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Going the extra MILES for the kids: Extra Life United or Bust!

On Tuesday, March 6th, three gamers from Maine piled into a car to head south with one goal in mind: to compete in Extra Life United on behalf of the kids at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.  As they reflect on the past week at ELU, we asked them to put their thoughts on paper and serve as guest bloggers for our hospital.  We hope you enjoy this as much as we do:

Zeke Pendexter:

This will be my fourth year participating in Extra-Life and my first year attending Extra-Life United. I have to admit, I had no idea Extra-Life United existed before this year. Kate emailed me in December of last year asking me if I wanted to go and I had no idea how to respond. What is this event? Who is going to be there? When does this all take place? After meeting with Kate, I realized this would not be an opportunity I should let slip by.

The tournament was spread out across 8 games; 4 board games and 4 video games. Each game had its own bracket where you could win up to $4000 if you happened to get 1st place. The games I signed up for were Rocket League and Splendor. Going into it, I felt more confident in my Rocket League skills than my Splendor skills. What I didn’t realize is that there were actual professional Rocket League players in the community, so I was knocked out of that tournament pretty early. Next came the Splendor tournament. I didn’t have very high hopes for this game as I had won maybe 1 out of the 6 times I had played it with my fiance. To my surprise, I quickly found myself in the finals and was going to walk away with a minimum of $1000! At that point I was rooting for everyone else as much as myself. We were all there to raise money and awareness for our hospitals, so no matter what, we were all winning. I remember looking into the crowd during the finals and finding Rob and Justin anxiously staring at me, so I gave them a thumbs up because I knew I was about to win and bring home $4000 for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital! I walked off the stage and immediately went over and hugged them both as the emotions flowed through me. To think, I had just met these guys 3 days ago and now they were the first people I wanted to share my happiness with. It was at this moment that I realized these guys truly had become some of my best friends.

After the finals for all 8 games, the top 16 players overall were entered in a mystery game tournament – myself included. This tournament was single elimination and nobody knew what games were going to be played. I ended up winning the first round which added $3000 to my winnings, putting me at $7000! Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past the second round, but I still walked away with a smile on my face. Everyone competing was thrilled to have been a part of it and nobody walked away disappointed. That’s what was special about this entire experience – people were happy no matter how well they placed in the tournament. They knew that no matter how well they did, kids would still be getting the funding they so desperately need.

Justin Morse:

Last year, I attended Extra Life United 2017, as a spectator. I’d been raising money for Extra Life for a few years, but I didn’t really know much about ELU, or what goes on there, so when presented with an opportunity to attend, rather than jump in with both feet, I stuck my toes in the water. After the first day, I knew I’d made a pretty terrible mistake in not participating. There’s a magic there that I can’t really describe, and it has everything to do with the camaraderie that manifests amongst the competitors, strangers united in a common goal: we’re all doing it for the kids.

There’s a somewhat famous quote attributed to game-designer, Reiner Knizia, “When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” I think, this attitude is never more apparent than during an Extra Life tournament. Everybody wants to bring back money for their hospital, but when losing means the money goes to help sick kids in another part of the country, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be upset.

When registration for Extra Life United 2018 rolled around, I signed-up on day one.

Last Tuesday morning, I spent several hours on the phone with an airline, trying to make sure I could get out of Maine ahead of the coming Nor’Easter. I did manage to get on an earlier flight out, but it was still looking dicey. By mid-afternoon, flights were getting cancelled, and I was starting to feel like the whole thing wasn’t going to happen.

Then Rob texted me. “Who wants to drive to Florida?” This was at 3pm.

By 8pm, I was in a car with Rob and Zeke, who I’d never met before, headed South. When we arrived, roughly 22 hours later, we were all old friends. I feel like I’ve known these guys for 20 years. They are, as they say, good people.

Over the next few days, whenever I’d meet someone new, the conversation would be pretty similar. “Oh, you’re one of the guys that drove from Maine? That’s nuts.”

It was nuts, but I’d happily do it again, in a heartbeat.

Every night, we gathered together for dinner, and a few drinks in the bar. We did magic tricks, and played games. We laughed, a lot.

I didn’t fare well in the competition. I got knocked out in the first round of all four tournaments in which I played. Rob made it a little further than I did, but Zeke went the distance, eventually landing in the top 8 overall. Rob and I watched the final rounds of the tournament eagerly, cheering Zeke on. It was absolutely thrilling to watch him climb the tournament ladder, not just because of the friendship that had developed between the three of us over the past few days, but also because we knew he was bringing back some big money for our hospital.

