Dec 28, 2013

Whitley Writes: Another Side Of Bowl Week At Give Kids The World Village

John Wallace accomplished almost every mission Louisville gave him during the regular season. He made 17 of 21 field goals and 49 of 50 extra points.

Then the sophomore from Celia, Ky., got to Orlando for the Russell Athletic Bowl. A little girl he’d never met came up and asked him for a favor.

“Could you paint my face?” Desiree Kelleher asked.

Wallace is a kicker, not a painter. But he took her request like any other mission and started dabbing pinks and yellows and blues onto Desiree’s five-year-old face.

A few feet away, a bunch Louisville teammates were dancing with a girl named Miracle. They were joined by a group of Miami players and a three-year-old name Ismael who was barely taller than the players’ socks.

“He loves to dance,” said his dad, Ivan Munoz.

You could almost hear the happy squeals over the music being blasted by a DJ. It was a good practice for the noise both teams would endure the next night at the Citrus Bowl.

For the Cardinals and Hurricanes, football was the week’s main order of business. But bowl trips have plenty of other functions, and none quite match the scene at Give Kids the World Village.

It’s a 70-acre resort in Kissimmee that is devoted to making kids’ wishes come true. Sadly, not just any kids, but kids with serious health problems. For many, meeting Mickey Mouse or Goofy and riding Space Mountain is the thrill of their little lifetimes.

The village has 140 villas, a cafeteria a carousel and a fantasy-land feel. Since 1989, more than 122,000 families have enjoyed free lodging and trips to Orlando’s theme parks. And once a year, Florida Citrus Sports arranges a visit from a bunch of very large young men.

“We had no idea this was going to happen,” said Desiree’s mother, Alicia.

On the bus drive over, players were shown a video explaining Give Kids the World’s mission. Interacting with sick kids has been a sports tradition since Babe Ruth promised to hit a home run for Johnny Sylvester in Game 4 of the 1926 World Series.

Ruth hit three that day, and it supposedly helped little Johnny recover from the injuries suffered when a horse stepped on his head. Whether Babe’s home runs really had medicinal value is unclear, but nobody questioned their therapeutic value. Almost a century later, not much has changed.

“I told my players the greatest gift they can give is the gift of love. It can’t be tarnished or broken. It can’t be taken away,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “If you can put a smile on a kid’s face, that’s what it’s all about.”

It sounds corny. Then you see it in action.

At Give Kids the World, you could see Ismael stealing the dance show in his sunglasses. The way he moved, you’d never suspect he has leukemia.

You could see Desiree, who’s on a heart-transplant waiting list back in Rhode Island, posing for pictures surrounded by an entire major-college offensive line.

“This is great. All these macho football players coming out and playing with little kids,” he mom said. “They’ll remember this forever.”

You could see 6-foot-8 Miami guard Seantrell Henderson lifting 2-year-old Joshua Patterson up to an 8-foot-basketball rim so he could dunk a miniature basketball. Joshua was there with his sister Miracle.

Why “Miracle”?

“Because she shouldn’t even be here,” said her father, Reggie Jones.

Miracle’s mother had two liver transplants but was determined to have a baby. She had to stop taking some of her medication during the pregnancy. Ten months after Miracle’s birth, her mother died.

Miracle was born with cerebral palsy. Then last spring, the eight-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia. She lives in Lake Placid, Fla., and admitted she’s not a huge football fan. At least she wasn’t until that morning.

“That team is my favorite team I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Miracle pointed to the basketball court, where half-dozen Miami players in their white jerseys were playing basketball with her brothers. Miracle acted as the event photographer, snapping pictures on her dad’s cell phone..

“No matter what, she’s always strong and doesn’t complain,” Reggie said.

That’s the kind of thing Strong and Al Golden hoped their players noticed.

“I wish our players had as much fight as these kids do,” Strong said.

Again, it sounded a little corny. Then you saw all the dancing, the high-fives and how a big kid from Kentucky carefully painted a flower on a little girl from Rhode Island.

“I saw a smile on her face,” Wallace said.

Mission accomplished.


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