When Kelby Telander first took to the field at Kinnick Stadium as a walk-on for the Iowa Hawkeyes, he was flooded with memories.

Twelve years earlier, he had walked out on the field as a Kid Captain during the program’s first season in 2009. At the time, he thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. Little did he know that one day he would beat the odds and have the opportunity to play football on the same field as a 19-year-old college freshman.

“It was crazy when I first stepped on that field as a player – it was absolutely surreal,” he says. “Usually when you’re on a field for practice and it’s just a field, it’s nothing special. But for me practicing on Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium is a whole different thing. It’s not just practice – there were so many memories made on that field and it just means a whole lot more.”

Childhood hearing loss

As a toddler, Telander struggled with hearing loss. He failed several newborn hearing tests before finally passing, and when he was 21 months old, a daycare provider expressed concern about his hearing, prompting his parents to seek out more testing.

“I was playing with the blocks and my daycare provider was calling me for lunch,” Telander says. “I had my back to her, and I didn’t turn around when she called my name. She called it four or five times and I didn’t do anything. I didn’t hear her.”

Telander was tested and was determined to be severely hearing impaired. His parents, Tina and Neil, brought him to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, where he was found to have enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, a condition which causes hearing to come and go.

Hearing aids helped for a while, but Telander’s hearing continued to decline. In March 2005, a few months after his second birthday, the toddler underwent surgery for a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that directly stimulates the auditory nerves. The cochlear implant program at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital is a national leader in research and implantation of the device.

For the first time, Telander could hear clearly.

“When we left the hospital, a bus went by and my head just followed the bus,” he says. “My dad could just tell that I was able to hear it, it was the first time I picked up on the sound of a vehicle.”

Kelby receiving his Kid Captain jersey
Kelby receiving his Kid Captain jersey

Being a Kid Captain

In 2009, UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital launched Kid Captain, a program that highlights the stories of past and present pediatric patients.  That same year, Telander’s parents nominated him for one of 13 spots, and he was selected.

“I was a huge football fan growing up, it was my favorite sport,” he says. “I remember going to that game (as Kid Captain) and met with someone outside – they gave me my Kid Captain jersey; it was the coolest thing ever.”

Telander had an opportunity to tour the locker rooms and to come down the tunnel like the players do to start a game.

Kelby stands with team during the National Athem
Kelby stands on the sidelines with the Iowa Hawkeye team for the National Athem on game day.

“Eventually the players came out to ‘Back in Black’ and I just got goosebumps, seeing the fans and everyone getting pumped up for them,” he says.

He stood amongst that year’s Hawkeye royalty – Tyler Sash, Ricky Stanzi, Broderick Binns, and Adrian Clayborn – for the national anthem and was shocked to realize the early cheers for the crowd were for him as that week’s Kid Captain.

“It was just one of those experiences where you were just in so much shock – you look back at it and realize it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you didn’t realize at the time just what a big deal it was,” he says.

Returning as a Hawkeye

Telander wasn’t ready for what he’d feel the first time he returned to Kinnick.

“When I was a Kid Captain, I thought it would be my last time on that field,” Telander says. “I was in total shock when I was offered a shot at being a walk-on, talking with the coaches, and that I was going to be on that field again.”

Bruce Gantz, MD, professor of otolaryngology and neurosurgery and the surgeon who implanted Telander’s cochlear implants, says he was surprised to hear that one of his patients was playing football, but was proud, too.

“It’s phenomenal that he is doing so well with the implant, and even more so that he’s playing football,” Gantz says. “It’s a testament to his parents for making sure he had all the best services available, and for believing in their son. His hearing has to be good to play football – I’m glad to see that it is.”

Kelby Telander an Iowa Hawkeye player
Kelby's dream of being an Iowa Hawkeye became reality.

Reflecting with gratitude

Looking back on his time as Kid Captain – and the hearing loss that led to his becoming a pediatric patient – Telander is grateful for the opportunities he’s had, including the ability to play football.

“It’s very important to me that I’m here, at Iowa – they changed my whole life with the cochlear implant at the hospital, and I just couldn’t see myself going (to play football) anywhere else. And it’s more than just about football – it’s the people, the connections I’ve made here, the doctors and nurses. It was more than just football – it’s also the people outside of the football world.”

“Being a Kid Captain was a life-changing opportunity for me,” he recalls. “It showed the hardships and conflicts patients deal with, and it made me different. For all Kid Captains, I’d say to be proud of your differences. They’re what make you unique. They make you strong.”

What you need to know about pediatric otolaryngology

UI Stead Family Children's Hospital otolaryngologists are trained specialists caring for a variety of conditions including hearing impairment, airway abnormalities, tumors, sinus conditions, cleft lip and palate, ear infections, and tonsillitis.

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