Andy Dalton helping children and their families cope during trying times

CINCINNATI -- Twenty-one-month-old Brianna Fleckinger had no idea who Andy Dalton was.

Neither did many of her peers, who were running around a small space at Kings Island amusement park playing a spirited game of duck, duck, goose one recent Sunday afternoon. None of them had any idea what Dalton's postseason interception total was, nor did they know about his struggles during prime-time games.

At that particular moment, their focus was on the random big kid with bright red hair who had quietly tiptoed into their circle, waiting to be the goose who chased another kid around it.

"I can tell you every parent knew who he was and they had their cameras out and were pointing and laughing and smiling. Some of them had tears in their eyes. They will never forget that moment," said Ria Davidson, co-founder of the Dragonfly Foundation, a Cincinnati-based group that specializes in providing children who have pediatric cancers and their families opportunities to be distracted from the daily toll the diseases can take. With September being Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, the group has an important couple of weeks ahead.

"A year from now, five years from now, they will say a Bengal -- not just any Bengal, Andy Dalton -- took the time to make them smile and really made them feel like a king for a day," Davidson said.

The next day, Brianna, who has Stage 3 neuroblastoma, underwent surgery to remove her tumor.

Few NFL players are as criticized as Dalton, a Pro Bowl quarterback who has led the franchise to an unparalleled four straight playoff berths to begin his career. Much like he told ESPN last month, Dalton said during his Wednesday news conference that while he hears the complaints about his play and lack of postseason success (0-4), he hardly lets it faze him.

That's in part because he has a broader off-field mission that has him keeping proper perspective on life, football and what it truly means to be a winner.

Dalton first gained that perspective in 2009, when he was heading into his junior season at TCU. That spring, Presley Boydstun, the preteen granddaughter of Dalton's first college quarterbacks coach, the late Dick Winder, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"I had gotten her number and I'd randomly send her a text saying, 'Hey, I hope you're doing well,' " Dalton said. "We'd have random conversations and [Winder would] always say, 'You have no idea the impact that you're having on her.' "

In time, Presley got better and the cancer went into remission. But Dalton's experiences inspired him and his wife when they started their foundation four years ago.

The Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation's mission has been to bring happiness to families with children who have serious medical conditions. Their outreach includes events like the 250-person "King for a Day" initiative at Kings Island and the "Date Night" program that allows parents to drop off their kids for a night of games and activities while the parents partake in an all-expenses-paid private dinner date. For the Daltons, the goal is to provide families like the Fleckingers with positive distractions.

"That ["King for a Day" event] felt like the vacation we were supposed to get," said Brianna's mother, Kassandra Fleckinger. The family had to cancel a previously scheduled vacation after Brianna was diagnosed in April with the same pediatric cancer that 5-year-old Leah Still, daughter of former Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, overcame this past year.

The day they met the Daltons, Fleckinger, husband Gregory and their healthy 5-year-old son, Gavin, they had the heavy burden on their shoulders temporarily lifted. The parents weren't thinking about bills that needed to be paid. The anxiety and fear that has been such a staple of their everyday lives had faded. Gavin was content and Brianna had a chance to see something other than a hospital room.

"I know some people from Cincinnati are not huge fans of [Dalton] or anything, but I don't even care," said Fleckinger, a native of nearby Independence, Kentucky, and a lifelong Bengals fan. "This guy, he's got such a great heart. To be there with the kids, it's a great organization that they have. When you're going through a time like this, even just one day, it feels like you're taking a week's vacation. He's totally humble and down to earth. You can tell they have a very caring family."

Doctors have told the Fleckingers they believe Brianna's cancer is in remission, but they are awaiting test results.

Dalton said stories like that of the Fleckingers, along with the June 2014 birth of his first child, Noah, have made him proud of his off-field project.

"For these parents to have kids that are going through stuff, it's got to be so tough knowing that you have no control over what all's going on with them," Dalton said. "It makes me feel for the parents. It makes me feel for the kids who some just have no idea what they're dealing with and why it has to be that way."

Still knows this all too well.

"It is something that you have to see firsthand [to believe]," Still said. "You can hear about pediatric cancer all the time, but you will never understand what it's like unless you walk in those shoes or if you're really close to somebody who does."

Davidson credited the Daltons for helping to focus attention on the plight that children with cancer and their families face.

"People are pretty much shielded from pediatric cancer," Davidson said. "Unless you live with these families day to day, you don't see it. The fear of losing your job because you have to be away, or the worry that you have because you can't be at your patient's bedside because you don't have enough gas money to get to and from the hospital every day. As a whole, the dialogue about a cure has been very strong. Everybody wants a cure and cancer awareness is probably at an all-time high.

"But pediatric cancer awareness still doesn't get nearly the amount of support that it should."

Dalton is doing his part to change that.