Even though the 9 a.m. practice slot is several hours earlier than her usual wakeup time, Sophie Manning was not tired on Monday morning. She did not want to chill out in the air-conditioned tent where her loved ones sat to rest a bit. Sophie wanted to be involved in all the action outside.
"With chemo treatments, she's been going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning and getting up at noonish so I wasn't sure how she'd be this morning, but she's full of energy, running around everywhere," Sophie's mom Holly Manning said with a laugh.
There was a lot to be soaked in on a day set up to honor the end of Sophie's treatment next month. The 5-year-old Richmond native was treated to a celebratory entrance into the Park, meet-and-greets with her favorite offensive linemen and more in one-of-a-kind experience made possible by Washington's special fan community.
The roots of the Mannings' Washington football fandom can be traced back to when the team first moved to the nation's capital. Sophie's great grandfather was a fan, and he passed that onto his children. Growing up in the '80s, Brendan, Sophie's dad, remembers Sundays spent gathered around the TV with his family to watch the game, eating chili his dad always cooked especially for the occasion. As the years wore on and new generations of Mannings were added, Washington football continued to hold a special place in family's heart and homes.
The significance of the Mannings' fandom took on a different meaning in June 2020 when then-3-year-old Sophie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Shortly after the diagnosis, a family friend connected the Mannings with the Hogfarmers Inc. Charity Foundation, a group of Washington fans who support families affected by pediatric cancer.
"They [Hogfarmers] started a call with us immediately and asked what they could do to help us," Brendan Manning said. "They set up meetings with different families who had been through similar things."
It was through those conversations that the Mannings found an appreciated source of emotional support and heard about treatment options the family would perhaps want to consider. The Hogfarmers support did not stop that summer. They sent encouraging videos, continued to have calls and helped get the family to a Washington preseason game last August.
A year on, as Sophie has neared the end of her treatment, it only made sense that the Hogfarmers would be there again to set up an experience the Mannings would remember forever -- a training camp day dedicated to Sophie.
"Being with the foundation, you read so many very sad stories and you want to come out here and celebrate when you have someone, especially a child, who is beating this disease that's taken down a lot of people," Hogfarmer Keith said. "To see this victory, we had to be out here today."
To kick off Monday's celebration, Sophie was greeted by dozens of people holding up signs that spelled out, "Sophie Strong" and met players as they came out to practice.
"When we walked up, there were 50 people just supporting Sophie. Players stopped by to say 'hello' and give her a fist bump. It was amazing," Sophie's uncle Denny said. "It means a lot to us as a family to see that there are still really great people in the world."
Sophie Manning, 5, got the chance to attend the Washington Commanders training camp practice ahead of receiving her final treatments in her battle with leukemia. Here's a look at how she spent her day. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
That welcome set the tone for the day, which was all about rolling out the burgundy carpet for a child who has endured so many hardships so early on in life.
"For people to dote on her and spoil her and let it be her day means a lot to us," Holly Manning said. "She deserves it. She's going through a lot."
Sophie, dressed in her very own Commanders jersey, bounced between doing drills with different position groups, sitting next to players on the sideline and hanging out with co-CEO and co-Owner Tanya Snyder. Her loved ones looked on, overcome with emotion at the sight of the little girl just enjoying the moment.
"It's just fantastic to see her running, enjoying life. She's had a rough two years, and it's finally coming to an end," Sophie's grandmother said. "It almost brings me to tears to just talk about it."
Giving Sophie's main support system a fun-focused day in which they too felt celebrated was important to the Hogfarmers.
"This is what's it's all about, the whole family just enjoying the day and not having to worry about cancer or anything of the sort," Hogfarmer Chris said.
At the end of September, Sophie will clear a major milestone in her journey when she finishes her chemo treatments and medication. As they look towards brighter days ahead, the Mannings will always reflect on the memories of pigskins and pig hats that helped carry them through the darker periods.
"It's just been really amazing to see what being a fan of this football team can do," Brendan said.