Rutledge, Ga., - Everyone gets a hug and a bracelet when they first arrive at Camp Sunshine.
At the entrance of Camp Twin Lakes, which plays host to many overnight camps like Sunshine for disabled children, campers, counselors and guests receive the friendly treatment.
Georgia football players are no different.
Amy Moosbrugger, the camp director, fitted over a dozen Bulldogs with a unique bracelet Wednesday afternoon—in the same fashion so many players have received the special trinket for nearly a decade.
Coach Mark Richt began community outreach projects with players when he first arrived in Athens. Habitat For Humanity was a successful initial venture, but the players wanted to help a younger demographic.
"Some of the guys were like, ‘Coach I'd like to get more involved where there's kids.' They knew they were doing a good thing, but they were just hammering nails and pouring cement," Richt said. "But then when they started doing some of the events when the children were there…they were looking for more ways to interact with the younger ones."
Camp Sunshine was exactly what Richt and his players were looking for. A mere 45-minute drive from Athens, the camp hosts children with cancer or those in recovery. Two waves of players consisting of starters to walk-ons and seniors to freshmen visit the camp each summer.
"You see what some of these kids have to go through and then you look at your situation," said current graduate assistant and former player Nick Jones. "Anything you may have gone through or are going through can't compare to what these kids are going through. It gives you a kind of strength to pull from, even from the bracelet. When you look at the bracelet when you're playing you can look down when things may be going wrong or are difficult and say somebody somewhere else is probably worse off than me."
Go back and check the 2008 preseason Georgia cover shot in Sports Illustrated. Knowshon Moreno is wearing a bracelet from Camp Sunshine on his left wrist.
So there's history here. And lots of hugs.
Every summer is different. Some players return for another year. Others make their first appearance. The same holds true for the kids.
And for two hours, players and kids get to know each other. There are no worries about chemo or Georgia Tech or any other outside force.
There is only fun and games and cookies.
"It's still real refreshing," said junior defensive end Abry Jones, returning for his second trip to the camp. "This time was actually better than my last time because I'm a little bit more comfortable, and it just felt like the kids were so outgoing. They were talking and things like that. I know last time I came it took a little time to get warmed up, so this was really refreshing."
"I was riding in the car with a couple of our seniors here and they had mentioned that this is their fourth time coming," Richt said. …"I think they enjoy spending time with these kids, pouring their life into them just a little bit, realizing that there are a lot of young people out there that are dealing with diseases and there's a beautiful place like Camp Twin Lakes to allow Camp Sunshine to be here and let these kids be normal and have some fun."
A lot of people meet college football players and coaches everyday. But those are usually fleeting moments involving either a quick handshake or an autograph.
Instead, what the kids at Camp Sunshine get to do is make a connection. And the players get to see what being an important role model is all about.
"It's awesome to have the players come back every year," said Rachel Neal, a counselor and former camper with 14 summers spent at the camp. "It started with just one or two players, but now a lot of the team comes out here. It means a lot."
Adults scattered around the camp were gushing with thanks to each and every player. But the benefits of the day traveled along a two-way street.
"It's such a great feeling to know that I'm touching someone based on just my appearance, but they don't know that they're touching me too because I know that I probably face problems or complain about stuff every single day," said safety Bacarri Rambo. "I know they have greater problems."
"Seeing how there are a lot of people that want to meet the Georgia Bulldogs is always great, but these kids are going through so much," Abry Jones said. "They get the chance of lifetime to actually meet us. It's the fact that not all of us are high caliber-type players, but they just want to meet anybody. It helps us realize that us individually are not as good or big as maybe we think. It's the whole school. It just lets us know that somebody cares about us outside of football."
There were numerous "moments" between a player or Richt and a child as the afternoon unfolded.
At the start of the tour, while watching kids show off magic tricks, Richt turned to what appeared to be his most trusted gimmick. He bet the whole room a hug that he could pull the right card (picked by a little girl) out of the deck.
After some genuine showmanship, he pulled the seven of diamonds and kids lined up for their embrace. Some players smiled, flashing that ‘how did he do that' look.
"A good magician never reveals his tricks," Richt told his audience.
Rambo got into the martial arts with a couple of kids wearing karate uniforms; he was mimicking moves he clearly couldn't seriously pull off, all in fun of course.
"This is a lovely atmosphere out here with the kids," Rambo said. "I'm really blessed to be out here and see these kids."
Walking around the pool to the activity field, the team gathered a large following.
High fives and quick chats were a welcome distraction. "These are my bodyguards," a young boy named Nick said. Another group of girls chanted, "Who let the dogs out?"
The whole day was full of Kodak moments. But one instance separated itself when the group hit the playing field.
A seven-year-old boy named J.J., wearing plaid shorts and a bandage supporting a trache in his throat to help him breath, began clinging to fullback Zander Ogletree.
J.J., who started the day a bit on the shy side, was talked into throwing a football with the sophomore fullback. He never quit seeking another pass and catch after that first throw. And when players divided up teams for a game of touch football, Zander proclaimed loudly, "J.J.'s on my team."
As it turns out, J.J. is quite the kicker, too. He kicked off to start the game. Shortly thereafter, a misdirection play led to J.J.'s first career touchdown. Zander met his new buddy in the end zone, just as J.J. was spiking the ball into the ground.
"That's the first time I've ever seen a connection like that actually happen," Neal said. "That's so awesome. It means tons."
"You know my name," Zander asked while picking J.J. up after the game. "You don't know my name? Man, J.J."
"Treeeee," J.J. answered, echoing part of Zander's last name.
"I just like to interact with the kids because I know I'm a big role model because I play for Georgia, you know," Ogletree said. "I mean it's just great to come out and celebrate with kids and just show them a good time."
The Georgia vans were supposed to be back on the road heading toward Athens by 5 p.m. But at a quarter after, the players were still at the camp. Defensive linemen Abry Jones, DeAngelo Tyson and Derrick Lott got sidetracked walking back, busy checking out the interior of some of the camper's cabins.
"These kids will remember what happened today for the rest of their lives," Moosbrugger told the players. "They'll remember your number and your name and who signed their hats and shirts."
Milk and chocolate chip cookies awaited the players at the end of their tour. But that hardly seemed like the biggest reward of the day.
"It made me feel so good and thankful that I'm very healthy," Rambo said. "I know these kids wish they were healthy or whatever, but it's just a great feeling to be out here. I mean just being out here makes me feel like a new person."