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Our Trip to the End Zone

How the generosity of one Vikings player directly benefited my family in a very unexpected way.

Note: In light of this being the fourth anniversary of this story, and since Eric shared it on Twitter/X/whatever it is now this morning, we wanted to bump it up and give everyone an opportunity to read it again.

Congratulations to the Thompson family on their daughter’s continued recovery! -Chris

If you have read my articles or followed me on Twitter over the past several years, you’re probably well aware that I’m the proud father of two daughters. I try to be conscious of how often I post pictures of them or talk about them online, but the truth is that I’m a horrible over-sharer. What can I say? I’m crazy about my girls. I just can’t help myself sometimes. I have even managed to wedge them into a few (completely unnecessary and cringe-inducing) analogies in my weekly Vikings preview articles in this space.

While I have sworn to limit mixing in my family when writing about the Vikings going forward, I’m afraid there’s no avoiding including them this time around.

Kyle Rudolph opened his End Zone in the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in March of 2018. It’s a place for patients and their family members to escape what can be an otherwise somber hospital room experience and enjoy some fun activities. As a tangential member of Vikings media, I have been offered the opportunity to cover a couple of events Rudolph hosted in the End Zone since it opened. Unfortunately, most of the events were during my day job and it prevented me from attending.

Last week, I finally covered an event at the hospital and was able to check out the End Zone. But it certainly wasn’t in the way I envisioned.

On Martin Luther King Day, everyone in my family but my wife had the day off. So I decided to keep the girls busy by taking them to the Minnesota Zoo. I could barely keep up as my energetic daughters raced about the facility all morning. We capped the Daddy/Daughter Day with some lunch and a trip to the movies for a matinee. That night we did some reading and classic roughhousing before an early bedtime. The girls needed their sleep after the long day; my oldest had school and my youngest had an early doctor appointment that I was taking her to before daycare.

The week before, our pediatrician had noticed something during our 4-year-old’s annual checkup. She was seemingly healthy and feeling just fine, but the doctor noticed that one side of her tummy felt a bit odd. He ordered an ultrasound just to make sure everything was in order. So on that following Tuesday, I took our little one in. The appointment lasted a bit longer than I expected and the technician was rather quiet, but I didn’t think much of it. She explained that the radiologist would look at the images and give us a call. Fair enough. I dropped her off at daycare and went into work.

A few hours later, the call came.

The conversation was a bit of a blur. The words “large mass” were used several times. We were to report to the emergency room at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital as soon as we could. My wife and I struggled to keep it together as we gathered some essentials at home, picked up the girls, and drove in.

We were given a room in the ER as we desperately tried to avoid running through the worst-case scenarios of what that large mass could be. But then we were introduced to members of the oncology department.

Wait. Oncology. That’s the study of... No no no no no. NO. This can’t be right. Not our little one. This is impossible. She hasn’t even had as much the sniffles for months! I just watched her sprint around the zoo for three hours and wolf down half a tub of popcorn yesterday. Somebody got something wrong here. She isn’t sick. My sweet little girl can’t possibly have...

I sat there slack-jawed as the doctors gave us the next steps. I nodded along, remaining as stoic and calm as possible so I wouldn’t alarm my daughters. Internally, I was completely disintegrating. Before I could even begin to process what was happening, surgery was scheduled for the morning after next. The surgeon explained that while he couldn’t know for sure until he operated, all signs were pointing to Wilms tumor. It usually develops in one kidney. Most cases are largely asymptomatic until ultrasounds or CT scans find it. The other kidney takes over while...

...wait. He said tumor.

Holy shit. It sounds like my kid has cancer.

I stayed in the hospital with our youngest that first night while my wife returned home with our oldest. We wanted to give big sister as much normalcy as possible, so my wife saw her off to school that morning and then returned to the hospital. We still had a full day to fill to distract a girl that had absolutely no clue how sick she was.

This is where the generosity of the Rudolph family came into our lives.

After watching a movie and doing some coloring in her room the day before her surgery, our daughter started to get restless. Thankfully, Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone had her covered and then some. When we entered the 2,500-square-foot children’s entertainment mecca, she instantly started darting between all the attractions. She played with all the Paw Patrol cars and figurines. Then she challenged me to a game of bubble hockey. (And beat me 2-1 in overtime, for the record.) Then she played a game where she threw a real football at receivers on the sports simulator screen. Then she decorated her own princess crown and painted a piggy bank castle all by herself.

Then she colored a Vikings helmet while explaining to the staff in a very matter-of-fact manner that “We don’t like the Packers. Boo the Packers.” When I showed her the display of Rudolph’s #82 uniform and explained that he was the one who scored the game-winning touchdown in their last win, she instantly replied “he’s the guy that got 26 for the Vikings?!” (Yes, my 4-year-old already hates the Packers and remembers the final score of the playoff game against the Saints. She learned at a very young age that pandering to Daddy will get her everywhere.)

When the End Zone reopened after dinner, she spent the majority of the “movie night” ignoring what was on the screen and sprinting laps around the space while inexplicably holding a hula hoop. Because, you know, she’s four, and why not? By the time we got her to bed that evening, we had practically forgotten that she was going under the knife for major surgery early the next morning.

The End Zone had successfully served its purpose.

