BOSTON -- New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski walked into a room at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center on Tuesday, and after about 10 minutes, it sounded like two old pals were catching up.
One of them was 15-year-old Drew Celli of Stoneham, Massachusetts, who aspires to be a sports reporter and is currently fighting cancer. The other was the 32-year-old Gostkowski, a surgical mask over his face and a yellow gown over his Patriots T-shirt.
“You could tell, he’s a mega-fan. He knew a lot about a lot when it came to football. It was fun to talk to him about the season, and next year,” said Gostkowski, who at one point apologized for the team’s loss in the AFC Championship Game and said there’s always next year.
“Him and his dad were in a fantasy league and he was telling me how I won the game in New York [against the Giants] but I made him lose his fantasy game that week because it was a 50-yarder and they count for extra points in fantasy. Just stuff like that; he was just talking about how much he loves sports around the town, which this is the best sports environment I’ve ever been in in this city. It’s just cool, because fans are great. We win together, we lose together. To get to hang around with the fans who truly care about us, it’s a blessing.”
The connection between athletes on Boston’s professional sports teams and the city’s hospitals has long been a strong one, and Gostkowski’s visit Tuesday was reflective of it.
“It’s always cool to meet athletes, especially the Patriots, because I’m a big fan,” said the personable Celli, whose parents named him after former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. “Stephen is a cool guy, one of the best kickers in the league. He was real.”
The conversation between Celli and Gostkowski almost sounded like an interview at times, as Celli asked Gostkowski several questions and they discussed what it’s like to kick in the NFL, and then their families and friends.
As the scene unfolded, one hospital official relayed that he had never seen a professional athlete engage a patient for as long as Gostkowski did, as he had to be told to move on to the next room. Gostkowski spent the next two hours at the hospital, going door to door. He caught footballs from 8-year-old Yan Perez-Garcia. He said it was tough to watch the Super Bowl. And he told another patient that he’s always believed athletes learn more about themselves through defeat and hard times.
That’s what Gostkowski endured after the Patriots’ crushing AFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, when his missed extra point ended up leading to the team having to go for a two-point conversion late in the game. The attempt failed.
Gostkowski was in good spirits Tuesday, saying he is always hard on himself, and that a few days after the loss to the Broncos, he found himself in a better place mentally.
Now the second-longest-tenured Patriots player (behind Tom Brady), entering his 11th season, Gostkowski discussed why it’s important for him to make time to visits hospitals like he did Tuesday.
“This has been my home for 10 years, I’ve been here just as long as anywhere else, and I feel connected to New England, and being able to visit some kids and families that are going through a tough time and to share some stories and laugh, and put a smile on both of our faces, it’s very rewarding,” he said.
“It’s one of the perks of the status of being in the limelight. It’s not always fun to be in the limelight, but in situations like this, it’s a blast to visit and see how strong and inspirational kids can be when they have cancer or an illness. That’s real problems, not football-related problems. So it definitely helps put life and things into perspective.”
Gostkowski reflected on his college days at Memphis, when players on the baseball and football teams regularly visited St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
“It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. I just like talking. I’m like a big kid at heart; I like to play with toys, and games, and play sports,” he said. “Having kids of my own, I would like for someone to do that for me, so that’s why I like to come out and do it.”
When Gostkowski first arrived in New England as a fourth-round draft choice, he was single and tapped to replace the legendary Adam Vinatieri. Now he’s married and has two children, with a third on the way.
Thus, his perspective on hospital visits like Tuesday’s has evolved over time.
“It’s heart-wrenching to see families have to deal with their kids being sick. You try your best to protect your kids, but sometimes it’s out of your hands,” he said. “That’s why it’s so inspirational to see how tough they are, and the family support, and then the hospital staff -- the nurses, the doctors, how much they take care of the kids, because they have so much to live for.
“It’s very inspirational to see them fight, smile, and still do their schoolwork, and their good friends can see them and [see how they] get on with their day and have a positive outlook on life when things don’t always seem to be going their way. You can learn a lot from kids.”