Tight end Kyle Rudolph is the Minnesota Vikings’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. As part of announcing the news, the Vikings posted a video of “Dear Kyle” letters where Rudolph reads letters from those whose lives he has touched with his charitable work in the Minnesota community. In the video, family members and patients share how much Rudolph’s visits to the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital have meant to them, how much they have appreciated the Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone the indoor play area he has sponsored there.

The morning I saw it, I quote tweeted the Vikings’ link to the video and then shared a little of my family’s experience with Rudolph’s charitable work. But a string of 280-character posts seemed inadequate to convey how appreciative I am on behalf of my family for the work Kyle Rudolph has done at that hospital, so I present my own “Dear Kyle” letter.

Dear Kyle,

You wouldn’t believe it, but you and I go way back to 2012 when you attended the dedication ceremony for John Sullivan’s playground at U of M Children’s Hospital. It was a beautiful fall day, mild and sunny and you were there with Sullivan and Chad Greenway and some of the suits like Rick Spielman. At the time I was writing for The Daily Norseman and I charmed my way into the event. You were in your second season with the Vikings, but already well-known and I watched as you casually held babies in those enormous hands and took pictures with patients and families. At the time I thought, “Oh, isn’t that nice for those families” in that distant semi-media way, not even close to comprehending that I was now one of “those families.”

I was there at that playground dedication not so much because I was a valued member of the media (only tangential at best), but because my niece, born earlier that month, was a patient in the NICU. Though full-term, my niece Ellie was in the NICU because she had been born with multi-cystic dysplastic kidney disease—she was in end-stage renal failure. We’d had no idea there was anything wrong with her until the day she was born and the medical team had to take life-saving intervention measures to give her a chance at living through the night.

Like a lot of families who spend a lot of time at U of M Children’s, we had no idea how life was going to change. As your family can attest, until you live it, it’s tough to imagine. But on that sunny fall day in 2012, we knew that there was a short break in the madness of trying to figure out what Ellie’s future would be while we attended the Halloween Huddle party that John Sullivan hosted after the playground dedication.

That might sound trite, but it’s hard to convey just how nice a breather is, it’s almost decadent, when it seems like you’re living in a prolonged panic mode, scrambling to catch up with the new reality you’re living.

Since that first experience with the holiday parties Vikings players have hosted, our family has spent a lot of time at that hospital. The routine visits, the scheduled procedures, the emergency room visits that end up being long admissions. It puts those parties and meals in a different perspective.

Having a medically complicated child with cancer or a rare disease puts people into a very weird club. The hospital becomes a strange sort of gated community that brings together people from all over the country seeking treatments for cancer, rare diseases, and organ transplant—the kids treated there are seriously ill and a hospital stay isn’t just a moment in their lives, it is their lives. Weary parents sleep on couches in their kids rooms, kids are shuttled from clinic to clinic where everyone they encounter is either doing something painful or uncomfortable to them, or talking over them to their parents. Ellie gets medicated for anxiety. She’s only six. Her sister has abandonment issues and has needed counseling. She’s only 8. My sister copes with depression and that constant anxiety about what the future will hold for Ellie.

But for as weird as hospital life can be, heading back into the regular world has it’s challenges too. People staring at feeding tubes, oxygen canulas, tracheotomy tubes, PIC lines, scars, bald heads, wheelchairs… It’s funny, for as much as kids are curious about all that stuff, it’s usually the adults we have encountered who are truly rude. A woman in a bookstore once saw Ellie’s crani-cap, feeding tube, and oxygen and asked my sister point blank, “What’s wrong with your baby?”—as if my sister should justify being in public with a sick child.

I’ve seen how when you visit the hospital with your teammates, you look at these kids, not at their tubes and scars and masks, not at their vital signs or the computer terminals in their rooms, but actually at these kids. I’ve watched you talk with them, rather than at them or past them. You’re there to have fun with them, not to hurt them or test them or worry them. You treat them like people rather than a diagnosis, an oddity, or a medical anomaly. You give patients’ siblings, like Ellie’s sister Emma, who miss out on so much, a moment of fun they can actually share with their sick siblings. You give parents, like my sister, a chance to not worry about dinner, a chance to see their kids happy, even if only for a moment, and a chance to focus on just being a family and having fun.

That might seem like a lot of heavy emotion to push on a holiday party, or your End Zone play area, but when families lose so much to the grind of endless clinic visits and interminable hospital stays that are filled with a mix of pain, anxiety, and boredom, we realize how important simple things are—they are the only things that really matter.

Sometimes we think about the future and make plans, but more often we live from breath to breath, just trying to figure out how we are going to make it through the day.

Thank you, Kyle for those moments you help provide for us to catch our collective breath. It means so much more than you can ever realize