MINNEAPOLIS – When Vikings defensive end Stacy Keely found out that 16-year-old Nathan enjoyed playing the guitar, he asked him what his favorite band was.
Nathan paused and then smiled, prompting a return grin from Keely.
"I know – it's so hard to narrow down!" Keely laughed, seemingly reading the teenager's mind.
Nathan, a patient at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, happily welcomed Keely and his teammates to his room on the oncology floor. Keely was joined by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and fellow rookies Cameron Smith, Jake Browning, Anree Saint-Amour, Tito Odenigbo and John Keenoy.
The group spent time Friday afternoon visiting with Nathan and three other patients: Landon, 13; Tanner, 18; and Henry, 3. Rudolph and the Vikings rookies chatted about video games, football and music, posed for photos with the young men and autographed footballs to leave as mementos.
Keely seemed especially touched by the visit and afterward shared his passion for working with youth and making an impact – specifically for those going through difficult challenges.
"I'm actually thinking about social work," said Keely, who graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a sociology degree. "Something like that really piques my interest."
Added Keely: "I just want to be able to help somebody that needs something more than I do."
Keely explained that UAB football has a partnership with **Children’s Harbor**, a program that provides "a happy place for seriously or chronically ill children and their families when they need it most." Every season, the Blazers don alternate gray jerseys for one game; on those jerseys, the players' nameplates on the back are replaced with the name of a young patient.
Vikings rookies joined TE Kyle Rudolph at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital this past week to visit patients during their tour of the Twin Cities.
Last season, Keely appreciated a special opportunity to meet the young person he had represented during the game. The experience stuck with him, and he embraced the chance in Minnesota to visit a children's hospital.
"Just being able to connect with [the patients] on a more personal level, just coming to say 'Hi' and see what's up, it really affects me," Keely said. "I love things like that, just being able to help out."
The Vikings rookies were introduced to the hospital by Rudolph, who – along with his wife Jordan – has a longstanding relationship with the facility, its patients and their families.
"You had a platform in college, and now your platform is even bigger as an NFL player," Rudolph told his new teammates.
The ninth-year tight end communicated the significance of Community Tuesdays, when during the season players can use their days off to give back in the Twin Cities.
"Maybe it's a life experience that you've had, maybe a family member, there's something that you're going to be passionate about," Rudolph said. "Oftentimes, young guys think, 'Well, I'm just trying to make the team. How much impact can I really have?' That couldn't be further from the truth. 'Well, financially I can't make that big of a contribution. I don't have that big of a name yet.'
"The biggest thing I can tell you guys is the most valuable thing you have is time, and you'll see that spending time with these kids will change their lives," Rudolph added. "The only thing they have in common is that their childhood has been taken away from them."
Rudolph gave the rookies a quick tour of the Kyle Rudolph End Zone. Similar to the mission behind Children's Harbor, the End Zone gives patients a respite away from the daily challenges of hospital life. Having been open since March 2018, the space already has surpassed 6,000 visits.
"I wish that number was less than a thousand," Rudolph said. "Obviously, the fewer kids that are here, the more that are healthy. But if they're going to be here, we get feedback from parents that kids say they don't want to leave here and go back to the hospital. To me, that's what we want to accomplish."
Keely was grateful for Rudolph's message to the team.
"It really goes to show how the NFL is more than just being a football player," Keely said.
In addition to the rookies that did individual room appearances, another six visited the hospital's Adolescent Crisis Unit and spent time playing games with teens who happily welcomed the Vikings.
Alexander Hollins, Davion Davis and Micah Abernathy played Jenga with one group, while some of the young people taught Khari Blasingame, Terrence Alexander and Marcus Epps how to play Mao. Afterward, Blasingame taught the young people how to play Spades.
"You just want to cherish everything because there's a lot of kids and people in this world that are not able to do things that I did in my early childhood," said Hollins, who snuck in the final Jenga block placement before Davis' attempt toppled the tower. "But to go in there with those kids and make them smile, make their day and make them feel happy, that was great. I want to do that for a long time."
Blasingame, who said he grew up playing Spades, enjoyed the teacher and student perspectives of the game table. But the experience meant far more than cards.
"We appreciate them spending time with us. It was cool to just be there and be kicking it with them," Blasingame said. "I hope we had an impact and brightened their day."
The visit capped off a full afternoon for the Vikings rookies, who earlier had spent time touring Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The annual event is hosted by Vikings Executive Director of Player Development Les Pico, who leads the team's rookie success program. The outing is voluntary but provides first-year players a guided tour of the cities, lunch together and introduction to the children's hospital/future opportunities for community work.
Whether catching a glimpse of the State Capitol, driving past Target Field and the Guthrie Theater or smiling for a group photo at the hospital, the experience proved a bonding one for players who have only shared a locker room for a few weeks.
"It was cool, getting familiarized with the landscape, seeing some of the more [popular] aspects of the city," Blasingame said.
"It will be something that I'll always remember, doing that with my rookie class," Hollins added. "It was a great experience for us."