POSTCARD FROM THE SUGAR BOWL
NEW ORLEANS — Let’s face it, they all do it. All college football teams visit hospitals on the regular and all bowls feature a team visit of the local children’s hospital. It’s part of the carefully orchestrated college experience for the student-athletes, if not just blatant public relations on the part of the teams and the bowls.
Nevertheless, it’s good for both the players and the kids, and that’s the point. And I have to say, the Georgia Bulldogs are really good at good deeds.
Of course, they’re well experienced. At least two times a summer Georgia takes a busload of players down to Camp Sunshine in Rutledge, Ga., to visit with cancer patients. And as long as the Bulldogs keep playing in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, they always make a point to drop in to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The week of the SEC Championship Game, a small group of volunteer Dawgs made an impromptu visit to Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital, just because they had the time to do it.
Friday, I spent the morning over at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans Conference Center in an area of the city known as “Uptown.” I got there early and watched hospital administrators and parents of hospitalized children busily prepare for the arrival of the Georgia Bulldogs. They wanted everything inside to be just so for the players, and they seemed genuinely excited about their arrival. And they were, as the ovation indicated when the Bulldogs finally made their slightly-delayed entrance.
But it’s not until they’re inside and interacting with the children that you see the Georgia players’ true character come bubbling out. People are people and everybody has a different personality, obviously, but several of the Bulldogs seem to have a particular affinity for making awestruck children feel at ease and having a knack for getting them to have fun while doing so themselves.
The MVP to that end on Friday was Solomon Kindley. Georgia’s massive 6-foot-4, 330-pound starting right guard is an intimidating figure, especially to a 3-foot-10, 49-pound, 6-year-old boy who has been battling a scary illness for the past year. Yet it was Kindley, the biggest man in the room, who sat on a stool and let a clown paint his face. Parents and children cackled as Kindley picked up a hand-mirror and mugged for the photographers there to chronicle the moment.
Elijah Holyfield, who in all other circumstances seems to keep a stoic, intimidating gaze fixed upon his face, grins ear-to-ear when the kids come around. He always seems to be the most active in these situations. Friday, he took the lead at the ping-pong toss station and chatted up both the children and their parents as they tentatively came up to him either to try the game or just get a photo with one of the best-known Bulldogs.
Tyson Campbell and Demetris Robertson, both of them 5-star recruiting prospects and idolized athletic figures, didn’t mind getting down on the floor to play Tic-Tac-Toe with their young playmates. J.J. Holloman took serious — in a lighthearted way — his job of having children decorate megaphones. The boundless joy and energy of Terry Godwin was evident when he took on a young girl in cornhole. When she finally hits her target with a beanbag, her face lights up in genuine delight as Godwin excited runs across for a high-five.
Eric Stokes, manning the Pin-the-G-on-the-Bulldog game, seemed to take genuine delight when a blindfolded little girl found the bullseye. Jake Fromm and Monty Rice not only jumped up from their seated stations to pose for pics with wheelchair bound Dylan, but they paused to chat him up, ask questions and even teach him the “Go Dawgs” cheer.
It wasn’t the whole team that signed up for this duty Friday. Only about 20 or so Bulldogs made the trip aboard the team bus. But this is what they were doing rather than playing video games or watching football back at the team hotel before an afternoon practice at the Superdome.
Yeah, it’s corny and it’s silly and a it’s a PR set-up. But it’s also the type of heart-changing experience that helps remind fawned-over athletes that they’re fortunate to be able to do what they do and that only a few minutes of focused attention can create a lifelong memory for a kid having to deal with matters of truly serious importance.
The Texas Longhorns were scheduled to make a similar visit with Children’s Hospital patients later in the day Friday. Nobody is keeping score, but they’d be hard-pressed to do a better job at making little kids happier than do the Bulldogs.
With that, we’ll get back to the serious business of getting ready for a football game.