, throttled his wheelchair back and forth along the sideline, observing the players and coaching staff while they practiced on this 12th day of 2014 XFINITY® Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.
Visiting with the Falcons was Masters' first choice when filling out the application to the Make-A-Wish program last year. He wanted to meet his favorite player, future hall-of-famer and former tight end for the Falcons, Tony Gonzalez. Unfortunately, the timing didn't work out. Instead, Masters was able to meet players who he has watched for years, players who make up his favorite NFL team.
Head coach Mike Smith greeted Masters at the start of practice and shortly after that, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff joined Masters on the sideline and discussed the 2014 Rookie Club with him. Masters was also given an official Hard Knocks T-shirt and was asked to be part of the Hard Knocks crew by NFL Films supervising producer and Hard Knocks director, Rob Gehring.
Players interacted with Masters throughout the morning; they talked to him, gave him high-fives and joked around with him. The most memorable moment, however, was when wide receiver Harry Douglas sang him a song, sending a laugh through everyone who was listening.
The final horn was blown, signaling the end of practice. Masters made his way to the middle of the field where the team was waiting. Once there, they parted to let him into the center, and chanted his name as they formed the huddle around him.
Smith announced Masters would break the team down, indicating every player to put his hand in the middle. Although soft spoken, from the middle of the huddle came Masters' small voice: "One, two, three — Fam!"
The players repeated him and broke the huddle, but remained nearby to take pictures, high-five him some more, and even had him break down individual position groups.
As the players went to the locker room, Masters and his family made their way to the cafeteria where they sat at a reserved table. A Falcons helmet and ball, waiting to be signed by players, sat on the table next to Masters.
"For him, it's a lifetime memory. It's something he'll talk about forever," Masters' mom, Michelle Masters said. "For the Falcons to open their doors, and for Make-A-Wish to make it happen, it means a lot to him."
Throughout lunch, players stopped by the table and took pictures with Masters. They signed his memorabilia and shook his hand with Masters beaming every minute.
The final part of Masters' wish was a session with the offensive line. They took him into their meeting room and watched film in preparation for Friday's first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins.
As the family made their way to the lobby, Masters was asked about his favorite part of the day.
"Meeting all the players and getting to know them at a more personal level than just watching them on TV," he said. "And doing the breakdown at the end of practice today."
Smiling, the family began to say their goodbyes when one last surprise came their way, one that wasn't on the itinerary: tickets to Friday's game.
The surprise and joy on their faces, especially Masters, summed up the entire VIP experience.