MINNEAPOLIS —John Sullivan, teammates and Vikings alumni players became honorary members of other families on Tuesday when the seventh-year center hosted an annual Thanksgiving meal at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
The visit offered a chance for players and team mascot Viktor to bring smiles to children who are facing tremendous health challenges and the families who love them dearly. The patients and their families were able to eat a free dinner of traditional holiday fare, talk with players and take pictures with them and receive autographs.
Sullivan, the 2013 Vikings Man of the Year, began his connection with the hospital during his rookie season when he joined former Vikings All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson on visits. He's been proud to continue that relationship and lead the charge since 2012, when Sullivan was named All-Pro. His annual events include a Halloween Huddle carnival and a meal and visit for the holidays in December.
"It's incredibly special, especially this time of year around the holidays," Sullivan said. "Halloween is one thing, and that's a big part of your childhood, but Thanksgiving you associate with spending time with family. Being able to come down here, host a meal and make sure that the people facing unfortunate circumstances where they have to be in the hospital for the holidays can have a meal and spend some time together and get to visit with some players and get some autographs and have a little distraction from what's going on, is very special."
Sullivan said he appreciated the support from teammates Brandon Fusco, Mike Harris, Isame Faciane, Donte Foster and Ryan Otten, former Vikings Walker Lee Ashley, Matt Blair, Tyrone Carter and Stu Voigt, and former Golden Gopher Willie Middlebrooks, who played professionally for Denver and San Francisco.
"They come down and they're incredible with the kids and their families, the nurses and everybody here at the hospital," Sullivan said. "It really wouldn't be possible to do this without those guys donating their time."
It was an experience that impacted the players and alumni.
"It's just amazing, being here and getting to visit these kids and their families," said Harris, who is in his first season with the Vikings. "It's a humbling experience to come here and get involved in this. This is awesome. It's Thanksgiving, and we've got great food and great people. I'm just happy to be part of this organization that supports the children's hospital because I see these kids having a bright future that this great hospital will provide for them."
While each visit is a little different, the primary focus is to bring smiles to others and lighten the weight of worry on their shoulders.
"It's always the kids, seeing the smiles on their faces, and a lot of times it's the patients because they are the ones that are dealing with some pretty dire circumstances, but also the siblings," Sullivan said. "They're involved in the whole equation. They may not be ill but they're sitting in the hospital, a lot of times watching family members go through some pretty tough stuff, so to be able to brighten their day at all is just the most rewarding experience possible.
"It just makes you focus on what's important in life," Sullivan added. "Obviously our work is important. We care a lot about what we do as football players and winning games, but when you understand that there's things along the lines of pediatric illness going on in the world, it helps keep you grounded and helps you realize that life is about more than winning football games and making money. It's about making sure you leave the world a better place than you found it."