MINNEAPOLIS –It's not unusual for Vikings fans to spot Xavier Rhodes and approach him, but on Tuesday the cornerback was the one initiating introductions and conversation.
After his fourth annual Christmas shopping trip, Rhodes arrived at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital with car loads of toys and electronics for young patients staying at the hospital over the holidays.
Rhodes emphasized that his desire is to "bring joy" to the patients and their families and help to provide a Christmas that's as "normal" as possible while being unable to go home.
"We probably take it for granted when we're at home," Rhodes said. "These kids here wish they could be home and be with their parents and their siblings."
Rhodes is specifically working to raise awareness and funds for research of Fanconi anemia (F.A.), a rare blood disease that primarily affects a child's bone marrow. Rhodes was inspired to join the cause while he played for former Florida State University Head Coach Jimbo Fisher. Jimbo and his wife have a son, Ethan, who suffers from F.A. and has been treated by Dr. Margaret MacMillan, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.
Two current F.A. patients were surprised with an individual room visit from Rhodes.
In addition to a 13-year-old undergoing treatment for F.A., Rhodes also met Jiena, 11, who is dealing with the disease.
Jiena initially appeared a bit intimidated, but Rhodes sat down next to her and immediately started asking about her interests, friends and even inquiring about beaded bracelets Jiena wore. When he found out that she celebrated her birthday a few days prior, Rhodes immediately asked her, "Did you do the birthday dance? You have to do the birthday dance!"
He invited Jiena into the middle of the room with him, where he led a rendition of "Happy Birthday" and finished with a little dance, prompting a giggle from Jiena.
The two snapped photos – flashing matching "peace" signs and dabbing together – and Rhodes autographed a bright blue soccer ball for her.
Following Rhodes' visit, Jiena smiled and said her favorite part about the cornerback was that "he's just so funny."
Jiena's mother, Maly Lee, was especially touched by Rhodes' visit.
"That definitely brought a smile to her face," Lee said. "Every visit here, she doesn't really want to be here. It's hard to get her up in the morning when she knows it's for a doctor's visit. But when we heard that Xavier was coming in, she got excited."
Lee explained that it's sometimes difficult to deal with a diagnosis that is rare and receives less attention than more common illnesses.
"It means a lot to our family," Lee said. "The reality is that F.A.'s just not as well-known as [other conditions]. So to have someone like Xavier be passionate about it, it's a big 'Wow' factor for us because he's so [high-profile].
"It's not a small disease," Lee added. "It affects families greatly, just like everything else, and we need as much awareness as everything else."
Rhodes spent more than an hour between the two visits and said that it comes naturally to connect with young people. Whenever he meets a new patient, he makes an effort to learn his or her story.
"Their story is very important – it opened up my eyes [and just] helped me realize what's important in life. I'm able to see and hear their stories and the joy they get from having me just sit and listen – it means a lot to me," Rhodes said. "Every year, I learn something when I'm leaving here – don't take life for granted, live life to the fullest. These kids, like I say every year, they're the heroes, not us. I'm grateful to be here and have the opportunity to spend time with them."