By Peter Schwartz
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What was already going to be an emotional night is going to be even more special.READ MORE: Paterson Mother Charged With Murder In 7-Year-Old's Death
Former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty, sent to the Chicago Fire during a controversial offseason trade, will be back in Harrison, New Jersey, with his new team on Saturday night for his first appearance at Red Bull Arena since getting dealt. But there is an even deeper and perhaps more emotional storyline to his return.
That’s because Saturday is the Red Bulls’ third annual Autism Awareness Night, and the irony in McCarty’s return on that evening is straight out of a Hollywood script. During his time with the Red Bulls, McCarty developed a very special friendship with Julia de Grandpre, the 9-year-old daughter of Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpre. At the age of 2, Julia was diagnosed with autism.
“I am very much looking forward to seeing Julia on Saturday night,” McCarty told WFAN.com. “She is a very special person, and I can’t wait to see her. The friendship I have with Julia is hard to put into words. She is an inspiration to me and everyone else that has the privilege to know her. She is a fighter and someone who I admire very much.”
Julia’s battle with the disorder, along with the daily challenges that others in the community are experiencing, was the inspiration behind her father’s creation of Autism Awareness Night. The Red Bulls are donating $3 from every ticket purchased using the “AUTISM17” code to the group Autism Speaks.
As part of the evening, Red Bull Arena will feature a wide range of support for affected families in attendance, including a dedicated stadium entrance, a quiet zone and the distribution of “sensory sacks,” including headphones and stress balls. Wristbands with seating location and information will be distributed to impacted families.
In addition, there will be no music at the “BULLevard” fan area from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Red Bulls players will wear autism-awareness-themed items on the pitch, and the first 5,000 fans will receive limited-edition posters with an autism awareness theme.
The event has come a long way in three years.
“The progress has been tremendous,” Marc de Grandpre told me during a phone conversation Wednesday. “I think we’ve seen everyone in the organization embrace it, and you’ve seen the greater community embrace it.”
Julia has made some remarkable strides since her diagnosis. In fact, she’s made progress in her intellectual development over the last year and is working hard every day in her challenges with the disorder. For Julia, things are certainly moving in the right direction.
“She’s doing awesome,” her father said. “She keeps lighting up a room when she walks in it.”
Julia’s presence always seemed to bring a smile to McCarty’s face during his tenure with the Red Bulls. Julia’s old friend couldn’t have been happier to learn of her improvement.READ MORE: 3 Teens Charged In Manhattan Subway Attacks, Police Release Video Of New Suspect Believed To Be Group's Lookout
“Always happy to hear that she is doing well and making progress,” McCarty said. “She is a very smart young lady who is going to accomplish great things in her life. I have no doubt about that.”
There are certainly going to be families affected by autism that are unable to attend Saturday, so with that in mind, the Red Bulls have announced they are creating a permanent sensory room at Red Bull Arena designated for families with kids who are on the autism spectrum.
The space, which used to be Marc de Grandpre’s office on the fifth-floor suite level, includes couches, bean bags, lockers, dimmer blue lighting, carpeting and games for the kids. The room overlooks the field so everyone can still watch the match through the glass or on television. The space will be ready starting with the May 14 game against Los Angeles.
“Autism impacts my family and countless others every day,” the Red Bulls’ GM said. “Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year. We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”
The Red Bulls are believed to be the first team in the New York/New Jersey area and the first team in Major League Soccer with a space dedicated to children with autism. The only other team in North America that has a similar space is the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Red Bulls also drew inspiration from a soccer team in Europe.
Even though he now plays for another team, McCarty remains Julia’s favorite player, and she is looking forward to Saturday’s reunion. What she’s really hoping for is the chance to let him know that she misses him.
“She still loves Dax, and she was sad to see him go,” Marc de Grandpre said.
“Hopefully she sees him Saturday and she can give him a hug if he’s still willing. That would go a long way for her.”
So Dax … will you let Julia give you a hug?
“Of course,” said McCarty, who plans on returning the favor. “I will see her and give her a big hug before and after the game. She always brings a smile to my face, so it will be a very special moment for me.”
It should be a very special moment for everyone involved, and there could be some Kleenex needed.MORE NEWS: Pro-Palestine Protesters Block Traffic On Gowanus Expressway
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls and @autismspeaks.