EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Before Kyle Rudolph heard his first play called while standing in the Vikings huddle, the tight end gained a greater appreciation for the ability to hear anything.
Rudolph, a rookie in 2011 awaiting the end of the NFL lockout that summer, was invited to attend Starkey Hearing Foundation's annual gala and opted to attend the event in downtown St. Paul.
"I flew in before the lockout ended," Rudolph said Wednesday. "It was the first time I learned of Starkey and got to see the impact they had not only on the Twin Cities community but on the world. From then on, I've kind of been all-in. I try to help them out and be a part of it."
Rudolph has now attended five of Starkey's "Hearing Missions" at Super Bowls, where recipients are provided with custom-fit technological devices that are small but immensely powerful.
Rudolph joined Vikings receiver Charles Johnson, Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and Dolphins receiver and former Viking Greg Jennings at Starkey's world headquarters for a "Hometown Hearing Mission" sponsored by Delta Zeta to celebrate the organization's "So the World May Hear Awards Gala."
Bill Austin founded Starkey in 1967 with a one-room operation, but the company has developed into a world leader for hearing instruments. Starkey Hearing Foundation originated in 1984 and has spread its assistance across the globe.
The process begins with a health exam, followed by an audiological test to evaluate the loudness levels and frequency thresholds. After determining the proper assistance level required, the recipient is able to select which style of device best fits their lifestyle and personality.
Austin, who was recently back from a mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo with former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo and Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, already has another mission trip planned to Zambia, Kenya, Inner Mongolia, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Jordan, where Syrians have relocated to refugee camps.
"We're trying to do what we can to do something for those people who have less than nothing and don't have a very good chance," said Austin, who has custom fit five U.S. Presidents, famous actors and musicians but lives to help others regardless of their status.
"I think everyone is important and I think it's very important for us to respect life by sending that message, that we respect you enough so we'll do our very best for you," Austin said. "I think that's as important in the U.S. as anywhere else. We started here. This was the first place we ever did help and then started to migrate to Mexico and Nepal in the latter 70s. It's just grown from there because people find out what we do, ask for help, and I can't say no. I just have to try to keep up."
Eller said he's known about the "amazing" work of Starkey since his playing days and enjoyed attending the mission to greet recipients of the devices.
Jennings, whose family lives in the Twin Cities, said seeing people experience their first sounds provided a learning experience.
"The first time I had the experience of seeing the change, it blew me away," Jennings said. "I can't begin to put it into words because for someone not to be able to hear, it takes you back to that grateful state.
"There was a young lady that my wife and I were fitting and she said I hear music, and we were on gravel. She was talking about people walking on gravel, and we didn't hear it," Jennings continued. "It's something that was so impressive to me because here was someone who couldn't hear, and the moment they do, they hear something we overlook. It blew me away, and it's moments like that that keep me coming back, that keep me smiling and wanting to stretch out my hand and assist. As I stretch my hand out to assist, I'm being assisted. It's a win-win."
Rudolph said it's a goal of his to participate in an overseas mission in an upcoming offseason, but he's already enjoyed seeing the impact of Starkey closer to home.
"It's incredible when you see the transition they go through, sitting in the chair with Bill and the expression they have when they hear for the first time or the confidence they get when they have a hearing aid that doesn't stick out of their ear anymore," Rudolph said. "Their faces light up and you can see that excitement beaming out of them.
"It makes us feel good. We're here for them, and I don't think they realize that," Rudolph added. "I think they don't understand how excited we are and how much we get out of this as well, so to have the opportunity to see these kids, it's pretty special because we might get just as much out of it as they do when their lives are being changed through the gift of hearing."