On the 15th anniversary of the last full day of her only son’s life Thursday morning, Celeste Waddell was playing dodgeball in his honor.
For the first time since her 19-year-old died suddenly, stricken on the football field at Turpin Stadium at the end of a light workout on March 1, 2004, she had summoned the emotional strength to return to Northwestern State as the 2019 Demons visited local schools in the 14th Annual Chris Waddell Day. She has been back to campus, and the spot near midfield where he collapsed, numerous times through the years, often leaving a rose on the logo that memorializes him.
Thursday, surrounded by little kids in school uniforms and big college boys wearing their NSU jerseys, she was ecstatic.
“I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to come and participate. My heart right now is full. I can’t even tell you what I feel,” she said outside a gymnasium at St. Mary’s School, where 20 Demon players were engaged in a wild kickball contest with elementary-level boys and girls, to the delight of all.
Before the games at each of the five schools, she was introduced by NSU head coach Brad Laird, who was the Demons’ defensive coordinator in 2004. Her message at each stop to children ranging up to junior high school was values-centered.
“The same thing I’ve always preached: God first, and family. Choose your friends wisely. Dream big. You can do anything you imagine if you keep those values in mind,” she said, gratified at the reactions as activities continued into the mid-afternoon.
“Just the fact that Chris Waddell Day has lasted this long means a lot. It shows that I did something right. I instilled the right values and morals into him, and it just transcended over the years to other people.”
She wasn’t the only Waddell present. Her niece, Chris’ cousin Jourdan Waddell, is a junior at Northwestern and participated in her third Chris Waddell Day. Last year, she won NSU’s Miss Lady of the Bracelet crown and was fourth runner-up in the Miss Louisiana pageant.
Her excitement was palpable Thursday as she helped her aunt take in the spectacle at St. Mary’s.
“They’re running around screaming, having the best time, and it reminds me of what it was like to be young and full of joy,” said Jourdan. “For her to come back for this event, particularly, and I’m here meeting her, it was an overwhelming feeling to be with her and in the spirit of the day.
“It meant so much to me when they invited me to participate my freshman year, and it instilled that family feeling that is so much of the identity of NSU. Knowing that his life has inspired this makes me so proud of our university for how they keep his memory alive.”
A pre-schooler when her cousin passed away from a cardiac event due to Kawasaki Syndrome complications, Jourdan remembers him playing with her, a gentle 300-pound offensive guard, a giant not too proud to be on the floor surrounded by dolls and toys.
“Chris was a kind-hearted person, very humble and very hard working. That’s the message all kids should take away from Chris Waddell Day, is to constantly work hard and strive for whatever it is you want to do, but at the same time, still have fun, like he did.”
Thursday’s event was extra special for one of the Demons, redshirt freshman tight end Aaron Howell, who experienced previous Waddell Days as a schoolkid at St. Mary’s.
“Growing up I remember doing this at least five times, watching these football players come into our school, looking up to them, and dreaming of being one of them one day,” he said. “Now I’m that guy, and to see all the kids I went to school with, it’s a good feeling, that’s for sure.”
As Laird watched, after he and NSU president Dr. Chris Maggio briefly took part in dodgeball frolics at Weaver Elementary, he reflected on the day he met Mrs. Waddell.
“The team meeting she had the morning after her son passed away was unbelievable,” he said. “She was consoling us, when it should have been the opposite. Being able to describe that experience to our guys, year after year, I feel lucky and honored.”
She reprised those remarks to a bleacher-section filled with Weaver fourth graders, after Laird referenced it in his introduction. Looking back at the 2019 Demons, she smiled.
“After God took Chris, I told those (NSU) players they were all now my sons, and that’s still how I feel. I love all these boys, too. They are walking the path that my son took,” she said. “He was so happy being here and I hope they are having the same experience.”
Waddell Day, said Laird, has themes that are valuable for anyone, not just kids or college football players.
“First it’s about stressing education. The reason we bring our student-athletes is because they’ve taken care of their business in the classroom and they’re good examples to these kids.
“But it’s also about remembering his example. Chris lived every day to the fullest. Too many times we get so busy and forget about just having fun and living it. That’s what he did, from the time he was a baby and he was diagnosed with his (heart) condition. He was a great student, he played football, he competed in track, he did karate.
“When he passed away, he was doing what he loved. Wouldn’t we all want to live every day, be the very best we can be, and live life to the fullest?” said Laird. “That’s a great message not only for the kids we’re talking to, but to all of us, and anyone, anywhere.”