Dec. 23, 2010
MESA, Ariz. -- Jaden Justice, a 12-year old cancer patient from Mesa, felt like a rock star. University of Iowa freshman defensive lineman Carl Davis felt like Santa Claus.
Both enjoyed a win-win bonding moment Thursday morning when 11 Hawkeye football student-athletes spent an hour spreading smiles and boosting confidence at the Cardon Children's Medical Center in Mesa.
"It made me feel like a rock star, like them," Jaden said, moments after pushing pause on the Ghostbusters video game he was playing with the Hawkeyes. "I liked it when they gave me the (stuffed toy) dog. Iowa will win (the Insight Bowl)."
Making an appearance at a local hospital is not an unusual concept for the Iowa program. In fact, part of a day during postseason preparation is usually etched into the bowl itinerary. There was a local connection to the stop at Cardon. Kelley Lind, a child-life specialist at the hospital, is a 1997 graduate of Iowa City Regina High School. She earned a bachelor's degree from the UI in 2002 in therapeutic recreation.
"This brings a whole level of excitement to the hospital," Lind said. "It's kind of a buzz, especially around the holidays to have people come in. It's kind of normalizing for the kids. It's something they can look forward to and they will talk about it for days, which is awesome as well."
Lind and UI director of player development Chigozie Ejiasi worked together to coordinate Thursday's visit. Ejiasi, a Hawkeye lettermen from 2001-04, participated in trips like this as a player as well.
"Our guys do a great job and they really get into it," Ejiasi said. "We don't have to coach them up on how to act around the kids -- they do an unbelievable job. It's a pleasure to see these guys have fun with the kids. I think our own players have more fun than the kids sometimes."
Representing the Iowa football program on the visit were Davis, quarterback A.J. Derby, offensive lineman Andrew Donnal, defensive lineman Anthony Ferguson, Jr., defensive lineman Mike Hardy, running back De'Andre Johnson, wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, punter Jonny Mullings, linebacker Jim Poggi, offensive lineman Brandon Scherff and tight end Austin Vier. All the Hawkeye players are true freshmen.
"This makes me feel like I make a difference," Davis said. "I almost feel like Santa Claus, putting on smiles. That's all that matters."
"It makes my day, it makes my week," Derby said. "Anything I can do to give back is an awesome feeling. It was a lot of fun to be here and have the opportunity to do it."
The players, accompanied by Ejiasi and UI football director of quality control Scott Southmayd, made a 24-minute bus ride from the team hotel at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler to the Cardon Children's Medical Center in Mesa. The Hawkeyes spent nearly an hour visiting a dozen children. The first was Jaden, who was perfectly healthy in September before being diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in his lungs. He will undergo chemotherapy for two years.
"It's a fabulous experience. I can't even tell you how much," said Jaden's mother, Kim. "I'm completely overwhelmed and happy to see him happy. He's a huge, huge, huge fan and this is a story he's going to tell all of his friends. For the Iowa players to take time to do something like this is amazing -- especially with their busy schedules...and they're young, they have enough on their plate."
Kim Justice is a native of Minnesota and she spent several years living in Des Moines working as a stewardess for Northwest Airlines. Jaden expects to be released from the hospital Friday and Kim is hoping to find tickets to watch the Hawkeyes in Tuesday's Insight Bowl.
"I would definitely like to go," Kim said. "You guys are going to beat them."
The Hawkeyes (7-5 overall) play No. 14 Missouri (10-2) on Dec. 28, with a 9 p.m. start (CT). The game will be played in Sun Devil Stadium (56,000) on the Arizona State campus and televised nationally by ESPN (HD).
"Well, Iowa has to beat Missouri," Lind said. "We have a nurse here who is from Missouri, so we've been talking smack all week."
On Thursday, finding a way to make the Missouri Tigers frown took a back seat to making a bunch of ailing children smile.
"For the players, it's a great teaching opportunity that people are watching and kids are looking up to them," Ejiasi said. "We think we have it hard during two-a-days and it's nothing compared to the amount of time the kids spend at the children's hospital or the pain they're going through. It puts things in perspective."