Rudolph hosted the annual Holiday Huddle with his wife, Jordan, who was dressed as Winnie the Pooh, and their twin daughters, Andersyn and Finley.
MINNEAPOLIS – It was hard to tell if there was more excitement about a Vikings tight end or Tigger.
Young patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital were surprised with one and the same on Tuesday when Kyle Rudolph arrived in costume. The bright-orange Tigger costume wasn’t a perfect fit for the 6-foot-6 Rudolph, but it elicited plenty of smiles nonetheless.
Rudolph hosted the annual Holiday Huddle with his wife, Jordan, who was dressed as Winnie the Pooh, and their twin daughters, Andersyn and Finley. The Rudolphs were thanked several times throughout the afternoon, but they continuously say that they get just as much out of the time as the children they’re visiting.
“Seeing patients, seeing their families, now having kids of my own – it always puts life in perspective,” Kyle said. “For us, we come here on Tuesday after a tough loss, you’re down about the game, and then you come here and see these kids, and you see the smiles on their faces and how excited they are that we’re bringing Halloween to them.
“When you walk in the room and see the smile on their face – either because we have candy or because I have a giant Tigger costume on, I’m not sure which one – that’s what makes it so special,” Kyle added.
Kyle, Jordan and Vikings kicker Dan Bailey visited a handful of patients in their rooms, including a familiar face.
Last December, Kyle and Jordan met Emma, who at 18 months old had been diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, the same pediatric cancer that Kyle’s brother battled as an infant. The reunion with Emma (now almost 3) and her parents Tuesday was bittersweet for the Rudolphs.
“One of the cool things that we do is that we get to establish relationships with patients and their families. But one of the hardest things that we deal with is when they’re here for a long time,” Rudolph said. “Meeting a little girl like Emma … it’s hard when you get to know the family and they’re constantly here. But for those patients and families, that’s why we try to do things like these Holiday Huddles and create a space like [Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone], because when they’re here for such a long time, they have to have some way to escape being here at the actual hospital.”
Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone is a space that’s been well-visited since it officially opened for patients and their families in March – including by a consistent guest, Cooper Baltzell.
Cooper was diagnosed with Hirschsprung's disease at 1 day old and has been in and out of the hospital countless times over the past three years. Tuesday marked one week since Cooper underwent surgery due to a complication called enterocolitis, but he couldn’t stop smiling and chatting when Kyle, Jordan and Bailey stopped by his room.
Cooper drove toy cars across his bed as he talked to the Vikings players, telling them all about his cat, Malcolm, and pointing out his blue-and-red “Super Cooper” cape that hung on the back of the door. He also told Kyle how much he loves to play with Play-Doh in the End Zone.
Ashley Baltzell, Cooper’s mother, explained that even when he has to roll an IV pole alongside of him, Cooper thinks he’s leaving the hospital when he enters the space created by the Rudolphs.
“I think he just forgets everything – there’s no medical people there, he’s become friends with all of the Child Life specialists there. We usually go down every day to play,” Ashley said. “Even when he wasn’t up and walking yet after his surgery, he still wanted to go down so bad, so we’d bring him in his wagon and put a piece of paper on the wall, and then he could paint.”
Ashley admitted she actually is a Packers fan, but her perspective has been changed through her experience in the hospital with her son.
“I even sent a message to Kyle Rudolph – I’m a Packers fan, but it’s given me appreciation,” Ashley said. “I like all that they’ve done for the hospital, and it’s honestly changed Cooper’s attitude. We use that as a fun thing to do, especially after really hard procedures.”
Kyle and Bailey were joined by teammates Tom Compton and his wife, Tiffany; David Morgan and his girlfriend, Langlie; Aldrick Robinson, Storm Norton, Cole Hikutani and Jeff Badet. Vikings Legends Ryan Hoag, Tuineau Alipate and Dave Osborn teamed up with current players, and Viktor the Viking also was present.
Bailey, who signed with the Vikings in September, hasn’t even been in the Twin Cities for two months but jumped at the chance to join Tuesday’s visit. The eight-year veteran who previously played for the Cowboys said that spending time at children’s hospitals has always been something he’s appreciated the opportunity to do.
“Rudy’s obviously super involved and passionate about it, so it was pretty easy to get with him... in this,” Bailey said. “At the end of the day, it’s very fulfilling to come up here and be around these families and these kids. They obviously have things that they’re struggling with or going through, and if you can put a smile on their face or just give them a little bit of a break from the stuff they’re going through, it’s very rewarding.”
Robinson also is a fresh face in the Vikings locker room this season, having signed with Minnesota the day before Bailey.
The hospital visits hold an incredibly personal connection for the wide receiver.
Robinson explained that he regularly spent time at a children’s hospital when he was young to visit his cousin, Waneshia Taylor, who contracted meningitis.
“When she was going through that, we were always at the hospital,” Robinson said. “I just remember being young and always being there – we’d go there every day and spend time with her, and we saw her go through surgery. She had to get both of her legs amputated when she was young.
“That was a really hard time for my family, so whenever I get a chance [to get involved], I make sure to come and show my love,” Robinson said.
Becoming a father himself also impacted Robinson’s perspective and gave him an immense respect for parents watching their children go through difficult times.
“I know that if (my son) A.J. was ever to go through anything in his life, I’ll be here by his side. It’s encouraging to see the parents there with their children and supporting them through whatever,” Robinson said. “That’s what you have to do as a parent – stay strong – and those parents, they’re strong. They’re high-spirited, and they’re staying hopeful for these kids. It’s really good to see.”
As Vikings teammates finished signing autographs, snapping photos and complimenting the many costumes in the hospital lobby, the impact was clear.
“They just see us on the field. [It’s significant] when we can actually get in here face-to-face and communicate with them and help them understand that we’re all on the same level here. We all have struggles and we all go through things, and we all need each other,” Bailey said. “To be able to do that and to put a smile on their face, it never gets old. It’s always a highlight of every season I go through, especially around these holidays when they can’t make it home. It’s a lot of fun.”
Courtesy of the Vikings Team Photographer Andy Kenutis (@vikingsphotog on Instagram), check out these 2018 Vikings Halloween Photoshops.