HARRISON, N.J. – The Red Bulls signed a special player to a one-day contract on Thursday. Five-year old Irelyn Maloney of Brick, N.J., was signed by the Red Bulls, fulfilling her wish of being part of a soccer team. Maloney was presented with her own locker and jersey, and got to play a small game with the team after practice at the team’s training facility in Hanover.
“If she could play soccer every day, and every minute of every day, she would,” said Shannon, Irelyn’s mother. “She wears her cleats to school, she wears her cleats to the food store and to the doctors. She just absolutely adores it.”
Irelyn’s parents and four sisters were on hand to see her sign a contract with head coach Mike Petke. The Maloney family then got to see Irelyn’s locker and Red Bulls uniform, complete with a number 31 jersey to match her favorite player, Luis Robles.
Irelyn was born with Familial Mediterranean fever, or FMF, a rare genetic disease that causes recurrent fevers and inflammation in the abdomen, chest and joints. The disease has damaged her spinal cord, which prevents her from playing sports. She also has an autoimmune disease, which puts her at an elevated risk to contract other illnesses.
“We’ve had 40 hospital stays, and six surgeries in five years,” said Shannon.
Her dream to play in a soccer game came true earlier this month when her sister’s team, part of the Twin County Soccer Association in Brick, held a special game for her. Her day with the Red Bulls was born out of that event.
Matt Pures, a Red Bulls season ticket holder and Twin County Soccer Association parent, received an e-mail from his daughters’ coach, informing him that practice was cancelled so the team could attend Irelyn’s game.
“When I got the e-mail about filling the sidelines for Irelyn, I felt like I had to do something,” said Pures, who also attended the practice with the Maloney family.
“We all started thinking of things for Irelyn to do that were soccer related,” continued Pures, who sits in Section 131, Row 15, in the corner next to the South Ward.
”That first day that I saw her, and the smile on her face because she was able to play soccer, it was like, OK, where can we take it from here? And that’s when I contacted my ticket rep, Maria, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”
“We’re happy to provide her with this opportunity because she loves soccer,” said Marc de Grandpre, General Manager of the New York Red Bulls. “She’s an inspiration to all of us. Her parents are an inspiration, and her sisters. To give her a moment on the field with the players, and to put a smile on her face, it’s important to us. It’s the least we can do as an organization.”
Pures had never met the Maloney family before the Twin County game, but he could not shake the feeling that he had to help.
“I’m a father too,” said Pures. “I would hope that people around me would help out my daughter if she were in a similar situation. Just to be able to help a little girl smile when she’s going through such horrible things at such a young age, it makes it worthwhile. You actually feel like you’re making somebody’s day, somebody’s life, better.”
The family got a tour of the facilities, and then watched on as the team trained. After practice was over, it was time for Irelyn to show the boys some moves of her own. First up on the agenda: score a goal on her favorite player. Second, show the Red Bulls’ keeper her best skill, punting.
Irelyn has a tough road ahead, to be sure. Aside from the financial worries that come with having a sick child, the family makes regular trips, sometimes multiple times a week, from their home in Brick to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The recent outpouring of community support is not lost on Irelyn’s parents.
“Within the last few months we think she’s starting to realize what’s wrong with her,” said Shannon. “She’s starting to come to the realization that she’s different from her sisters. So these things she wants to get up and come to. It’s something that she can share with her sisters as well. It definitely is a big thing.”
It brings the family together,” said Irelyn’s father, Larry, also a Red Bulls fan. “She normally can’t participate in the things her sisters can do. And to see her being involved with something that’s on a bigger scale,that most people don’t get to witness, let alone be involved with, to be on the same field as the Red Bulls, it’s amazing. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to the girls.”
To learn more about Irelyn and her family, or to see a list of upcoming events and fundraisers on their behalf, check out their Facebook page. You can also see photos from Irelyn's special day with the Red Bulls below.