updated 03/24/2014 AT 1:30 PM ET
•originally published 03/24/2014 AT 1:40 PM ET
“I created this page for my amazing, wonderful, challenging son who is about to turn 11 on March 9th,” wrote Jennifer, who requested that media not use the last name of the family from Richland, Mich., on the Facebook page Happy Birthday Colin. She and Colin were both amazed by the response.
“Because of Colin’s disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don’t like him,” his mom says. “He eats lunch alone in the office every day because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party.”
The request touched the hearts of the Kalamazoo Wings, whose home games are played 10 minutes from Richland.
“Hearing his story, especially the part about lunch by himself,” Mike Modugno, team broadcaster and PR director tells PEOPLE, “the guys wanted to eat with him.”
But they went one better – surprising Colin at a pizza restaurant on March 18, they gave him a one-day contract that makes him their full-fledged teammate. And for Sunday’s home game against the Fort Wayne Komets, Colin dressed in his own jersey – No. 11, of course – to sit alongside players on the bench, drop a ceremonial puck, and be cheered as one of the Wings’ stars of the game.
“I was not expecting this,” Colin tells the Kalamazoo Gazette. “I knew we were going to the restaurant, but I was not expecting the rest.”
“The players obviously have a team mentality, with no one left behind,” says Modugno. “What we’re hoping for is to remember that we are a community, that everyone’s a part of it, and to make sure that everyone’s included, whether it’s an 11-year-old child or someone else. That’s a team. That’s what a community is.”
It was the first hockey game for Colin, who according to his mom has a disorder similar to Asperger syndrome that causes difficulties with facial expressions, understanding verbal cues and interacting in social settings. But thanks to the Facebook page Colin’s story has attracted more than 2 million “likes” and 78,000 pieces of mail and gifts from well-wishers.
“It’s been just overwhelming,” Jennifer told the Gazette. “I have seen him in this last month blossom because he knows he has 2.1 million friends and that is something that nobody else has. His self-confidence has grown.”
“I think he was a little mesmerized by the contract. He was staring at the paper for at least 5 minutes,” says the Wings’ Modugno of the deal presented by head coach Nick Bootland, team captain Elgin Reid, and assistant captains Sam Ftorek and Eric Kattelus. “Our players did joke that he should have asked for a better signing bonus.”
Yet even without that, Colin described his birthday experience as “a little bit crazy and wild” as letters to him continued to arrive.
“It’s been very heartwarming is what I would say,” he added. “I just love that so many people did this.”