Eli Petersen put his hands up toward the crowd of hundreds, and then they knew.
The same hundreds had just watched a highlight video of Petersen, a 10-year-old multi-sport athlete from Wichita. He looked like a strong football player with a shifty juke on a defender. He looked like a promising baseball player with a strikeout and a hit to the outfield. He had basketball in his arsenal, too, with a free throw that would have made former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal jealous.
Eli told the audience that he goes to Blessed Sacrament and will attend Kapaun Mount Carmel when he gets to high school age.
But presenting at Friday’s 2019 Kansas Shrine Bowl Player Appreciation Banquet ahead of Saturday’s showcase high school football game, Petersen had to have more than that. When he lifted his hands, he was missing several fingers. Because of a condition called congenital hand difference, he was born without them.
Petersen has been involved with the Shriners Hospital since 2010, almost his entire life. The occupational therapists there have worked with him on improving his motor functions and building his confidence, which brimmed at the banquet.
They never pressed for surgery. Eli’s father, Jake Petersen, said making the three-hour drive to Dodge City was the least they could do.
“It inspires the football players,” Eli said.
Eli’s impact sent waves throughout Dodge City in his short time there. On Wednesday, the East and West football teams, made up of the top high school seniors in the state, met Eli and were blown away.
At Friday’s banquet, Bashor-Linwood’s Jake Friessen addressed the crowd with a perspective from the East squad. He mentioned Eli by name and how touched he was with his story.
After him, West coach Tyson Bauerle of Hesston came to the stage. He said “impact and influence,” were the two words that came to mind when he thought about his Shrine Bowl experience.
But then Scott Valentas took the mic.
Valentas, a recent graduate of Kapaun — where Eli plans to attend and hopefully compete — didn’t mention a word about practices or teammates or coaches or schemes. He talked exclusively about Shriners Hospital, the kids and about Eli.
“This whole experience was never about football,” Valentas said. “I thought it should be focused on what we’re actually here for and nothing else.”
Valentas was one of the top players in the Wichita area last season. He was named to the Eagle’s 2018 All-Metro team; he was Kapaun’s lone representative. He finished his senior season with 66 tackles and four interceptions to go with 782 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
He serves as a bit of an inspiration for young Kapaun fans, and he knows it, he said. Eli is no different, but the relationship is mutual, Valentas said.
“I never knew how much of role models high school football players can be until I met him,” he said. “Usually you have kids looking up to these inspirational figures and amazing athletes like LeBron James, but to have a kid tell you he looks up to you is pretty amazing.”
Jake said his son’s relationship with the Shrine Bowl football players has been important to him. It took a lot of bravery and confidence for a 10-year-old with such a condition to get in front of a group of top-tier athletes. Jake said Valentas and others have been great toward his son.
“It almost makes me tear up just thinking about it,” Jake said. “There have been football players who have asked to take pictures with him rather than the other way around.”
Eli is a “sport nut,” Jake said. Jake, meanwhile, was a sports correspondent for the Eagle in the 2000s and has always had a love for competition, and that rubbed off on his son. Eli said sports have played a big role in his life.
Jake said Eli has always known he belongs.
When the pair presented on stage, Jake mentioned there have been people who have doubted his son, particularly his athletic ability. Jake said in the past year three teams have turned him away. Jake said he went to all the tryouts, and objectively felt Eli was on the same level as the other kids.
Jake said in the following season, Eli and his team beat all three of those teams.
“I love him; he’s my son,” Jake said. “I just tell him to embrace it.”
Eli has. A couple of weeks ago, he played in a baseball tournament but struggled at the plate. When he got home, he asked his dad to go in the backyard and hit soft toss. The next morning, Eli woke his dad up at 7 and pulled him into the backyard again.
A couple of hours later, Eli was playing in the semifinal game of the tournament and broke his nose. He played the rest of the semifinal and the championship game that followed.
“Sports are probably my favorite thing,” Eli said.