Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 22, 2013

Windfall boy gets to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr.

12-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy granted lifelong wish

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Windfall – Twelve-year-old Royce Jones held up two pieces of scrap paper Monday scrawled with 11 questions for his idol Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The questions “What is your coolest trophy you got?” and “What is the one person you learned a lot from?” were written in the big, chunky letters of a young kid.

They were questions seven and 11 on the list.

And they were the questions that most impressed Earnhardt and his crew when Royce met them in Daytona recently through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

It was the trip of a lifetime for the Windfall boy, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a neuromuscular disease characterized by increasing muscle weakness and loss of muscle control, according to the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation. One in every 6,000 to 10,000 children is diagnosed with it.

But Royce doesn’t let it get him down.

Monday he talked animatedly about his trip to meet Earnhardt.

“It was exciting and fun and cool,” Royce said.

He spent about 25 minutes with Earnhardt at the beginning of the month snapping photos, getting autographs and asking questions.

Royce had at least six things signed, his mom, Sheral said. All of them have since been added to the boy’s Earnhardt shrine at home.

Royce has been collecting everything Earnhardt since he was 4 years old — the year he unexpectedly became a fan of the NASCAR driver.

“We don’t know why,” Sheral said with a laugh. “It just happened.”

Royce wanted to use his racing knowledge to show Earnhardt just how big of a fan he was. But he said he didn’t really get a chance.

He knows stats from before he was born, though. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation Monday, Royce rattled off racing knowledge.

“Royce knows everything,” Sheral said. “He’s an encyclopedia.”

He pointed out that Earnhardt won two consecutive Busch Series Championships in 1998 and 1999. But he’s never won a Sprint Cup Series. His best finish was third in 2003, Royce said.

While Royce didn’t get to impress Earnhardt with those fast facts, he did stun the driver with his questions.

Earnhardt had never been asked about his favorite trophy or who in the world he’s learned the most from.

The answers to those questions? The Bristol trophy and his sister.

“He always liked the big and tall trophies,” Royce said.

Sheral said Earnhardt’s dad always had a Bristol trophy sitting in their home, and Earnhardt admired it growing up.

But he may have admired his sister even more. Earnhardt told Royce he’s learned the most from her.

“He said she helped him make good decisions and good choices,” Sheral said.

Royce will no doubt share his newfound knowledge with his friends when school starts again. And that list of questions scrawled on scrap paper will be framed for Royce’s shrine.

The meet-and-greet with Earnhardt was hands-down the best part of the trip, Royce said. But riding two laps in the pace car with Brett Bodine was a close second.

They were going 120 mph up against the wall at Daytona International Speedway.

Sheral said she thought the car was going to tip over at any moment. It was scary, she said.

Of course, Royce had a different opinion.

“It was awesome,” he said.

Royce talked about hanging out in the pits in Daytona and bumping fists with Carl Edwards. He met Bobby Labonte, Trevor Bayne and Joe Nemechek.

He spent time in the garage that housed Earnhardt’s car. He touched the racer’s gloves and helmet.

“Oh my gosh it was so special,” Sheral said.

She said the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave her son an experience he will never forget. And she could never repay the organization for that.

Since the beginning of 2012, the organization has granted wishes for eight Howard and Tipton county kids battling illnesses.

“They are making kids’ dreams come true,” she said. “It means everything to them.”

She knows it meant the world to Royce. Her humble son could hardly believe his luck, she said.

“A couple of times he said, ‘Is this really happening?’” she said. “He kept asking, ‘Are they doing this for me? Are you sure this is all for me?’”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.