The Penn State football team and coaching staff held a different kind of practice Wednesday.
The entire team and coaching staff — all 120 of them — visited patients at the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
The Nittany Lions unloaded from buses in a heavy rainstorm, but the weather did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm or smiles as they entered the hospital.
After greeting the hospital staff and patients, the players and coaches spent time visiting patients in their rooms, signing posters for the children and playing catch in the Treehouse Cafe.
Despite how excited the children were to meet the players, junior tight end Jesse James said that, for him, it was the other way around.
“You know it’s a really great experience,” James said. “For us, we look up to them because they have to fight every day and that’s a tough experience.”
David Nace, 5, of Port Royal, was in the medical center for a foot injury.
After a week in the hospital, David was ready to be discharged when a nurse told him the football team was going to visit.
“I was excited I got to meet the football players,” David said.
For David’s parents, Nathan and Jennifer Nace, the experience has been tough, but also has been eased by the helpful hospital staff.
“He’s been amazingly good and the nurses have been great,” Jennifer Nace said. “They have such fabulous entertainment for the kids. It takes your mind off things. Like this event, this is great. The distractions help.”
Dominique Bigler, 19, has been in and out of hospitals since she was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in 2008.
“I didn’t know they were coming until 20 minutes before they did,” Dominique said. “I didn’t really know anyone, but I met Christian Hackenberg.”
Synovial sarcoma is a type of soft-tissue sarcoma that only about one to three individuals in 1 million are diagnosed with each year.
Dominique’s father, Gary Bigler, said Dominique has been strong despite the many challenges and chemotherapy treatments.
“It’s been an experience, one that I hope no one else has to have,” Bigler said. “We had to come here today for a special CT scan because we’re trying to find her a new chemo; the one she’s on is no longer working. In order for us to keep her alive, we have to try something new. Under the circumstances, she’s doing really well. She has her moments, but for the most part she doesn’t let things get her down.”
Getting to talk to patients like Dominique and David helped wide receiver Geno Lewis, put problems in his own life into perspective.
“It’s a great time seeing these kids; we’re so happy and honored to be here,” Lewis said. “I heard about one kid, they said he might not have too much time left and, you know, we want to be with them as much as possible to give them as much support and hope as we can. Just seeing their smiles, it really brightens your day.”
“You know it’s been great interacting with everyone,” James said. “The team’s excited and we’ve been excited all week. It’s great to finally have a chance to interact with these kids as a team. We were all really appreciative to have this experience.”
After an hour of activities and talking, coach James Franklin wrapped up the visit with a few words.
“Although the players have great expectations put on them academically and athletically, coming here and having this type of visit, it puts things into perspective for you” Franklin said. “It shows as hard as you work to get A’s and score touchdowns and do all these wonderful things on the football field, there’s nothing more important than going out and sharing your time with somebody, sharing a smile with somebody and making an impact in their life.”
This is the first time the entire football team, coaches and staff have visited the hospital, but Franklin hopes to make it an annual tradition.
“We would love it to be, you know, it’s not a big investment on our part and I hope we make a big impact by being here, so this is something that we’d love to do,” Franklin said. “I think it’s a great thing to do right before the season kicks off. There’s so many benefits that come from this. It’s a team bonding opportunity for us, but again, more importantly, it’s about making a positive impact on the community and the state as a whole.”
Visiting a children’s hospital holds a special, personal meaning for Franklin.
“This is important to us, too, because our youngest daughter has sickle cell disease, the full blown disease,” Franklin said. “So my wife and daughters will come back once they move here in a couple weeks.”
The goal for the day was simple for Franklin and the Nittany Lions — to put a smile on a kid’s face.
“We had a little bit of a team meeting before we left,” Franklin said. “And I said, ‘You know it’s game day for us and we’re going to go down there and attack this hospital with as much positive energy and enthusiasm as we possibly can and hopefully make a difference in some kids’ lives.’
“Obviously, I think we all know that every time you go and try to help somebody else and give back to the community, you end up getting more out of it than you give. If we could put a few smiles on a few kids’ faces today, and give them a little bit more hope or enthusiasm or excitement, then we want to do that. I’m proud of our guys and I’m proud of what Penn State is doing.”