Sept. 21, 2012
MADISON, Wis. -- For nearly 20 years, the UW football team has participated in one game preparation activity that differs from all of the rest.
It does not involve shoulder pads or x's and o's, but instead hospital gowns and autographs.
Assistant director of football operations Peter Weiden refers to it as "putting smiles on children's faces," but the sign on the door of the American Family Children's Hospital refers to it as, "UW Football Team Visit."
No matter what it's called, visits to the American Family Children's Hospital have become a tradition for UW football dating back to the reign of coach Barry Alvarez in the 1990s.
On the Friday afternoon before every home game, 8-10 members of the football team head to the hospital to spend an hour visiting with patients and their families. The players are so eager to visit the hospital that UW coach Bret Bielema needs to limit the number of players who visit each week.
"It's truly one of the most rewarding experiences for our players," Bielema said. "To be able to make a difference in a kid's life when they are struggling through some tough times is something our guys really look forward to."
According to child life services manager Julie Auenson, the patients really look forward to visit as well.
"Being in a hospital is not a normal environment," she said. "So having visitors come in that can, even for a little while, take away the thoughts of what is happening medically is something that is really great about our partnership with the athletic department."
When the team members arrive at the hospital, they are split into groups and visit rooms on the main floors of the hospital. They deliver signed game programs to the patients and engage them in conversations about their upcoming game, where they are from and the players' favorite talking point--the child's toys.
Nurse manager Laura Ahola can see the impact of the student-athlete visits on her patients long after the group has returned to the stadium.
"The student-athletes make the children feel special and that lasts so much longer than the actual visit," Ahola said. "When I go into patients' rooms they'll say, `Did you see my picture?', `Did you see that so-and-so was here and they signed my shirt?' It's an exciting, positive thing that really helps to promote a sense of healing and well-being for the kids."
The effects of the visit are long-lasting for the players as well. Redshirt junior Jared Abbrederis is a "regular" visitor at the hospital and is continually inspired by the optimism of the children he meets.
"No matter what situation they find themselves in, I always see hope and a positive attitude in their eyes," he said. "If they can be so optimistic when things are tough, how could I ever complain about anything in my life?"
Stories of the player's interactions make their way back to Coach Bielema's desk where they also have a profound impact.
"The letters I get from parents are really overwhelming, the gratitude they have for our players taking the time to brighten their child's day. It's a special relationship we have with the children's hospital and one that I am very proud of."