MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The courage displayed by the children, the passion that professional caregivers showed for their patients and the overwhelming level of optimism at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital impressed Titans players, cheerleaders and staff members on Tuesday.
Titans linebacker Gerald McRath and receiver Marc Mariani and cheerleaders Jessi and Tiffany toured the children's hospital to learn about the important work done at the facility, then signed autographs, posed for pictures, led the children in dances and shared smiles with the patients and their families.
"It's been really inspirational for me, just to see the miracles they're working down here, to put a smile on these people's faces," Mariani said. "It's a blessing for us to be able to come down here. It touches a lot of people's hearts, and it was real fun to make an impact like we did."
The Titans arrived to a rousing welcome at the facility on the NFL PLAY 60 Bus, which made multiple stops in NFL cities around the country to raise money for St. Jude. PLAY 60 created web videos in which children traded turns telling jokes with players, coaches, cheerleaders and mascots while participating in physical activities. The videos were posted online, and the NFL pledged to make a donation for each video view. The league delivered a check for $100,000 during the visit because of the fundraising campaign's success.
McRath said the visit was "priceless" to him and its timing nicely coincided with Thanksgiving. The Titans and NFL representatives visited the medicine room, the school, the chapel and an art gallery that featured works that were created by teen patients.
"After coming and having a visit, you look at your life and say you are thankful for a lot of things, and your health is one of them," McRath said. "From the time we stepped off the bus to the time we got ready to leave, you could just see them living out their childhood, their lives, and that's because of the staff here at St. Jude.
"You can tell they make it as less complicated as they can and allow them to still feel like they're not missing out on their childhood," McRath continued. "The classes, time for the kids to play, the families and some of the other. It's one of those things where I'm grateful. This is a wonderful visit. I feel honored just to be here."
The Titans were led on the tour by Joel Alsup, a Chattanooga native who now is a supervisor in media production at St. Jude where he received treatment for osteosarcoma in 1987, and met Lisa Salters, a nurse who provided care for Alsup and still works at the hospital.
"That's just an amazing thing to see that these people stay year after year and truly care about each other, and they all seem to be a wonderful, tight little family," said Tiffany, a Titans cheerleader.
Alsup's treatment required the amputation of his right arm, but he quickly learned to adjust to living without what had been his dominant arm. He learned to tie his shoes with one hand and developed a conviction that he could continue to play baseball after former Major Leaguer Jim Abbott, who was born without his right hand, visited the hospital shortly after Alsup's amputation.
Alsup now competes in triathlons and inspires patients and their families to let them know they can overcome challenges.
"It was almost one of those things where you look at his story and the things that he went through," McRath said, "that you can overcome anything, that the adversity is nothing as long as you keep your faith and keep pushing and as long as you have a good support group around you. To see him have his arm amputated and 25 years later, he's working here and the same doctors that cared for him are still here, that says a lot about this facility and lets you know that the foundation is very strong."
St. Jude, which is in its 50th year, combines treatment and research on one medical campus and shares its discoveries with scientists and doctors around the world. St. Jude also provides the care, as well as housing and food for families of patients, at no cost to the patients.
Alsup said, in addition to providing the best possible care, St. Jude tries to minimize or eliminate other concerns.
"I think for any parent, when they hear, 'Your child has cancer,' the fear goes off in their mind and you try to figure out how you are going to handle it," Alsup said. "Secondary to that, you worry about how you're going to pay for it because a lot of procedures have a year to two-and-a-half years of protocol, and that's a lot of money. When a family walks into St. Jude, they realize that we don't charge their families for anything. You are getting healthy and getting the best care in the world."
Anna Isaacson, NFL Director of Community Programs, said the partnership between the NFL and St. Jude is a way to emphasize the NFL PLAY 60 message and raise money for a great cause.
"Our movement is all about getting kids active and healthy for 60 minutes a day, but the patients at St. Jude, they want to be active and healthy one day too," Isaacson said. "So we thought that coming together and bringing our incredible organizations together around this particular message could do amazing things."
Emily Callahan, Chief Marketing Officer for St. Jude, said the hospital was "incredibly honored" to partner with the NFL and the PLAY 60 effort.
"They believe kids should be able to go out and play 60 minutes each day," Callahan said. "At St. Jude, we believe all children should have a chance to go out and play 60. It's a remarkable partnership."
Callahan said the hospital and its patients were thankful for the donation and the visit from the Titans.
"They're very talented individuals, but they've also got great hearts, so what they're doing is kind of the magic of St. Jude," Callahan said. "Not only do we save children, but we also give them moments to celebrate, and that's what the Titans players and cheerleaders (did)."
Tuesday's visit was also an extension of the support that the Titans have had for St. Jude since the franchise moved to Tennessee in 1997. The annual Titans Caravan has made numerous visits to the hospital when players, cheerleaders, mascot and staff visited with the young patients and their families.
The hospital is also one of 10 statewide charitable organizations to receive funds from the sale of the Titans specialty license plate program. Since the Titans license plate first became available to Tennessee motorists in 2004, Titans Owner K.S. "Bud" Adams, Jr. has given $158,876 to the hospital from the Titans Foundation.
"I'm pleased to see this additional support given to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital," said Adams. "The outstanding care provided by this hospital is known world-wide and is very deserving of this gift from the owners and players of the National Football League."
The players, cheerleaders and league representatives were grateful for the opportunity to see up close the work that is being done at St. Jude and were amazed by its atmosphere.
"It's truly unbelievable," Isaacson said. "I think sometimes you think, 'OK, we're going to a hospital and you wonder about how it's going to make me feel, are the kids going to be down?' You come to a place like this and it's unbelievable. Everybody has hope, everybody is smiling; they do so many things to keep kids uplifted and, in turn, it uplifts you and makes you feel so amazing about the work that you're doing."
Jessi and Tiffany said the bright smiles of the children made lasting memories.
"Visiting St. Jude was such an incredible experience for Tiffany and me," Jessi said. "This is our first time, and I think I speak for both of us when I say what a life-changing experience it was to learn about everything they're doing here, the hope they're offering families all over the world and just the kids, wow, they're such an inspiration, the struggles that they're going through make you want to appreciate every single day.
"They made a great point: just because they're dealing with cancer doesn't mean they're not kids," Jessi added. "They're still kids, they still want to have fun and play and enjoy and we got to be part of that today and it was really special."
Mariani said he could tell "this place is special" from the time the Titans spent at St. Jude.
"There's a different vibe when you walk through the door here: so positive and so loving," Mariani said. "You understand why people come out of this place and are inspired and go on to live amazing lives."