IOWA CITY, Iowa — Parker, a 2-year-old boy from Muscatine, Iowa, smiled while he was in the grasp of Josey Jewell, one of the most physical and feared linebackers in the country.
It was that sort of a Tuesday afternoon on the second and third floors of the University of Iowa Children's Hospital.
Parker was one of several patients who welcomed Hawkeye football players during an annual tradition that isn't likely to end as long as Kirk Ferentz is head coach.
"It's important to our program," said Broderick Binns, director of football player development. "Coach Ferentz and his wife, Mary, have donated to the new children's hospital. This started way before I was a player or before I took over this job. It is something near and dear to coach Ferentz – he wants us to keep this tradition going."
So, on a day of a single-digit temperature in the heart of finals week, Jewell, a junior, was joined by senior punter Ron Coluzzi, junior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, freshman kicker Keith Duncan and freshman tight end Nate Wieting for more than an hour of meeting patients ages two to 18 and offering a gift that was purchased by Hawkeye freshmen and sophomore football players.
"These people are going through tough times, and you want to give back to something and see a smile," said Jewell, a second-team All-Big Ten linebacker and two-time team most valuable player. "It's an amazing feeling when you see a person going through a tough time have a smile on their face."
For the most part, the visiting student-athletes were nameless to the patients. It didn't matter that the patients have no idea they were visited by Duncan, the hero of Iowa's 14-13 victory over No. 2 Michigan. Or by Coluzzi, who joined Jewell as one of five team captains. Or VandeBerg, whose 19 receptions were tops on the team through four games before he was injured. Or Wieting, a 6-foot-4 tight end who towered above everyone in the room. On this occasion, the Hawkeye Big Men on Campus were simply welcoming, smiling, compassionate friends to children looking for a pick-me-up.
"It was awesome considering I'm a Hawkeye fan. And now, I have three of their signatures, so I can brag about that to my cousins who are huge Hawkeye fans," said Allison, an aspiring artist who is a senior at Dubuque Hempstead High School.
Jewell, VandeBerg and Wieting appeared more impressed with Allison's artwork than she was by the fact she was surrounded by Division I football players.
"This isn't my best work," Allison added. "I wish I had some of my other sketch books. My other sketch books have full-color drawings. I don't know why half this stuff was unfinished."
According to Allison, a drawing of a Hawkeye football player will soon be in the works.
Meanwhile, on a floor below, Binns, Coluzzi, and Duncan, visited another patient-artist.
"She drew a Tigerhawk for us to sign, and we took a picture with her," Binns said. "She could draw the logo probably better than the person who designed it. It was awesome to see stories like that."
More than 50 toys were donated by the Hawkeyes, but because time didn't allow for distribution of them all, they were stored at the hospital for future use.
A shy eight-year-old from Marion named Katie seemed to enjoy meeting the football players, especially after they complimented her on wearing a pink T-shirt that said University of Iowa and a pink head band featuring a Tigerhawk logo.
Because of an emergency surgery, Macalye, a student at Clear Creek-Amana High School, wasn't able to attend tryouts for a school musical. But she did receive a basketball game from Hawkeye football players she watched play in person against Nebraska on Nov. 25 in nearby Kinnick Stadium.
"That's really cool that they come in and spend their time to make kids happy, and I was really happy to see them," Macayle said.
Given a choice, all the patients would be home or in school rather that laying in a hospital bed. But for a few minutes on a cold, busy Tuesday afternoon, all was right with the world.