SUNRISE, Fla. - Jakob Raab certainly looked like a hockey player.
Wearing a helmet, gloves and a custom jersey, Raab, who was diagnosed with autism at four years old, made his way around the Florida Panthers locker room on March 23, chatting with players like Vincent Trocheck and Riley Sheahan after signing a contract to become South Florida Ford's "Panther for a Day."
"I really liked the contract with my name on it. I really like it a lot," an enthusiastic Raab said after his special day had ended. "I'm going to get it signed. It's going to be awesome… My favorite part was wearing the hockey helmet, wearing the gloves and getting a hockey stick… It's like being a star."
Raab's star treatment began the moment he entered BB&T Center.
Upon his arrival, Raab was greeted by Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson, who presented the 15-year-old with his contract, a custom "RAAB" jersey and a signed stick. Matheson also took some time to chat with the entire Raab family, calming some expected nerves before escorting them into the arena.
Raab said that out of all the players he met, he "really liked Mike."
"It means a lot," Matheson said. "Whenever we're asked to come up and meet different kids or whatever the case may be, it's really cool. I love it. One of my favorite parts about being a professional athlete is being able to use that to brighten somebody's day that might not be as fortunate.
"Whether it's for health reasons or whatever the case may be, it's means a lot to be able to brighten their day. To get that opportunity to give them a really cool experience is great. When you get to hear that they also really felt it and loved the experience, that's what it's really all about."
Matheson said he was impressed by Raab's enthusiasm and willingness to dive head first into the day.
"From the moment I met him, he stepped up and shook my hand," Matheson said. "In situations like that you never know quite how they'll take it or whether they are really enjoying themselves, especially if they're a little bit shy. The thing that I try to do is just try my best not make them feel like they're shy."
Following his meeting with Matheson, Raab and his family were taken on a guided tour of the arena, including a stop at the team's "Den of Honor." In looking through the glass cases of the organization's legends of past and present, he was particularly drawn to an exhibit centered around Roberto Luongo.
Not long after, he was able to snap a photo with the future Hall of Fame goaltender after practice.
"It's incredibly heartwarming," said Jakob's mother, Stephanie. "To see the players stop to take the time to greet with him and interact with him, both before and after the skate, was just everything. Then to take the time in the locker room, when they want to unwind and have interviews, to sign his jersey and ask him a little more than just, 'Hey, how are you?' That inclusion is important. His smile says it all."
Stephanie said her eyes began to water as she watched her son begin to open up around the players.
"Jakob struggles so much socially and with his language," she said. "To see him finally relax and put his arms down and feel that he's in his comfort zone and interact without the prompting or help from us, really you can't put into words as a parent with a special needs child what that makes you feel inside."
On April 1, Jakob returned to BB&T Center to drop the ceremonial first puck prior to Florida's 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals as part of the organization's annual Autism Awareness Night.
"There's no other day so far that can compare to something like this," Stephanie said of Jakob's entire experience. "It's really been an honor to be here and meet everybody and to see it and be behind the scenes. Again, it's an opportunity of a lifetime that we truly won't forget."
In honor of National Autism Awareness Day's "Light It Up Blue" campaign, the Panthers turned all of their social media accounts blue for the game. Additionally, each time #Ford4Autism was shared by on Twitter or Instagram throughout the night, South Florida Ford pledged to donate $5 to Autism Speaks.
"All these young people and adults are super special," said Chairman of the Board for South Florida Ford Dealers Allan Young, who is also the father of a child on the autism spectrum. "As a father of an autistic child, I've learned all of this first-hand and have been working with it closely for 13 years… Everything is special about them. The parents struggle, but it's because they want what's best or their children."