How Arkansas Fan Canaan Sandy Became a Spring Game Sensation

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How Arkansas Fan Canaan Sandy Became a Spring Game Sensation
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Canaan Sandy tried to pump up the crowd as he ran on to the field. He wanted them as excited as he was. 

Sandy joined the Arkansas Razorbacks in their huddle at midfield. The play was simple: Hand it to Canaan. He stood to the right of quarterback Brandon Allen, hands on his knees, in a shotgun formation just behind the 50-yard line. 

The ball was snapped and off he went through a gaping hole on the right side of the line. He held the pigskin high and tight, just like they teach it. No one was close to touching him. No one was going to touch him. This was Canaan's moment. 

The players mobbed him in the end zone whooping and hollering before quickly realizing he wasn't done. There was still a celebration dance to do. 

A series of "Ohhhhs!" erupted as Canaan busted a move that would make Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury jealous. 

Like little Jack Hoffman's touchdown at Nebraska's spring game the year before, Canaan's run made headlines with all the major news outlets. "We didn't even see the touchdown run until Tuesday," said Canaan's mother, Ginger Sandy. "Our Internet was down, so we were way behind the times."  

The touchdown counted. It's in the official stat sheet and everything. Canaan has been a lifelong Razorbacks fan, but for a day he was a member of the team with his own stat. 

After it was over, after all the dancing and celebrating, Canaan pulled a group together with a simple request. 

"Let us pray," he said.

Credit: Ginger Sandy

 

History of Resilience

Danny and Ginger Sandy had no idea their son would have Down syndrome. 

Once Canaan was born, though, they knew something wasn't right. "The next morning, the doctor came in with his suspicions and said he was calling in a specialist," Ginger said.

There were complications. Canaan was born with a hole in his heart, an intestinal blockage and he was deaf. 

"We got to have him home for three weeks before he had his first little heart attack," Ginger said. "Then we were back in the hospital for almost two months after that. 

“By the time he was three months old, he had undergone open-heart surgery and major intestinal repair.”

For the first three years of Canaan's life, the Sandy's second home was the hospital.

Credit: Ginger Sandy

Now 31, Canaan lives with his parents on a farm in Cave City, a small town in northern Arkansas a little more than 100 miles from Little Rock and a couple of hours west of Memphis. 

"DS children never really grow up," Ginger explained. "There is a [mental] level where they plateau. It could be 12 or 13 years old. They can’t drive, there are safety concerns, money issues: things that adults would have to deal with.

"DS children—and I call them children, no matter their age—aren’t equipped to handle that.” 

Though he's unable to live by himself, Canaan is high-functioning. He's capable of doing tasks on his own and was the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from Cave City High School at age 21 with the help of the Arkansas Disabilities Act. He's even taken some college-level courses through the high school. 

He helps on the farm and assists his mother at the local community theater, where he's been acting since he was six. The Sandys are devoutly religious. Canaan is an usher for the local church and gets to sing a song every week. 

He's been a 4-H member since he was five and was elected to the Arkansas 4-H Hall of Fame. He's served as a state officer, state ambassador and the Arkansas representative to Washington, D.C. 

Canaan has also shown pigs on a national level. He was featured in the first-ever youth edition of the National Swine Association magazine and pictured on the National Showpig brochure.

In short, Canaan has been living quite a life. 

"We don’t focus on his DS," Ginger said. "Canaan doesn’t even know he’s special or that he has a title. We just treat him like he’s normal and let him do as much as he can and wants to do."

Credit: Ginger Sandy

 

Hall of Fame Fan

Canaan attended his first Razorbacks game when he was two months old. And he had to go into open-heart surgery the next week. His parents wanted to go to the game, but couldn't leave their infant son behind while they went to Fayetteville

So began the first of many trips to Fayetteville for Canaan. 

The Sandys make day trips to Arkansas football games—a five-hour drive each way—a few times each season. Oftentimes, the family won't get home until five in the morning the next day. 

But that has molded Canaan into the superfan he is today. When he's not watching sports, he's playing as his beloved Razorbacks on the NCAA Football video game for his PlayStation. He's convinced, without a doubt, that the Hogs will go undefeated this year. 

When ESPN began holding its Fans Hall of Fame contest, Canaan's sister, Krista, and Ginger knew he would be a perfect contestant. They sent in videos and pictures, and of the thousands of entries, Canaan was chosen as a top-10 finalist and elected in December. 

Arkansas invited the Sandys to special Razorback Club events, where they got to meet head coach Bret Bielema. Ginger recalls that it was around that time that Bielema came up with the idea of putting her son in the team's spring Red-White Game on April 26. In the week leading up to the game, the athletic department began hinting to the family that they had big plans for Canaan. 

Credit: Ginger Sandy

"When we got to Fayetteville that Friday, word was that he was going to make a two-point conversion," Ginger said. "But, during halftime, coach Bielema got the notion that he wanted Caanan to score a touchdown and have a bigger part in the game.”

So, with under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Canaan ran on to the field. He took the handoff from Allen and 50 yards later put the Red Team up 54-22. 

And his mother missed the whole thing. 

“I didn’t get to see anything," Ginger said. "I’m a little short in stature and all the people down on the field were big.

"And then I started crying and I didn’t see anything.” 

Canaan's time in the spotlight isn't over yet, though. The Sandys head to ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., on May 29. That's when Canaan will be inducted into the Fan Hall of Fame at the ESPN campus, where his picture and name will be engraved on a stadium seat.  Next year, Canaan will help pick the top 10 finalists.

The collective moments from Canaan's life, culminating in last weekend's touchdown run, have played out nothing like his mother's initial vision—for the better. 

"I was distraught [when he was born]," she said. "I felt like there would be no life for him and didn’t know what it would be like for us.

"As you can see, I turned out to be worried for nothing."

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval

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