MINNEAPOLIS –As a starting cornerback in the NFL, Xavier Rhodes is often looked up to by youth. He frequently feels, however, that it's the other way around.
"What the kids don't realize is that they're the heroes," Rhodes said. "They're the ones that help people like myself realize that we're the blessed ones.
"I look up to these kids for continuing to have courage and continuing to fight," he added.
Rhodes on Monday participated in his third annual toy drive and patient visit at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
Before arriving at the hospital, Rhodes spent the morning personally shopping and filling carts with gifts to be distributed to patients staying at the hospital during the holiday season.
When asked about his generosity, Rhodes said he doesn't give it a second thought.
"It's a lot of toys, but it doesn't matter," Rhodes said. "The fact that I can bring joy and happiness to these kids, it takes a lot of weight off the parents' shoulders so they can enjoy the holidays."
Rhodes delivered the gifts to the hospital lobby, where he also signed autographs and posed for photos with other Vikings fans who donated toys.
One special fan who visited Rhodes was 13-year-old Logan, who met the cornerback exactly one year ago. Logan was a patient at that time, having undergone a heart transplant.
"Xavier came up to the room because he couldn't leave, and they had a chance to meet and shoot the breeze for a few minutes," said Logan's mother, Natalie. "Logan thought that, if you had to be in the hospital the week of Christmas, meeting Xavier wasn't the worst thing in the world to do.
"It's pretty crazy to think that in the course of a year, he now has a brand new heart that's beating perfectly," Natalie added. "So he's the same kid, but he's a totally perfect kid. To be able to be here a year later is really special."
View images when Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes participated in his third annual toy drive and patient visit at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital (Erin Benner).
Logan and his friend, Anna Scheffley, have now started the "Logan Loves Foundation," which aims to raise money and provide gifts to the patients.
Logan is following in the footsteps of Rhodes, who is specifically working to raise awareness and funds for research of Faconi anemia, a rare blood disease that primarily affects a child's bone marrow. Rhodes was inspired to join the cause while he played for Head Coach Jimbo Fisher at Florida State University. Jimbo and his wife, Candi, have a son, Ethan, that suffers from Faconi anemia and has been treated by Dr. Margaret MacMilan.
MacMilan is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in bone marrow transplantation, and in particular, caring for children with Fanconi anemia.
"It's really through research that we've been able to give hope to these children and their parents for this rare disease," MacMilan said. "These kids don't have time on their side, and they need us to improve upon our outcomes of treating children with Fanconi anemia as fast as possible. So Xavier is making a fundamental difference in giving hope to these families and getting us to our research faster. It's phenomenal."
The Fishers started the Kidz1stFund to help raise money for Fanconi anemia research, and Rhodes has teamed up with his former coach to support the campaign in whatever way he can.
"Being in college and seeing his son Ethan growing up […] knowing he had FA always bothered me, and I wanted to join and help out with knowledge and spreading the word about it," Rhodes said. "Jimbo was excited that I offered to help out, so I felt pretty honored by that."
While making individual room visits to patients unable to attend the festivities in the lobby, Rhodes met Lennon, a 6-year-old boy who was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant in early November.
Lennon had nothing but smiles for Rhodes, who spent time visiting with the young boy from Houston, Texas. Rhodes signed a Vikings-purple football for Lennon, who then asked the cornerback how to throw it. Rhodes demonstrated to Lennon how to carefully place his fingers over the laces, and the two played a brief game of catch in the hospital room.
In return, Lennon detailed his condition and explained to Rhodes how the bone marrow transplant "is going to cure my blood."
When asked what he hopes to be when he grows up, Lennon didn't skip a beat.
"I'm going to be a robotics engineer," he told Rhodes, who sat captivated by the kindergartner's intelligence and excitement.
"[He's] so young, he's bright, and he has so much fight in him," an emotional Rhodes said of Lennon after the visit. "The conversation we had helped me realize that there's more to life that I have to be thankful for. Seeing him was eye-opening. This kid is going to be great in life. He's going to be a success, and it really touched my heart."
MacMilan said the young patients she treats are a definition of courage, strength and optimism. She emphasized that Xavier's willingness to come and speak to the patients and their families reminds them that they're not alone.
"People like Xavier, who don't need to be at all connected with Fanconi anemia, do care about these children and want to help make a difference," MacMilan said. "It's just wonderful of him to want to visit these kids."
According to MacMilan, children diagnosed with Fanconi anemia previously faced just a 25 percent chance of survival after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. After recent research and advancements, that survival rate has increased to 90 percent.
Rhodes had a passion for fighting against Fanconi anemia long before he stepped inside the hospital Monday, but he said this year's visit impacted him even more. After a disappointing loss to Indianapolis Sunday, Rhodes said meeting with Logan, Lennon and other patients put things into perspective.
"I might come here upset, but you always leave with a smile," Rhodes said. "These kids uplift you no matter what."