Dec. 29, 2010
MIAMI, Fla. - Jim Harbaugh entered the Baptist Children's Hospital on Wednesday morning wearing a black Stanford baseball cap. It didn't take long before the cap ended up on the head of Joshua, age 9 - an impromptu gift from the Cardinal's head football coach.
With Stanford in town to play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, Harbaugh and 12 players followed a police motorcade to South Miami to visit the hospital, which houses long-term patients from newborn to 21.
The players divided into groups of three or four so they could reach more rooms, and were joined by Harbaugh, who often lingered after players had left to talk longer to the patients.
It was in this setting where they met Nicholas Garcia, 17, who suffers from Crohn's Disease, an inflammatory disease of the intestines.
With a rosary around his neck, and two small medals of Catholic saints pinned to his chest, and a feeding tube inserted up his nose, Nicholas rose out of bed to pose with four players. They handed him a duffel bag and autographed a football.
"Who do you root for?" one player asked.
"For you guys in the Orange Bowl," he replied.
"He was looking you guys up last night," said his mother, Jackie.
Indeed, Nicholas, a true sports fan, had done his research. He was quite familiar with quarterback Andrew Luck and the Cardinal's 11-1 season.
But there was one more autograph he wanted to get - Harbaugh's.
After the players moved on, Harbaugh entered the room, signed the ball, and remained with Nicholas for a few moments.
"Good luck," Harbaugh said as he shook Nicholas' hand. "Stay strong. God's got a purpose for you."
Recently, Nicholas had been visited by Dwyane Wade and several other Miami Heat basketball players. He also has a poster of the Miami Heat cheerleaders in his room, which caught the eye of some of the Stanford players.
"It's a highlight," Jackie said of Stanford's visit. "You could be having a miserable day, and just five minutes of that is great. It changes everything."
Some of the smaller children weren't quite sure what to make of the visitors in the cardinal red jerseys. But one player, 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo, always seemed to draw their attention.
"It was cool to see the younger kids," running back Usua Amanam said. "They'll see us coming and their eyes get wide open."
Throughout the third floor, ripples from the visits could be felt in each room. As one group approached, another could be heard across the hall.
"This is Guillermo," a nurse said.
"GUILLERMO!" the players said in unison.
When an Orange Bowl committee member mentioned to Harbaugh about the time - the team would be up against meetings - the coach said, "Aww, we're loving it. We wish we could stay here all morning."
The coach was right.
"It was great to visit these kids and see a smile on their faces when you walk into a room," long snapper Zach Nolan said. "That's definitely one of the best things about this. You don't realize how much you can impact their lives."
And it wasn't just the kids. When Harbaugh and the players walked through the cafeteria, the hospital workers started to cheer - loudly.
When the tour was done, the hospital's marketing director was heard mentioning that it was one of the best visits of any group or team to come through the hospital.
Up in a third floor corner room, 17-year-old Jared "Big Country" Mayor may have agreed.
A 6-5, 305-pound offensive and defensive tackle at South Dade High School in Homestead, Fla., Jared was diagnosed with leukemia and missed his junior season. However, the leukemia is in remission and Jared says he is only in hospital now only because of the side effects of his treatment.
Jared said he earned the nickname "Big Country" shortly after joining the varsity during his sophomore year.
"I had to prove myself to all the coaches," he said. "I drove my block 30 yards downfield. After that, and because I'm the biggest, widest, person on the team, that's when I got my nickname."
From his bed, Jared was eager to describe his football background to Harbaugh, who relished the conversation and offered encouragement to Jared and his mother, Beatrice.
"He's an amazing guy," Beatrice said of the coach.
Funny, but the coach was thinking the same thing about the player.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics