Ahmad Black – former University of Florida and Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety – flashed his friendly smile on Thursday evening. But it wasn’t because of a big play.
It was for the kids at Shands Hospital for Children at UF. Ten former Gator football players showed up to tour the facility, dropping by patients’ rooms to lift the spirits of the children and their parents.
When the players walked in to visit 3-year-old Noah English, who is awaiting a heart transplant, he immediately lit up. “We’re all here to see you, man,” Black said.
The tour was the first of a series of events that took place last weekend as part of the Florida Players Network’s inaugural Orange and Blue Spring Spectacular. The newly-formed organization offers former Gator football players the opportunity to network and give back to the Gainesville community. The nonprofit will select a local charitable cause each year and host networking events to raise funds for the designated charity. This year, the group selected Shands Hospital for Children at UF.
“You think about the total number of players who have had the chance to run through the tunnel wearing orange and blue. We have so much in common,” said Chris Doering, president of FPN and former UF wide receiver and UF Athletic Hall of Fame inductee.
Giving back means several things for FPN. Not only do they plan to give back to the community, but they also plan to help players off the field, be it a newly retired player or a former player or player’s family experiencing health issues. Doering spoke about mentoring as one example of this. “We want to create a natural transition for Florida players. There is an abrupt stop when your career’s over. It is difficult to know how to move into the next phase of your life, so we would like to develop a mentor program to connect newly retired players with those who have made that transition,” said Doering.
FPN was the brainchild of former UF and NFL football player, Terry Jackson. He said his inspiration came from a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” Jackson felt that players are great on the field; when they finish they still want and need that connection, and want to do well in serving others.
During their visit, the players toured the hospital’s facilities including the pediatric emergency room, pediatric intensive care unit and the neonatal intensive care unit. They learned about the patients and the circumstances that have led them to the hospital for treatment.
“It is ironic because the kids and the doctors are the real heroes – and they look up to guys like us,” said Telly Concepcion, former UF player and CEO of Gator Glyss.
FPN’s inaugural event culminated during the Orange and Blue game’s halftime show when it presented Shands Hospital for Children at UF with a $5,000 donation. The funds will help expand the infusion center in the hospital’s immunocompromised unit, which is where children come to get treatment for cancer.
Scott Rivkees, M.D., chair and professor of pediatrics at the UF College of Medicine, said the donated funds will “buy more than chairs, they will buy lives.”