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Kyle Rudolph Surprises 'Heart of a Viking' Family with Super Bowl Tickets

When Becki Wheeler describes her daughter, Emma, she describes blue eyes shining in the sun and a smile capable of lighting dark nights.

And angel's wings.

The wings, Becki says, were added on Nov. 14 when Emma passed away at age 14 after a 55-day battle with a rare and aggressive disease. 

Photos before and after Emma's journey began captured the eyes and smile for anyone to see, but those who met Emma admired her spirit and the way she handled challenges with a courageous heart.

Because the Vikings were playing the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, Kyle Rudolph and his wife, Jordan, moved the annual Thanksgiving meal that they provide to patients and families at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital to Nov. 14.

The previous Friday, Becki saw the event on the schedule.

"Knowing that Kyle was going to be there, I was like, 'Emma has got to be good enough to go down and have turkey dinner,' Becki recalled. "So I said, 'That's our goal. We've got to have goals as we go through this journey.'

"I went up to the doctors and said, 'I've got a goal for Emma, and that's to have turkey dinner with Kyle. She was put on a ventilator on Friday, and the doctor shook his head and said, 'I don't think it's going to happen.' "

Emma was unable to make it to the lobby for the dinner but received a personal in-room visit by Kyle and Jordan.

"She was glowing," Rudolph said.

Becki added, "They got to talk with Emma and hold her hand and give us one more, 'Be strong,' " on what became Emma's final day.

The experience left a lasting impression on Rudolph, who surprised Emma's parents with a pair of tickets to Super Bowl LII in Emma's honor. Rudolph presented the tickets when family and friends visited Winter Park the Saturday after Emma's passing.

The presentation is part of the Minnesota Vikings "Heart of a Viking" campaign through which the organization will reward fans that are doing incredible things with a pair of Super Bowl LII tickets.

The Vikings have invited fans to share stories of others who demonstrate the Heart of a Viking by using #HeartofaViking or visiting vikings.com/heartofaviking.

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph gave two Super Bowl tickets to the Wheeler family in honor of their daughter Emma's battle with cancer.

"Emma had the Heart of a Viking, and I'm honored that her parents will have the opportunity to represent her at the Super Bowl," Rudolph said.

"We're extremely blessed to do what we do and be in the situation that we're in. These illnesses and diseases don't discriminate," Rudolph added. "They affect all walks of life, and to persevere and battle through what they've battled and maintain the strong faith that they've maintained through it all and see the positive out of this, it truly embodies the term, 'Heart of a Viking.' "

Emma's passing concluded a 55-day span from an initial diagnosis of mono in late August. It soon became clear, however, that the threat was much more severe.

"She was getting tired and sick, not feeling really well. I just attributed everything to mono," Becki said. "On Sept. 17, she was going blind. That's not mono, so we took her to the hospital in Bismarck, where they admitted her."

Within 36 hours, Becki received a call during which doctors said they thought Emma could have lymphoma and needed to transfer to Sanford Health in Fargo.

The Legacy High School trumpet player with a love for dogs and horses stayed connected with friends via social media and video messages of encouragement.

Emma eventually was diagnosed with HLH (Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis), an immunodeficiency.

"HLH is a very rare disease. Not a lot of people know about it, not a lot of people have heard about it," Becki said. "Less than 25 percent of kids that are diagnosed with it survive, so we were bound and determined that we would help Emma fight. As she would lay in her hospital bed, she never complained of pain.

"We tried to make it fun in her environment," Becki said. "All of the doctors and nurses would want to come to Emma's room because that's where the party was."

On Nov. 8, Emma was flown by medical helicopter to Minneapolis, and her days were limited.

The family's determination to help others with HLH won't be.

"Emma wanted to give to others, and her dream was, when she was painting pumpkins this year, she said, 'Mom, we're going to have to help others. Do one more test, but let's help others.' Her wish would have been to continue to help others be stronger and get better."

The Wheelers learned that assistance money sometimes requires a cancer diagnosis, and they want to help other HLH patients. Emma was also diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma and an extremely rare fungal disease.

"There was nothing for HLH," Becki said. "Our mission is to keep Emma strong by finding ways to create a foundation or have the tools and people around us to do that, so that when kids are sick but don't have cancer, even though Emma did, it was just a second diagnosis with her, they would be able to find something special."

That weekend was quite special. Emma was made an honorary member by representatives from the Vikings World Order and issued the name "Lady Emma Blue Eyes" on Saturday morning at Winter Park. Emma's family and friends then attended the Vikings walk-through session and received autographs from Vikings players. Teddy Bridgewater surprised Becki with a pair of gloves.

Asked what advice she would pass to other parents of sick children, Becki said, "It's tough. Have fun, find a way to smile, take pictures, embrace life."

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