Trash talk from one school, bragging by another, arguing over All-SEC, questioning preseason talk by talking in the preseason – there was sort of a lot happening this week, what with the 1,247 credentials issued at SEC Media Days and the impending start to college football, amplified for a Mississippi State team who opens the schedule with an in-state foe to the south and closes the regular season against the rival to the north.
All that action and expended energy is fun, sure, if not a touch overwhelming with two weeks still left before fall camps even open. Rivalry makes sports fun, though it can bring out the worst, too, and often as much disdain as support.
So it was nice on Thursday afternoon, nearing the end of a crazy-by-design week, to go somewhere immune to all the noise. MSU’s football team visited the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson, a trip it takes annually, and one which is humbling to be a part of it. Inspiring, too, cheesy at it may sound.
It’s good to be reminded why sports are important; why they matter.
Ironic, perhaps, but worth remembering the quote from Nelson Mandela which SEC Commissioner Mike Slive used to open Media Days back on Monday.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
Dillon Day, MSU’s senior center, is 300-plus pounds of muscles, tattoos and long blonde locks straight out of a hair band. He’s far from business casual, especially with the addition of some blue streaks to his mane.
On the fourth floor, little Taylor came into the game room on her wheelchair and turned a bit shy as her family swept her up to the table where a bunch of massive men in football jerseys were playing Scrabble.
“I like your pink hair,” Dillon told her. She had a couple feathers tied into her blonde hair. “I’ve got some blue in mine,” he unnecessarily demonstrated. “It works well for you with that thick hair you have. Mine’s thin so it doesn’t look as good.”
At the same time he was the last person expected and the most obvious choice to find common ground and make Taylor feel comfortable.
Downstairs in the cancer ward, Dillon ended up in what was likely a surreal situation. He was bombarded with kids who had found copies of the poster he’s featured on and wanted his signature. They didn’t even know who he was, they just knew he was on a poster, so he must be famous. Plus, he’s got all those colorful tattoos and that long hair with the blue streak in it.
Dan Mullen would be the star anywhere else, as the head coach always is, but in this world, the massive 22 year old who looks like something out of a comic book was the focus of all attention.
Some kids were in there for a short time, some were more long term, nearly all had parents with heavy eyes by their side. For this period of their young lives, much of which they’ll likely forget by the time they’re older, they don’t get much to smile about.
But you’d never know it as they laughed, talked, danced and sang, crawling over people who must have looked like giants. They have no clue what offsides is or how overtime works. They may only know “football” as that foam thing they’re told to be careful with when throwing. Their parents could be lifelong Ole Miss fans, die hard State fans or nothing at all. It doesn’t really matter. The visit isn’t meaningful because of games or trophies won, just as it wasn’t when other teams stopped by earlier that summer and won’t be when others make the visit later this year.
Dillon spent a half hour in a plastic “kitchen” with Jakiriah, who had no hair of her own but loved the blonde and blue of the guy helping her run a café out of the playroom.
If we can make one life better for us having been alive, whatever time we spend in this life is worth it.
Such is the opportunity and responsibility of sport. Wins can inspire, but in a place of medicine, laughter remains chief amongst the healers.
“She thinks you’re cool,” the father of a shy girl told Dillon after he signed her poster of him.
To prove it, she looked up at him and whispered her appreciation.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re beautiful.”
“Well thank you very much,” Dillon said with a smile bigger than any around him. “You’re beautiful, too.”