"What we do now on Thursday is we bring people who have been inspired by us and are now an inspiration to us, and bring them here to make them a part of our team," said Poppinga. "All that they're fighting for and all that they've endured is really fighting [a] bigger battle than we are. It's just awesome to see people fight through real life battles and come out successful."
"We call this the Thursday Night Heroes, in which people who are big fan and supporters with little kids who are suffering from illness, or suffered through surgeries, have the opportunity to come meet us," said linebacker Dan Van Sweden. "They're huge fans of us and this is something special for them as well as for us."
The Cougars are first introduced to the afflicted children through videos.
"Just before we come out to practice we watch a film that their parents have sent in to us talking about BYU football," Van Sweden said. "I'm not exactly sure how it works. Either someone on the coaching staff or in the football department finds out about these kids, or their parents send in letters about their children being huge fans of the team. We then reach out to them and it really gets us excited to be able to meet the little kids. It really makes our day, especially when you see the look in their eyes."
The family honored today was the Herrin family, which someone on the Cougar coaching staff originally saw on television.
"I was wearing a BYU hat when I was on the news," said father Jake Herrin. "I guess the coaches saw me on there and sent me some stuff. Tom Holmoe got a hold of me and invited me to a game. They've just been great to us and I was brought to tears. This is really just a great thing they do. As long as we've been alive we've been BYU fans and this is just great in how this coaching staff provides opportunities to really give back to the community."
Born in a perpetual hug, the Thursday Night Heroes featured two 4-year-old little girls, Malyah and Kendra Herrin, who were born as conjoined twins and recently endured 26 hours of surgery to be separated. The separation took place at the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, and the successful operation made headlines worldwide.
"Basically what happened was, they were born conjoined at the hip," said Poppinga. "They shared a liver and they shared other body parts. Then last year before the season they were separated, [and] now they're running around on the field separately. It's great to see that."
"While we were gathered together, the father made a speech and told us how grateful they were for us for winning every [MWC] game last season," said Van Sweden. "He said it really helped them to overcome their trials."
"The father pretty much just said that he was thankful for us for having a good year last year because it really helped them through what they were going through," Poppinga said. "He said it was something that helped them take their minds off of what they were going through. We just wanted them to know that there was a team here that loves them."
While the team has hosted and honored families with trials for a long time now, the Thursday Night Heroes activity is something the BYU Cougar coaching staff started two weeks ago, and it should continue as part of Coach Mendenhall's program to reach out through service and charity to the community.
"Last week we had a few kids come in, and I think one had Cystic Fibrosis," said Van Sweden. "We just did the same things for them."
This is just another example, among the many, as to why BYU's football program separates itself from other college football programs across the country.
"You won't get this type of thing at any other college football program," said Poppinga. "This is just one reason why BYU is such a special place."
"You know, it really means a lot," said a somber Jake Herrin. "To make an effort to help out those that might have special needs and recognizing them, knowing that they may never be athletes but can inspire others like athletes can, has been an inspiration to us. Coach Mendenhall has been very supportive of us, and said that anything we need or any time we want, to come down here. Just what they are doing with this program is just so amazing. How they are using this program to accomplish greater things and building great leaders with these young men on this team is just so amazing. Coach Mendenhall is helping these young men know that there truly is more to life than just football, money or fame. These young men will become great fathers and great leaders someday."
Quarterback Max Hall has been touched by recent Thursday Night Heroes programs that Coach Mendenhall and the Cougar staff have developed within the program. Now you can listen to Hall talk about the wonderful Herrin twins and how this has touched him personally.