Thursday Nights

Roshan Reddy
Eight-year-old Tyler Bolla swings his poms during a visit by the athletes at Crisler Arena.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a gloomy Thursday night. As many students chow down on dormitory food or file into the UGLi for some evening studying, a group of anxious Michigan athletes wait in the mundane lobby of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

They’re not there to do research for a project or because the athletic department forced them to perform community service. They’re at the hospital because they know that sometimes, the best medicine for a child with terminal cancer is a chuckle, a smile and a hug from a Wolverine.

One by one, the athletes are called to the hospital’s numerous floors, where children with life-threatening illnesses count down the minutes until their heroes in maize and blue will walk through their door. Although the athletes will only stay for an hour and a half, they will make a lifetime of difference.

When the athlete approaches the child’s room, he knocks on the door and waits for a response. The waiting child, who expects to see a nurse walking in with a syringe full of pain killer, is told that a student athlete from the University of Michigan is there to visit, and fear turns immediately to joy – a miracle in itself. With a baseball hat in hand, filled from brim to plastic strap with the signatures of Wolverine athletes, the athlete walks up to the child’s bed. At this moment the child forgets about the IV attached to his wrist and the monotonous beeping of the machines hooked up to his body.

They talk about everything from sports to video games. They play cards and board games. Cheerfully, the child shows the athlete a picture he drew or his mountain of stuffed animal friends. The hour and a half belongs to the child.

As 8 p.m. rolls around, the athlete says his last goodbyes and leaves the room. The moment the athlete walks back through the door, he peeks back to see the child one last time. The once-awestruck child smiles ear-to-ear as he stares at the hat full of the signatures of the people he idolizes. This reaction makes the visit worth more than the compliment the athlete receives.

When the athlete strolls out into the hallway, the child’s parents greet him. Although he only talked about minute things like sports and video games with their child, the parents proudly proclaim that he has made their child’s night.

As the athlete walks back through the lobby and out the automatic sliding doors toward the parking lot, he knows that as he partakes in life’s small pleasures, the sick child won’t. The child will sit in a hospital bed all day, waiting for next Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. and that knock on the door.

From the Heart

The program that makes it possible for sick children to meet the Michigan student athletes that they adore is appropriately named From the Heart. In 1991, Ed and Leann Boullion founded the organization after their daughter Channon was diagnosed with cancer. Channon, who has been in remission for several years, spent 15 months at Mott Hospital. While Channon was in the hospital, her parents noticed the psychological effect that visiting Michigan student athletes, like Desmond Howard, had on the sick children. So, when nobody else stepped up, they took the initiative to organize a more formal method for the athletes to visit. From the Heart was born.

“The (basketball team) was the first one to say, ‘Yes, we think this is a great idea, and we’ll have an athlete right away,’ ” Ed Boullion said. “And that athlete they sent right away was Juwan Howard.”

In fact, the whole Fab Five was involved in the program during their time at Michigan, along with other former Wolverine superstars like quarterbacks Brian Griese and Tom Brady.

“These guys that were there years ago that I still talk to, their future is to be involved in this program, because they know what it has done for them,” Ed Bouillon said. “It is something that you never forget. They’ll never forget playing (sports) at Michigan, nor will they ever forget being a student athlete at the hospital and all the kids and their families that they made smile.”

What first began as high-status Michigan athletes visiting on Thursday nights has now flourished into all the Michigan teams coming to see the children. In addition, extraordinary volunteers like Dave and Shawn Pelak, who accompany sick children to numerous Michigan sporting events, also contribute to the program.

But neither Ed nor Leann will take credit for all the smiles they’ve inadvertently caused or all the pain they’ve helped to alleviate.

“It’s not my program.” Ed Bouillon said. “It’s the student athletes’ program. I’m just a helper.”

The Wolverines

They have big names on campus, but even bigger hearts.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital overflows every Thursday night with athletes sporting maize and blue warm-up suits. Members of the women’s rowing team to players on the baseball team, from the football team to the women’s soccer team, all crowd onto the hospital floors this Thursday.

They take the same classes their fellow students do and must also go through demanding practices and training. But once a week, they leave an hour and a half of time open to give to others.

“I have a goal to get here,” said former offensive lineman Derek Bell. “Especially, during the more hectic times during the year when you have midterms, papers, finals and you’re scrambling to move out of an apartment.”

But even though the athletes come to hospital to inspire suffering children, the relationship goes both ways. The athletes receive as much pleasure walking through those hospital doors as the children do when they see the athletes.

“Personally, I think I get more out of it than the kids do,” punter Ross Ryan said. “It makes you feel good and lucky about what you have and really fortunate to be in the position that you are. A lot of these kids are fighting for their lives. It’s rewarding to come and see a smile on their face.”

The Thursday night visits have also proved to be addictive. Most athletes attend their first visits as freshmen, on a recommendation from another athlete. A few years later, they are the ones gloating about how wonderful From the Heart is, in turn bringing new freshmen to the hospital.

This particular night, two Michigan baseball players are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fifth-year senior co-captain Drew Taylor, a habitual attendee at the hospital, brought fellow pitcher, freshman Mike Wilson, for his first visit.

“I love (visiting),” Taylor said. “I come back every week that I can and we don’t have practice or an exam or anything that gets in the way. . I just wish we could do it more, but they only have it set up for once a week.”

Wilson, who didn’t know what to expect from his first trip, was thrilled about his initial visit when he left the hospital.

“It was an experience I won’t forget,” Wilson said. “We met a lot of athletes and a lot of people that were happy to see us. They all had their Michigan stuff waiting for us to come. (There were) a lot of smiles, especially considering the situations that they are in, just nothing but smiles.

“There was this one kid who had a Chad Henne jersey on and was a die hard (Michigan fan). When we gave him the hat, it just looked like he thought it was Christmas morning. It means a lot when you can make a kid feel that special.”

Like most first-time visitors, Wilson knew immediately that it would be the first of many opportunities for him to make Thursday night visits.

“I was just telling them that I can see us making the trip to come here every week to see the kids,” Wilson said.

Besides the handful of rookie visitors like Wilson, the crowd is filled mostly with upperclassmen, like junior soccer player Brenna Mulholland and junior swimmer Annie Stein, who have been participating in From the Heart for three years. Despite their hectic schedules, they keep making the effort to return to see the kids – because a bad day for them at practice will always be better than a good day for a cancer-stricken child at the hospital.

“Obviously, being an athlete here we have, so much,” Stein said. “When you think about our problems, like hard practice or drama going on, on a team, it is kind of a reality check to come in and see these kids fighting for their lives. It makes our problems look really small.”

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