Everyone at ELU is amazing. They are, every one of them, there for the same reason you are – for the kids. I now have friends in Chicago, and Texas, and Boston, and Arkansas, Toronto – too many for a complete list – all because of Extra Life United. There is an incredible sense of unity that exists there, that I’ve not seen anywhere else. It is inspiring, and motivating, and galvanizing, and I know all those words mean the same thing, but I want to make it clear, that Extra Life United is special. You don’t make these kinds of friendships anywhere else.

Rob Paquet:

Having been to Extra Life one time prior, I was overjoyed to know that I would be attending again this year. Seeing old friends, meeting new ones, sharing success stories, learning new ways to raise money, seeing the champion children – it is a very overwhelming and emotional time.

So imagine that feeling being washed away with the knowledge that your flight to Orlando had been cancelled due to the weather. I had to find a way to make this happen. There had to be a way.  All internet searches and calls to airlines proved that it just couldn’t be done. There was no way I would be flying to Extra Life United. Wait, what if we drove? That’s the thought that went through my head for around 20 seconds before I proposed it to Justin (whose flights had not yet been cancelled) and Zeke (a complete stranger). Let’s drive together, let’s make this happen. And we did.

We quickly packed, tied up as many loose ends as possible and set out on our journey to help sick and injured kids. Starting with 21 straight hours in a car. It could have been awkward.  Silence, not sleeping, no one wanting to take the next shift, those were all fears I had. And who is this Zeke? I don’t know him!  However, it was apparent after no more than an hour that something special had just happened.  Three people had just piled into a car and we were having the time of our lives. Stories, jokes, laughter, poking fun. It was like we had known each other our entire lives.

Most of the people you meet at ELU live halfway across the world, someone you see once a year and chat with online. But Zeke lives essentially down the road. We raise money for the same hospital, we eat at the same restaurants, we even all like the same music. Immediately, we all became friends.  Best friends.

As the sun came up somewhere in North Carolina, I started to get excited. We were close, we would arrive today. We did it. We made this amazing thing happen. We didn’t even do it for us, we did it for children. Kids we don’t even know. The amazing thing about Extra Life is the way it brings people together. People who would otherwise, never cross paths. Who are all striving for the same thing.

I had been keeping my friends in Florida updated on our progress, everyone as eager for our arrival as we were. Once we did arrive, relief flooded us all. Mission accomplished, now for a quick shower and off to the festivities. We shook hands, hugged and talked to a ton of people that night. We played games and introduced Zeke to the “gang”. All while recounting the story of our trip. I went to bed that first night both exhausted and so excited I couldn’t sleep.

The next few days full of competition were much of the same. Winning in the first rounds and progressing puts an uneasy feeling in your stomach, I’ll admit I paced, I cried, I got excited, I got sad. Sad because if I win and I move on, that means possibly a great friend loses and takes home nothing. That’s the funny thing about ELU. You want everyone to succeed, and then you realize they do. Everyone brings home a feeling that they make a difference with the funds they raise. Everyone makes a connection that ends in a lifelong friendship. Everyone is making the world a better place. Then you press on.

I was able to bring home $500 for The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital- an amount that I am very pleased with considering the competition in the room. But I have no hard feelings, no envy, no remorse. I was part of something amazing and I shared it with great people. Watching Zeke excel at a game was emotional. I met this guy two days ago and today I’m his biggest fan. Watching him climb to the top and ultimately winning brought joy to so many people that also just met him. I can assure you ELU knows who Zeke is now.

More hugs, congratulations and hand shakes. The family that is ELU is so supportive of each other. Playing games, laughing, going to dinner. Staying up late for drinks and exploring Disney. Sitting by the pool and doing magic tricks at the bar. Extra Life United is a family reunion even if you’ve never been before. It’s always hard to leave an event like this. I met so many amazing new people, which I just couldn’t spend enough time with. More conversations you want to have. More hugs, laughs, and tears to be shared. Getting on an airplane to come home is so difficult. Then you realize you get to go home to your family. Share the story of your trip with your loved ones and friends back home. Then you get sad again, missing all the excitement and happiness of the last few days.  Then you get happy again with the flood of social network notifications, texts, emails, and pictures.

I was fortunate enough to end my trip on a very high note. The last leg of my journey allowed me to play one last game. Peek-a-boo, with the sweetest little girl, rows ahead of me on the plane. Her laughter and smiles were the perfect reminder of why I took this trip in the first place.