By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Kyle Rudolph’s story of his commitment to giving back is a very personal one. When Rudolph, now the Minnesota Vikings tight end and the team’s 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, was not yet two years old, his brother Casey was born and was immediately diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer that mostly affects children under the age of five. Fortunately, after undergoing both surgery and chemotherapy before his first birthday, Casey not only survived, but thrived and now at 26, is completely healthy.
Although it is now two decades in the past, the experience stayed with Rudolph and his family, and has led to charity and community work being woven permanently into the fabric their lives.
The majority of Rudolph’s work off the field centers around people navigating a variety of different health challenges. Early on the Rudolph family, natives of Cincinnati, connected with Cincinnati Hospital, helping and interacting with children’s and families in similar situations to the one they had been in.
Once Rudolph arrived in Minnesota as a second-round NFL Draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2011, he immediately began working with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, with whom the Vikings already had a relationship. Over the years he has developed programs of his own, and those have made a long-lasting impact not only on those he interacts with, but on him as well.
Among the many events that have been developed are holiday parties around Thanksgiving and Christmas where Rudolph brings the holidays to the hospital. He recounted a meeting he had at the most recent Christmas party.
“We met a two-year-old girl, and her family, who had the exact cancer as my brother. They [had just] found out she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and to tell them that my brother’s been cancer free was really encouraging. To be able to give them good news was really cool.”
Having the last name Rudolph, makes doing events at Christmas a natural match and there is one in particular that brings things to a new level.
“This year we took everyone to the North Pole,” he said.
Rudolph arranged to have those children who are able, to be taken by limousine to a nearby airport where they arrived at a private hanger. The children all boarded private airplanes, each featuring a flight attendant dressed as an elf. Then the planes taxied across the airport to another hanger, which was decorated to look like the North Pole. For the children it is was magical experience.
Rudolph also works closely with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and has watched with excitement and gratification over the years as significant inroads have been made with the disease.
“When we started seven years ago, we were blindly researching,” he said. “Now we go to the event every year and see the same kids, and one of our buddies who we’ve gotten close with, they’ve made medical advances and the transformations they’ve made in just seven years, having come up with things and have made discoveries. The research has paid off.”
Rudolph is also a member of the American Cancer Society Athlete Council, and serves on the board of Hannah & Friends, a non-profit organization in South Bend, Indiana that helps with housing and other services for adults and children with special needs.
Last year, a big event in Rudolph’s life added to the importance he places on his work in the community. Rudolph and his wife, Jordan, became the parents of twin girls. Fatherhood has given him a new perspective on everything he does.
“I tell people all the time that we’re blessed to have two happy and healthy babies,” he said. “I think every time we visit how hard it would be to have to check one or both our kids into the hospital.”
As for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nomination, he was told while at an event at the hospital.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “And you know it’s a great honor because when you look at the list of names of men of the year in the organization it’s all people I’ve looked up to. That solidified to me how great of an honor it is.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.