Lineman forms special bond

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Her hands are dwarfed by his, but there's something about Faith Falzon's tiny fingers resting in the calloused palm of Patrick Omameh that just looks right.

He's a Michigan football player. She's a patient at the university's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. He's a college graduate. She attends first grade when her illness allows.

They seemingly couldn't be more different. But in an odd and perfect way, they just fit. Omameh could care less about dolls and nail polish, but when he's visiting with Falzon, it matters. And Falzon doesn't care much for football, but she wants to know how practice was and whether the line is playing well.

They met when Omameh was visiting Mott on Thursday nights as a part of "Michigan From the Heart," a program that brings volunteer student-athletes into the hospital to visit sick patients.

Falzon was very sick. It had been more than two years since she had been diagnosed with hyperganglionosis, an incurable disease that keeps her body from absorbing nutrients or fluids like a normal child. A simple cold or cough can put Falzon in the hospital for days or weeks as her body dehydrates itself.

"It's easy to take things for granted," Omameh said. "But you see the struggles she's going through ... they're so much more profound. You look at yours and realize what you're going through isn't that big."

This year, Falzon has been in the hospital more than she has been out. She has had several surgeries, including one to remove most of her colon. She has lived life with a colostomy bag hidden under her sweater or dress. She has missed school and birthday parties and holidays.

She hasn't been able to be a 6-year-old -- except on Thursday nights, when Omameh and the rest of the athletes visit.

"She forgets she's sick," said Mary Ann Bell, Falzon's mother. "She forgets she's stuck in a hospital room. She forgets that this is not the best way to be living life, simply because these kids come up and they act like she is the most important thing in their world."

In 2008, then-Michigan offensive line coach Greg Frey required his freshman offensive linemen to do Thursday night hospital visits during the first month of the season. After those four visits, it was up to the player himself whether he wanted to continue.

So there was Omameh, five weeks into his freshman season, eating dinner at Schembechler Hall on a Thursday night when junior David Moosman passed his table.

"What are you doing tonight?" Moosman asked.

"I don't know," Omameh said. "Going back to the dorms."

"No, you're not," Moosman said. "Get in my car."

Omameh cited homework, a nap, a TV show as excuses for why he couldn't go.

"Get in my car," Moosman commanded. "Now."

Michigan From the Heart

Howard "Michigan From the Heart" was started in 1991 when Eddie Boullion -- whose daughter Shannon was hospitalized with osteogenic sarcoma -- saw how a Make-A-Wish visit from soon-to-be Heisman winner Desmond Howard changed the atmosphere at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital on the University of Michigan campus. The morale of patients, doctors, nurses and hospital staff improved.

Student-athletes had made visits to staff but never to patients. So Boullion organized a meeting with the athletic department, hospital outreach and families of long-term patients. He wanted to bring student-athletes in on a more consistent basis.

From Juwan Howard to Jimmy King to Brian Griese, student-athletes have sustained the program for 21 years, visiting children in the hospital every Thursday evening.

-- Chantel Jennings

Three years and countless visits later, Omameh met Falzon.

At first Falzon was shy around the athletes, but when Omameh visited for the first time Bell saw her daughter light up immediately.

Faith asked Omameh's name, age, height and finally what sport he played.

"Tennis," he responded.

It was the pair's first inside joke, one they laugh at to this day. Omameh will tell patients that he's a top-ranked tennis player and Falzon, stone-faced, will defend him. She'll claim she has seen him play and when other patients see him on TV on Saturdays and ask why he's on the sideline at the football game she'll respond, "Oh, he helps them out sometimes with random stuff here and there."

From there, the friendship grew. This fall, when Falzon was allowed to participate sparingly in sports, she chose flag football. She wasn't big enough to play on the offensive line, so she chose wide receiver, "a smart choice" according to Omameh.

He'd ask about her doll (the most recent is Caroline Sunshine) and her new winter boots before saying, "I really need to get myself a pair of those."

Omameh is, and has been, a constant source of laughter and hope for Falzon.

"If we're there and they tell us she won't be discharged, the first thing she says is, 'Well, at least I get to see Patrick and the athletes,' " Bell said.

And sometimes, seeing them is all she's able to do. When she's at her sickest, Faith is on "contact precautions," meaning the only people allowed in the room are those deemed as essential: doctors, nurses, parents.

On those days, Omameh ropes up several football players to stand outside the window and have dance competitions.

Faith will say Omameh is the best dancer, with a bit of bias, but defensive lineman Craig Roh and safety Jordan Kovacs aren't far behind.

"He has a gift," Boullion said of Omameh. "Some people have a gift to be a quarterback. Some people have a gift to be a speaker. He has a gift with kids. ... There isn't a kid in that hospital that doesn't want to see Patrick when he's there."

In October, Omameh was recognized for that gift.

During a usual Thursday visit, he was surprised with a ceremony for being named to the 2012 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. Faith and her mom were there as Omameh graciously accepted the award.

"Mom, does this mean he's an awesome football player?" Faith asked as the cameras swarmed Omameh and his trophy.

Bell explained that Omameh was being recognized for how important he was to the hospital, how he'd been able to be a good football player and a good person.

"I'm so glad I'm not the only person who knows that," Faith said.

Shortly after, Faith put in her wish to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She submitted three options and was told to be as big of a dreamer as she could be. First, she wished to meet Olympic gold medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas. Second was to meet Miranda Cosgrove, star of the Nickelodeon show "iCarly."

But her third wish is what she's hoping most to have granted. She wants to play a tennis match against Omameh.

"She could have anything in the world," Bell said. "She wanted that most."

"Well," Faith said, "it is his sport."