"Did they think I was just going to watch them?" remarks Adrian Diaz, who has embraced the opportunity that was offered through Team IMPACT
Adrian Diaz, an 8-year-old with muscular dystrophy, always knew he could be a vital part of any team — and when he joined the University of Massachusetts hockey squad he was determined to make the most out of the experience.
“I felt like part of the team when I was in the gym,” Adrian, the team motivator, tells PEOPLE. “It was pretty fun being like a little coach. Did they think I was just going to watch them? I’m intense."
Adrian has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease affecting the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, and voluntary muscle movement — but that's never slowed down the dynamo, who puts every ounce of his small frame into positive action. He eagerly embraced the opportunity that was offered through Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit that has been connecting children with serious illness or disabilities with college athletic teams since 2011.
Dad José Diaz, 33, tells PEOPLE when he and his wife Cassie learned of the program, they felt it would be a perfect fit for their son. Not only were they big hockey fans, but they also wanted their son to be part of the team experience.
“It means the world to us, because all we wanted for Adrian was to be part of a team, have people there for him and he’s always wanted the same thing,” Diaz tells PEOPLE. “These guys are just great, great people. And the environment radiates that. Even on game day, when they have to be focused, they still take their time to say ‘Hi' to Adrian.”
Adrian, who attends a virtual school, also enjoys being around his teammates.
“I always feel, whenever I go in, they always give me a warm welcome and whenever we do stuff, it’s like I’m really a part of it,” Adrian says. “I just like being with them.”
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Adrian signed with the team in February and immediately decided that being part of the team meant he needed to create a place where he could make the most impact. And that was when he decided he’d be the team motivator, the guy who got the team’s spirits up.
“I was like their coach, cheering them on,” Adrian says. “And I made them work very hard.”
He calls himself a “happy guy” and says he likes being himself at all times.
"Be who you are, don’t be afraid to be yourself. I never get afraid,” Adrian counsels. “Go out there and make the world happy.”
It’s his infectious spirit that has been a real boost to the team, teammate Elliott McDermott tells PEOPLE. He says the team went through a little slump last season and it was Adrian who reminded them of what was important about the game.
“We couldn't have gotten a better teammate,” says McDermott, 24. “He's always full of energy. It gives us a lot of perspective. He obviously faces a lot of adversity and he does it with a smile on his face. So it's awesome to see that and it just encourages us to work hard every day.”
And, McDermott adds, “he reminds us that it’s got to be fun.”
At first, McDermott thought Adrian might be overwhelmed by the high octane hockey team, but he immediately fit right in.
“I thought he'd be intimidated, but he was not at all,” McDermott says. “He came into our gym just guns ablazing and he wasn’t afraid to get us going by yelling at us.”
McDermontt, who grew up playing hockey in Canada, says he can’t imagine going to a school the size of UMass and not being part of the team.
“You immediately have 26 brothers that you spend a lot of time with,” McDermott says. “They’re your teammates, they’re your friend groups, they’re your brothers, so it’s pretty special.”
And that camaraderie is exactly what Adrian’s father hoped his son would get in the program.
“He’s always been the kid who enjoys talking to people, being around people,” Diaz says. “I enjoy going to the games and seeing how much attention they put into Adrian every time he's there.”
Because Adrian means so much to the team, McDermott, who started a small business designing shoes, created a special pair for Adrian.
“I know he’s a big shoe guy so I figured it would be a cool gift,” McDermott says.
Adrian was impressed with the sneakers, which featured the UMass logo. “I think ‘Good design Elliott!’ You have good taste!,” Adrian says, giving a big thumbs up to his pal.
Diaz says Adrian pumps everyone up every day with his sense of humor and good-natured spirit.
“He’s exactly what I wanted in a son and I got it,” says his proud dad.
As for McDermott, he says they are looking forward to another great hockey season with Adrian.
“Sometimes we forget that we can really use our platform for good and I think bringing Adrian on has been an awesome opportunity,” McDermott says. “And he's probably given us a lot more than we've given to him. Especially when we were struggling a little bit last year, he was just that fun ball of energy to keep things light and keep us going and motivated. We're looking forward to another great year.”
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