A dream come true with a ?W?
Thursday afternoon, Emily Artus’ dream of watching Wisconsin Badger standout tight end and MHS alum Sam Arneson, compete in an NCAA Football Bowl Game came true, as the Badgers topped Auburn 34-31 in the 2015 Outback Bowl played in Tampa, Fla.
Emily’s road to Tampa was anything but expected for Emily, or her family for that matter. In fact, Emily was happy just being able to see her high school buddy play in every home game this past season. That endeavor was a mission accomplished in itself for the young lady. That mission, and the true start of Emily’s road to Tampa, began last year when she decided she would save her $10/day earnings from her job at Kate Goodrich Elementary, to purchase tickets for every Badger football home game so she could see her high school friend play out his senior year. She saved enough to not only buy herself a ticket, but an extra ticket for someone to accompany her. In most cases her wingman was either her mother Cindy, or friend and former teacher Amy Van Alstine
Just prior to the Badgers’ final home game with Minnesota in late November, the team found themselves in the annual arena of bowl game hype. It was clear the team would be going to a bowl game, but just which bowl game was still up in the air. Despite the chances being slim, Emily made it known she wanted to watch Arneson play his final game in a Badger uniform. She didn’t care what bowl or where it would be played, she just wanted to be there for her best friend.
“That poses a bit of a challenge, but we’ll see,” her mother Cindy stated with a smile during an interview about Emily’s aspirations. “The 30th of December is Jeff and I’s 25th wedding anniversary, but we talked and agreed to cancel our party and everything and go to the bowl game the Badgers play in. But those tickets aren’t cheap and neither are airline tickets. But we are going to try our best! Even if we can’t make it, we made a deal to crank up the heat in the house, get our shorts on and watch the game while pretending we are in the warm weather.”
“That’s better than nothing,” Emily added with a chuckle.
What would ensue following that interview would soar beyond Emily or her family’s highest hopes or expectations.
Through the month of December, the Artus family found themselves in the crosshairs of a community wide effort to send Emily “bowling.” The campaign ignited on Thursday, Dec. 3 when Cindy and Emily were stunned with a surprise presentation at Maple Grove Charter School. During the presentation, Sam Arneson’s father Dave informed Emily she would be receiving three complimentary tickets to whatever bowl game Wisconsin was invited to. In addition, MAPS staff raised and donated $1,000 to the Artus family for Emily’s trip. The Wednesday beforehand, the Merrill Police Association represented by Officer Matt Waid, donated an additional $500 toward the effort.
Donations and support continued to roll in from media outlets, local businesses and community members including a $500 donation from Baron and Katie Proft owners of Dugout Bar, and $1,700 raised during a benefit at Ed and Sharon’s Restaurant three weeks ago.
On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 30, Jeff, Cindy and Emily Artus found themselves at Madison’s Dane County Regional Airport, bound for Tampa; their trip made possible by the outpouring of community support and generosity amounting to over $4,000.
“Jeff, Emily and I were just in awe and disbelief that it was actually happening!” Cindy adds with a sigh and a laugh. “We just could not believe we were headed to Tampa, Florida to watch Sam in the Outback Bowl! It was surreal!”
The three boarded their flight at 8 a.m. as the temperatures hovered in the single digits. At 11:45 a.m. Tampa time, the Artus’ touched down at Tampa International Aiport and exited their plane to a cozy 63 degrees.
“It was overcast and sprinkling, but we didn’t care! We were in Florida at the end of December and we were going to make the best of it!” Cindy says. The flight would prove to be the first of many firsts for Emily on the trip. “Emily had never flown before, but she was a real trooper! My first flight was on our honeymoon 25 years ago and I was petrified!”
“Overall I think the flight was pretty cool,” Emily adds. “Take off was a little scary, but once we were in the air I was fine.”
The Artus trip to Tampa consisted of an “Official Badger Bowl Tour” courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Alumni Association.
The tour consisted of an array of planned events spanning Tuesday through Friday. The tour also included luxurious accommodations at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina.
“They had everything planned out perfectly! There were a lot of things to do and events scheduled, but we still time on our own to do what we wanted,” Cindy explains.
After checking into their hotel, Emily and Cindy wasted no time in donning their swim suits and making their way up to the hotel’s rooftop pool. “The water was a little too chilly for us, but that didn’t stop us from getting our swim suits on! We were Wisconsin folks in Florida for a few days and we were determined to make the best of every minute!” Cindy says with a laugh.
At 4 p.m., the trio boarded a yacht for a two hour “Welcome Badger Cruise” which consisted of a tour of the Bay area.
“It was so cool to see dolphins near a tugboat,” Emily says. “I also got to meet Ron Dayne (former Badger Running Back and Heisman Trophy winner), which was very cool. He is a really nice guy, I liked him right away.”
“Ron is very personable,” Cindy adds. “He works a lot with Special Olympics and he really took a sincere interest in Emily. He really is a great guy.”
Being Tuesday marked Cindy and Jeff’s 25th wedding anniversary, they were treated to a toast and gifts from the UW-Alumni Association.
“It was definitely an anniversary to remember. Our friends Amy and Frank Van Alstine had more gifts for us, and on the cruise they played one of Jeff’s favorite songs, “One on One” by Hall & Oates,” Cindy said. “That night definitely ranked right up there with our wedding day. Jeff is gone a lot with his work, so it meant so much to us to have the time together and get away. As the song says; ‘have a little one on one time’.”