Unfortunately, there was no avoiding the inevitable. After three of the most agonizing hours of my entire life, the surgeon finally greeted us in the waiting room on Thursday morning. Although the mass was even larger than he had anticipated, it was a best-case scenario in that he was able to successfully remove the whole thing along with her kidney. Exactly how he did so is something I may never fully comprehend. He showed me a picture of what he took out of that little stomach with a six-inch ruler for scale; the mass extended beyond both edges of the ruler. At this point, the surgeon was so sure it was a Wilms tumor that he also installed a port for the chemotherapy that would be needed after surgery. Removing the mass was a great first step, but chemo would be necessary to “clean up” and prevent any cancer from recurring.

The next few days were rough, especially when big sis came to visit for the first time. We had discussed what to expect for a couple days, but nothing can truly prepare a first grader for seeing her little sister like that. After about an hour of putting on a brave face in the hospital room, it was pretty clear that our oldest was getting a little uncomfortable.

Thankfully, the End Zone is open to siblings of patients as well.

Our oldest was in heaven the second she walked in. A basketball hoop! Crafts! Markers! Stickers! A video screen where she can throw dodge balls at zombies and kick a football through goal posts! Workers that actually pay attention to her more than her little sister! For over two hours, we were able to blissfully pretend that everything was right with the world and her sister wasn’t connected to a bunch of tubes and wires five floors above us. She got to be just a kid and I got to be just a dad. The previous three days had rocked our family to its core, but those two-plus hours in the End Zone helped us temporarily put our troubles on the back burner.

When I learned of Kobe Bryant and his daughter tragically passing away on Sunday while sitting in a hospital room, it hit me especially hard. I was already drained from a whirlwind week filled with gut-wrenching emotion surrounding my own daughter. SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan’s story about Kobe being so proud of being a girl dad reduced me to a puddle.

On Tuesday night, news broke of Vikings legend Chris Doleman dying at age 58, just days after proudly announcing that he was a two-year survivor of brain cancer. The whole “cherish every single moment you have with your loved ones” sentiment was already in full effect; the news of these sports giants passing away hammered it home even further.

While we still mourn the sudden loss of sports icons taken far too soon, I am happy to report that our story does not end in tragedy.

It was amazing to see the rapid improvement by my daughter after her incredibly invasive surgery. Each check-in by the doctors yielded positive results and improvements. Her quirky and sassy personality continued to shine through more and more each day. On Monday, just four days removed from having a mass the size of a children’s soccer ball removed from her stomach, she was actually discharged. Her recovery was so fast that the full pathology report wasn’t even complete yet. But since we were pretty certain that it was a Wilms tumor, it was time to go home and heal up for a couple weeks before starting the chemotherapy dictated by the report.

But before we left for home, our daughter insisted that we “go play downstairs” one last time. The End Zone was so much fun that she didn’t want to leave the hospital! While her second visit featured much less physical activity, she still found a bunch of toys and instruments to keep her busy for another 90 minutes.

As we left, we thanked the staff and explained that we’d probably be back in a couple weeks when we started outpatient treatment. At least we had the End Zone to look forward to as a welcome distraction during what would be a difficult process.

But less than 48 hours later, those plans drastically changed.

On Tuesday night, I received a phone call. I nervously glanced at my wife as I looked at the number—it was the hospital calling with the final results exactly one week after we had learned about the mass in the first place.

With apologies to Stefon Diggs and Case Keenum, I now have a new Minneapolis Miracle in my life.

It came back NEGATIVE. As in NO CANCER. BENIGN. It was just a really big cyst on her kidney. The doctor that called us was nearly as surprised as we were. The seemingly impossible best-case scenario had actually happened! We called and texted parents and close friends through tears of pure joy. We hugged our little one as tight as we could without hurting the still-healing incision over where her kidney used to be. We took the girls out for ice cream past bedtime to celebrate.

Our little girl was going to be OK.

If you take anything from my story and the recent events that have been dominating the headlines, I hope it’s a call to action to celebrate life. Don’t wait for a life-altering event to be truly thankful for what you have. If you’re a parent, hold your kids tight and do everything in your power to do right by them. Throughout the week at Masonic Children’s, I saw so many families on my daughter’s floor that didn’t get the great news that we were blessed with. So tell the important people in your life that you love them today, not tomorrow. Be good to each other. Be more aware of the effects that your words and actions may have on others, especially online. (I mean, we can still call each other out on our bad takes and stuff, but maybe go about it in a nicer way.) We only get one shot at this life thing and nobody knows for sure when our time is up—might as well make it as pleasant as possible for each other while we still can.

And the next time a Vikings loss starts to make your blood boil—and believe me, that’s going to happen, myself included—remember that there are lots of real people in those purple uniforms doing real things that positively affect more lives than you can imagine. Rudolph’s End Zone is only one example of the innumerable ways that professional athletes give back to their communities. I was already a huge fan of Kyle Rudolph the player and person before any of this happened. Now that I have personally experienced the same “instant connection” with Masonic Children’s Hospital that Kyle and his wife Jordan felt, my admiration and respect for what the Rudolph family does has grown exponentially.

Thank you to the entire staff at Masonic Children’s Hospital, and thank you to the Rudolphs for their generosity. All of you made one of the toughest experiences of our lives much more bearable in so many ways.