While millions of fans of the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers gear up for the big Christmas Day game, not many can match the enthusiasm of two of the teams' smallest but fiercest fans.
With 9 percent of the NFL audience being kids under 18, it's no surprise that 5-year-old Mya Hughes (for the Steelers) and 11-year-old Dominic Tizioukdal (for the Texans) are as excited as they are to cheer on their teams. Mya and Dominic are featured in the season finale of "Ritual," an Amazon Prime documentary series on the pregame prep and rituals of NFL players, coaches and fans, which will air on Christmas Day. ("Ritual" also is a production of Whalerock Industries, the parent company of Mom.me.)
Dominic has cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease and immune deficiency. He was born two months early with two holes in his heart and was not expected to live through the night. When he was 10 months old, he had a 108-degree fever that caused massive brain damage.
"Before the fever, he was still this happy, smiley, go-lucky baby. After the fever, he barely cracked a smile and he was just there but not. I spent the next two weeks holding him. ... He looked up at me and gave me the biggest smile, and I knew right then and there that he was back," said his mom, Marie Tizioukdal, in the "Ritual" episode.
Football has been a big deal for Dominic for the last three to four years. He started engaging with the games when one of his nurses, who loves the NFL, was watching it.
"It was such a big deal to me because there's nothing my child likes. We have tried movies, toys, cartoons," Marie said.
Marie also told Mom.me that when they moved to Dallas the following year, she took him to a Cowboys vs. Texans game. Dominic loved it so much that she started entering every contest she could to win tickets. So far, they've won twice!
"There isn't much that he shows interest in, so when he showed interest in the Texans, I jumped in with both feet," Marie told Mom.me.
Now, going to Texans games and tailgating has become important mom-son bonding time. There are about four tailgates they have to hit before a game. The single mom made sure to start taking Dominic early for tailgating after she noticed how much fun he had waving and meeting people. A group of super fans that fell in love with him even pimped out his wheelchair.
"Dominic is the biggest ham you'll find!" she said. "He loves all the attention he gets. People always take to him. He has a charisma that's hard to explain."
In many ways, Steelers fan Mya is like other kids her age. She loves putting up colorful Christmas lights and playing hide-and-go-seek. But for her and her 6-year-old brother, Jamir, the challenges they have had to overcome are not as apparent. Kelly Hughes, their adoptive mom, says on "Ritual" that the two kids have faced a lot of loss in their life at a very young age. Like some kids that go through adoption or foster care, they attend a range of appointments, from trauma therapy to speech therapy.
"The interesting thing is that you see a child in a wheelchair and you understand how difficult that is," Kelly said. "You see a child that is just bouncing off the walls, then people just tend to say, 'Oh, she needs more discipline.' And that's the challenge. Our story to tell is how an adoptive family can look and the healing that can take place."
Mya, who always puts her jersey on before a Steelers game, is one of four kids in the Hughes household that are within a 3.5-year age span. The family has fostered eight children, who would arrive at their door with a trash bag holding only a few belongings.
This inspired Kelly to start a nonprofit, Foster Love Project, to provide foster kids with placement bags, which is a backpack that includes a stuffed animal, new pajamas and a blanket.
And, when it comes to having kids get unexpected gifts, Dominic and Mya had early Christmas surprises this year. Thanks to their favorite teams, Dominic got a private VIP tour of the Texans' practice facility, first-row tickets on the field to watch the Texans play, Texans merchandise and even a meet-and-greet with some of the players.
His mom saw his face light up during the entire experience, from seeing the weight room to shaking hands with Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (pictured with Dom in top photo).
Mya also got an amazing surprise. She received a recorded video message from Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, six free tickets for the whole family to watch a Steelers game and a Steelers backpack full of merchandise.
She'll be putting the merch to good use come Monday's game, when she and her family will be getting on their Steelers gear and having their terrible towels ready to go.
"We'll be cheering with family in another state, so it will be interesting being in enemy territory. But in light of recent injuries, we're also praying for safety and protection over all the guys," Kelly told Mom.me.
Cheering on the Steelers has been a Hughes family thing since Kelly and her husband moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago.
"We quickly fell in love with the culture of the city. For us, that meant quickly joining the fun of being Steelers fans," Kelly said.
We're glad Dominic and M ya, two young fans with big hearts, will get a Christmas they won't soon forget.
(Images via "Ritual")