One by one, Kyle Rudolph read through the stack of letters in front of him, wiping away a steady flow of tears.
On screen, in a video entitled "Dear Kyle," those who had felt the effects of Rudolph’s contributions to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital shared their gratitude for the Minnesota Vikings tight end.
The voices spanned a wide spectrum: the parents and sister of a young boy who died from a rare genetic skin disorder. The father of a patient born with Spina Bifida. Hospital employees and nurses. Rudolph’s wife Jordan, who read a personal letter along with one sent in from former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. And Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf.
The video served to nominate the two-time Pro Bowler for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in December for his philanthropic work in the Twin Cities and dedication to bringing a sense of normalcy to patients and their families as they endure the fight of their lives.
All 32 teams nominate a player each year for the prestigious award based on their excellence on and off the field, with a focus on their impact in the community. The winner will be announced during the NFL Honors award show on Saturday.
Last March, Rudolph and Jordan opened "Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone" at Masonic Children’s Hospital. An estimated 4,000 patients, according to Jordan Rudolph, have visited the 2,500-square foot therapeutic play space designed to allow children and teens undergoing treatment the chance to relax and engage in healing outside of their hospital beds.
Rudolph’s long-standing ties to the children’s hospital have made him a staple in the Twin Cities. Since he was drafted in the second round in 2011, he has made regular visits with his teammates and family and organized annual "Holiday Huddle" parties to provide patients and their families with a brief respite from life inside the hospital.
At an early age, Rudolph was exposed to a similar reality when his brother, Casey, was diagnosed and survived a form of pediatric cancer. Rudolph's own experiences allow him to develop close bonds with families that are going through the same thing his family once did.
"It’s why we do what we do," Rudolph said. "We just want to impact these people’s lives, whether it’s the patients, the families, anyone in the Twin Cities, to be quite honest. This is home for us, and we just want to do what we can to help others, no matter what they’re struggling with."
While sifting through a series of handwritten letters on camera, Rudolph landed on one from a family close to his heart.
Rudolph formed a relationship with the Delgado family that dates back to 2015. Their adopted son, Anton, underwent treatment at Masonic Children’s Hospital for epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder.
Over the course of their visits, the young boy grew in his affinity for the Vikings and his favorite player. As relayed in a letter from his 12-year-old sister, Kenya, the joy Rudolph brought to her little brother’s life was immeasurable.
"Dear Kyle, You meant a lot to Anton, which means a lot to me.
"One of the few things that would make his day was you, and mashed potatoes.
"I don’t know how to thank you but I will keep trying until I get it right.
"I can never thank you enough! But I can thank you for being there as a friend to Anton. He really loved you. Every day at the hospital was a pain for Anton, but he always seemed happy, especially when you walked through the door."
Hours after a Thursday Night Football loss at Arizona four seasons ago, Rudolph made an early morning trip to visit the Delgado family one last time. Five days later on Dec. 15, 2015, Anton passed away. He was buried in Rudolph’s No. 82 jersey.
The tears began to flow faster, Rudolph said, when he got through three-quarters of the letters.
"I thought back to the time in the hospital, sitting there with them and for a couple hours everything was good," Rudolph said of the Delgados. "Things just stopped and time stood still for a little while. That one was hard."
Having his own children, twin girls Andersyn and Finley along with newborn son Henry, provides Rudolph with a "why" behind his efforts.
"I sit down there and I think about how strong these parents are to have the ability to go through the things that they go through," he said. "Most of them have other children to take care of and their lives have to continue on when it seems like all has stopped for one child. For me having two kids, thinking about what life would be like if we had to stop everything for one and try to make things as normal as possible."
Rudolph’s nomination comes with a $50,000 donation from the NFL to Masonic Children’s Hospital. The hospital will receive another $25,000 after Rudolph won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Challenge where he and the hashtag #WPMOY were mentioned more than any other player on social media between Dec. 6 and Jan. 13.