The latest member of the Blast made a lasting impression on his new teammates at practice Wednesday.
Less than four minutes into the team's scrimmage, parked on the left side of the field at Northeast Regional Recreation Center, he aimed a shot to the far post that beat goalkeeper William Vanzela.
It was a special goal on a special day for a special kid.
Jacob Barford, an eighth-grader at Centreville Middle School in Queen Anne's County, has Evans syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease in which an individual's antibodies attack the body's red blood cells and platelets.
On Wednesday, the 13-year-old spent the day with the Blast as an honorary team member. First, Barford was greeted individually by each Blast player. From there, he received a team jersey (forward Lucio Gonzaga's No. 13, which Barford always has worn on the teams he has played on), ran through drills, played in the scrimmage, took a team photo and received a ball signed by the entire team.
Larry and Alicia Barford had told their son they were going to a Blast game Wednesday — not a day the team actually played — and that they had been invited to watch the morning practice. Barford was surprised as he walked into the team's Parkville practice facility.
"I thought we were just going to a regular Blast game, but it turned out to be all this. It was really cool. It was all so much fun, especially the ending," Barford said.
Last fall, during a practice with his travel soccer team, Barford quickly became winded and left especially tired. His parents took him to see his doctor, who immediately sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital after finding problems with his blood work.
After several tests and two stays in the hospital, he was diagnosed with Evans syndrome.
His condition was treated quickly enough that Barford's red blood cell and platelet counts could return to safe levels. But he was told he could no longer play competitive sports because his body might not respond to injuries as it once did.
In addition to regularly taking medication, he must maintain a healthy diet and have his blood pressure and temperature checked daily, among other precautions. His parents make sure to watch for headaches and bloody noses, and look in on him every night while he's sleeping.
Once a week, he has blood work sent to Johns Hopkins. The results have been good. If his blood counts remains at positive levels, there's a chance Barford could play soccer again at full speed. For now, he lightly trains with his team during practices.
Wanting to provide encouragement to his son, Larry, a former NASCAR driver who now works as a police officer, emailed the Blast this month to see whether team officials could do something special. They were happy to oblige.
"If we can do anything to make people feel good and have a good time and be a part of something special, obviously, we're always looking to do that," Blast captain Mike Lookingland (Loyola High) said. "And Jacob — I know he had a good time. He scored a bunch of goals and looked real good out there. I was telling [coach Danny Kelly] he better sign him up before the Milwaukee Wave [also of the Major Indoor Soccer League] grabs him."
The day's fun was capped shortly after practice, when Larry reached into his pocket and pulled out tickets for the Blast's home game against the St. Louis Ambush on Friday.
Larry told his son: "Always remember, you can do whatever you set your mind to."
Asked how may times his father had told him that, Barford said: "About a hundred thousand times."
Next Wednesday, the Blast will welcome another young fan, Yanees Dobbertstein, who is battling leukemia.
"We want to be a big-time player in the community, and when you can do something that helps a youngster and his parents — give them a feel-good day and impact their lives — it's special," Blast president and general manager Kevin Healey said.
"This is a big part of what we do, and [what] we always say is we want to follow our actions and not just our words. We feel really good about what we do to help the community."