As families throughout the country gather today to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, as its name implies, it is a time to give thanks for the blessings. For children going through cancer treatment at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital, there isn't always a lot to be thankful for aside from being given another day on this earth.
Since joining the Vikings, center John Sullivan has had a special bond with the children who battle cancer at the Amplatz Hospital. Some recover. Some don't. The names and faces change, but the scourge of childhood cancer remains consistent. On Tuesday, Sullivan and some of his teammates made an annual pre-Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Amplatz to visit the children that will be spending this holiday in a hospital instead of being surrounded by family at home and enjoying the holiday.
Sullivan said that the annual visit to the kids brings joy to them, but it gives as much back to the players involved as it does to the children and their families that are excited to see some of their Vikings heroes.
"We definitely get a lot out of it as well," Sullivan said. "It feels good to help out and brighten a kid's day, especially when they're facing such tough circumstances. It's a never-ending problem and we feel like we've got to be there to support them all the time. It's what we need to do."
Among those who joined Sullivan were fellow offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Troy Kropog – one a blue-chip first-round draft pick and the other a practice squad tackle waiting for his chance to shine as a Viking. It wasn't a coincidence that Sullivan brought some of his younger, impressionable teammates to make the visit to Amplatz. He knew it would open their eyes to the plight of these children and their families and the message came through loud and clear.
"I've never done anything like that, so I didn't know what to expect," Kalil said. "It's definitely heart-filling when you see these kids and everything they're going through. At times, you think your life is tough, but then you see these kids fighting cancer or other diseases and it changes your perspective. Just to be able to go in there and put a smile on their faces and make their day and keep fighting, that was pretty cool. It's probably one of the best experiences I've ever had."
Kropog got much the same slap of reality when viewing the individual battles being fought by children whose bodies have betrayed them. If anyone needs a smile, it's a little one fighting an adult disease. Any comfort their Vikings heroes could give them was welcomed with open arms – by the patients and the players alike.
"It's a great experience for us as much as it is for the kids," Kropog said. "They're not going to have a great Thanksgiving – spending it in the hospital away from their friends and a lot of their families. A lot of these kids are from North Dakota and South Dakota. It's a haul just to get here. I think it's nice to give them something to look forward to, something to think about other than being stuck in a hospital. It feels good and is very heartwarming to be able to give that good feeling to them. And it's good for us because it's nice being able to give back."
For those who had never seen an NFL player up close and personal, they can be a bit daunting … to an adult, much less a small child. Most people don't see 300-pound men that are in shape. It can be a bit intimidating, but Sullivan said that they try to come off as really big kids that are there to be friends, not giants roaming the halls of the hospital.
"I think I'd be kind of scared of some of us if I were a little kid," Sullivan said. "We try to do things the right way. You make observations on what you think their interests are based on what you see in the room. You avoid certain topics. Everybody gets prepped on that before we go in the room. We know how to handle it. Most of the times, the parents' reaction is so positive, I think that helps. These kids have been through so much, I don't think seeing big guys come into their room phases them too much."
These holiday visits give the children, their parents and their siblings moments that they will cherish and carry with them. But at the same time the impact of those visits is just as strong and equally burned in the memories of the players who make the altruistic memories. They're giving back some of the love that their fans have shown toward them.
"It makes you feel a lot better being able to help in some small way going into the community," Kalil said. "People have given so much supporting our team and watching our games, the effect that the Vikings can have because everyone loves us so much is great. To be able to put smiles on the faces of those kids and their families was very cool for us."
Anyone who has made one of these hospital visits comes away permanently changed for the better. To witness the fighting spirit of the young patients brings a tear to the eye and a recognition that the problems most of us face on a daily basis pale in comparison to what these families are going through during the holiday season.
"Personally, I feel for these kids," Kropog said. "It helps me appreciate the things that I have that sometimes I take for granted. In everyday life, we can get caught up thinking about the things we don't have. When you see the struggles that these kids are going through so early in life, you really give thanks for what you have."
Sullivan intends to continue the strong relationship he has forged with Amplatz and also plans to continue bringing young teammates along with him to show them what dozens of his teammates have seen over the years. Giving back is one thing. Paying it forward is another and Sullivan wants to make sure that young cancer patients know they have some pretty big guys in their corner and watching their back.
"It's something I'm proud to be associated with," Sullivan said. "If you can bring a smile to a kid's face that has gone through as much as these kids have, the reward you get is huge. It's something I love doing because it's always great to help these kids and their families and it makes you realize that Thanksgiving is about recognizing the things in your life that you're thankful for."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.