IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa Hawkeyes have been busy preparing for the FedEx Orange Bowl for about a month now. They’ve been working out, studying film, finishing up first-semester classwork. It’s been a hectic time.
But a couple of them took some time off the other day to play Candyland with a 4-year-old girl from Ainsworth, Iowa.
And it’s not the first time.
Little Jenna Waters has been battling liver cancer for nearly a year now. She has come to be known as Princess Jenna on various Web sites, and quarterback Ricky Stanzi and other members of the Iowa football team have become her knights in shining armor.
“They’ve been great,’’ said Christina Waters, Jenna’s mother. “Ricky doesn’t like to talk a lot about it because it’s not about him. But they’ve been really great.
“They’ve all been wonderful to her. Ricky likes to come and visit her, and he’s really developed a relationship with her. They’ve become very close. I know he thinks a whole heckuva lot about her.’’
Stanzi thinks a lot of the entire Waters family, which includes parents Jared and Christina, 7-year-old son Bryce, Jenna and her twin sister, Katelyn.
“Her parents, we have so much respect for them for the things they go through,” Stanzi said. “It’s nothing easy. To be some little part of it, to help in some way, is an honor for all of us.”
A tough year
It was a little more than a year ago when Jenna, then 3, began complaining of extreme pain in her right side. It initially was diagnosed as a urinary tract infection, but the family learned about a month later that she had a tumor on her liver. More tumors were found on her lungs and stomach. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as embryonal hepatoblastoma.
It was the start of an agonizing and arduous trek that has included chemotherapy, surgery, assorted other treatments, a liver transplant and seemingly endless hospital stays.
At some point last winter, mutual friends arranged to have a few Iowa players visit Jenna during one of her visits to University Hospitals in Iowa City.
“We’re Hawkeye fans, and we just told her these guys were going to come and visit her,” Christina Waters recalled. “She hadn’t smiled all day that day they first came to visit her, but when they walked in the door, she was just very excited to see them. She gets excited every time they come.”
Stanzi was joined on that initial visit by linebackers A.J. Edds and Jeff Tarpinian, tight end Tony Moeaki and fullback Brett Morse, and other players became involved on ensuing visits.
“We just immediately took a huge liking to her,” Edds said. “She’s just really special — a strong, sweet girl. All of us took a liking to her, especially Ricky. I think he talks to Jenna’s mom on almost a daily basis.”
Stanzi wears close to a dozen rubberized bracelets on his wrists during games, one of which is pink and bears the words “Pray for Princess Jenna.” The other bracelets represent support for other kids he has seen or visited in the hospital, but Jenna is the only one with whom he has developed a long-term relationship.
He visits her almost every time she goes to the hospital and exchanges frequent text messages with Christina to stay updated on Jenna’s condition.
“We just connected well with the family. … ,” Stanzi said. “Her story kind of appealed to us. She was such a big Hawk fan. Over time, we just developed this relationship.”
Stanzi’s parents bought Jenna a pink outfit. There have been pink T-shirts made up with Jenna’s name on them. Christina and Bryce had a chance to attend an Iowa game this fall. Jenna even got a guided tour of Kinnick Stadium, including the visitors locker room, where the walls are painted pink.
When Jenna went to Omaha, Neb., for a liver transplant in October, Tarpinian’s family invited the Waters family to stay with them in their home.
“It’s just kind of developed into a really nice relationship where they get support from sources other than just us players,” Stanzi said. “We have our families involved, too.”
“We’re all family now,’’ Christina added.
Jenna’s condition has improved since the transplant, and Christina said her daughter is “doing great.”
“We just finished the last round of chemo last week,” she said. “Now we’re just waiting around to see if it’s in remission or what. It’s been a long year. We’ve gotten tons and tons of support.”
None of it has meant any more than what the family has received from Stanzi and his pals.
“They’re just normal guys, normal guys that play football,” Christina said. “They do what they love to do and that just happens to be playing football for the Hawkeyes.”
More than what the players have come to mean to Jenna and the Waters family is what Jenna now means to a bunch of 20- and 21-year-old young men.
“I don’t think she understands the impact she’s had on them and what she means to them,” Christina said.
What she means is perspective.
“We think we have a tough job sometimes,” Edds said. “We think practice is pretty tough. This really puts it in perspective. It makes you realize you don’t have it so tough.”
Stanzi said it has made him realize how short and tenuous life can be.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “You have to really cherish the time you have. In the position we’re in as athletes, a girl like Jenna can really make you see that. Once you see it from that perspective, it kind of makes you enjoy it a little more. You can only play football for so long, and here you’re looking at a 4-year-old battling cancer.
“We all have to take what we have and be very thankful for it.”