“Well….one on one with hundreds of Badger fans,” Cindy jokes.
As Cindy explains, the family returned to their room around 8 p.m. and within minutes, “Emily was out!”
On Wednesday Cindy, Jeff and Emily joined the Van Alstine’s on a trip to Clearwater Beach, approximately 30 minutes from Tampa. There, they were treated to “beach life” as they discovered a beach market, performers, a fire eater and an escape artist along with wildlife such as a pelican, who decided to walk up to Emily. “I was a little freaked out at first, but he was pretty neat!” Emily says.
Wednesday evening, the Artus’ attended a reception at the hotel where they met new Badger head coach Paul Chryst and later had the opportunity to spend some time with some familiar faces in Dave and Marge Arneson as well as former MHS Football coach Tom Tourtillot and his wife Terri. The night ended with watching the New Year fireworks from the balcony of their hotel room on the 21st floor.
Game day kicked off Thursday morning in the hotel lobby. The trio departed the hotel via motor coach at 8 a.m. for Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and venue of the 2015 Outback Bowl.
Prior to kickoff, the Artus family attended the “Badger Huddle Tailgate” pre-game party.
As Cindy explains, 1,600 were sold for the event but the Artus’ admission was included in their Alumni package. “It was so spread out, you couldn’t tell that many people were there! They had a huge banquet style set up with every type of brunch and tailgate food you can imagine! From scrambled eggs and sausages to brats, they had it all!”
Following a performance by Bucky Badger, the UW Band and the UW cheerleading squad, the big moment had come and was time for the family to take their seats 10 rows up from the Wisconsin end zone with Dave and Marge and Sam’s sisters Marlee and Tori.
“Oh heavens, the atmosphere there was so electric!” Cindy exclaims. “There were a few more Auburn fans than Badgers fans, being a little closer to home for them, but I must say the Badger fans are a bit more ‘animated’ and loyal than Tiger fans…then again I am a bit biased.
“The upper tier of the stadium was a little empty but the rest was full. Even though that stadium was neat, it was nothing compared to Camp Randall. I said it during the season this year and I’ll say it again, there is something about that stadium makes football so much more special and fun. I can’t put my finger on what it is, maybe it’s the history, or maybe the atmosphere, I don’t know. I just know it’s a very special place.”
Despite being far from home, Cindy reports the Badger fans didn’t leave anything behind. The stadium was adorned with red and white T-shirts and shorts. Players and fans alike “jumped around” at will.
“The sea of red knows no boundaries,” Cindy jokes, “and of course every Badger fan went absolutely nuts whenever we scored! I’ll never forget the feeling of watching that ball doink off the goal post for the win. Everyone rushed the field, but not us.” she adds with a laugh. “We decided to just stand back and watch. The whole thing was sort of an out of body experience and Emily was just loving every minute of it.”
“When I seen Sam run out on the field, it was a very special thing,” Emily says. “He is such an amazing man. It was a little sad to see him wear number 49 for the last time.”
“I can’t imagine the pride the Arnesons must have felt,” Cindy adds. “As Emily said, he is an amazing man with a heart of gold.”
One may think the Badger win would be the climax of the Artus trip to Tampa, but as Emily would soon learn, perhaps one of the brightest highlights of her trip was yet to come.
“When we were waiting in the security line at the airport in Madison, we met a woman by the name of Kelli Trumble who was from Wisconsin Dells. I remember her telling us how she lives her life by performing one act of kindness a day. She said, if she goes to bed each night knowing she made someone’s day better, her day is complete.”
“Well, after the game we saw Kelli again,” Cindy explains. “She came up to us after the game and she said to Emily, ‘I have something to tell you, I won the game ball (drawing) and I want you to have it.’ I think my mouth may have fell open! I just couldn’t believe it! Someone we barely knew was giving our little girl the game ball from the Outback Bowl!” Cindy adds as her voice strains a bit with emotion, “I still can’t believe it.”
Once the ball is signed by all the players, it will be delivered into Emily’s hands.
“I didn’t know what to do!” Emily says. “I just froze I think. I was so shocked.”
Thursday evening, Sam dropped in at the hotel for a visit and on Friday morning, the time had come to head home.
“We didn’t get a lot of sleep, it was a very charged weekend,” Cindy said in an interview Monday morning. “But that was what we wanted. We knew it was going to be busy and we wanted to enjoy every moment, we said from the get go, ‘Enjoy it while we can, we can sleep when we get home.’ We spent the weekend re-charging our batteries. We have been getting lots of phone calls from family and of course telling our story about Tampa and the bowl game over and over,” she adds with a chuckle.
“Looking back on the last month, it is hard to put into words. It has just been a feeling of joy and very heartwarming to see and feel how the community has embraced our family and
made our Emily’s dream come true,” Cindy explains.
“Our own Tomahawk, Merrill and Wausau communities have created their very own make a wish foundation. They made it possible for Emily to see her dream come true. As parents of a child with special needs who has been through so much sadness and heartbreak, we have always tried to look at the positive side of things. To see a community come together for our daughter is such a joyous and overwhelming feeling. My heart overflows for everyone who made this possible for our family. We are thankful beyond words! “We pray the lord will bless everyone as much as they have blessed us.”
“I am especially very thankful to the Arneson family,” Emily adds. “Without Sam being my friend and playing football, none of this would have happened. The Arneson’s are just like family to me.”