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October 26, 2012

Giving back, receiving more

A five year old boy named Peyton Bard lay waiting in a hospital, recovering from open heart surgery. Waiting for what, only he can know and at five years old, maybe he'll never remember.

Waiting. For six days.

To go home? For the pain to subside? To finally stop feeling scared?

Or maybe he just waited for something far more simple, like the next popsicle from a kind nurse, or the next time one of his parents walked through his door.

But that was the other five days of his hospital visit. On this day, one of the worst things to have ever happened to him in his young life was about to countered by one of the best. On Peyton's sixth and final day at Primary Children's Medical Hospital, Peyton was set to receive a very special group of visitors.

Tuesday, September 11 was a classic early fall day in Utah, complete with the state's two biggest rivals preparing to battle for in-state supremacy that week.

In the aftermath of the Utes' stunning loss to Utah State just a few days earlier, and in the midst of BYU rivalry week preparations, Peyton's favorite player, Utah linebacker Brian Blechen, along with a handful of other Ute football players were scheduled to visit him in his hospital room that day.

Peyton, named for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, was born to two obviously huge football fans in parents Mark and Misty, who are also two of the biggest Utah fans around. With football a central part of his family's life, Peyton, even at his young age, came to love the game, and the Utes.

The Bard family joked about Peyton's tough-minded, football player type attitude, despite his smaller frame.

"Peyton is tiny, but he thinks that he's like this huge guy. He is always tackling his older brother," said Peyton's mother, Misty. "As long as I can remember, he could just text-book tackle. He just lowers his shoulder and tackles, so we've just always called him our little linebacker. He's always saying that he's going to tackle the Ute football players when he sees them."

Tackling anybody would be a tall order for Peyton, who suffers a rare heart condition that has ailed him all of his young life.

Knowing all along that he would someday get the opportunity to meet his favorite players, that day had finally arrived for Peyton.

As the players were set to come following practice that evening, Peyton waited all day for his guests to arrive. In preparation, he asked his parents to bring his youth-sized Utah football jersey to the hospital to be signed by the visiting Utes. According to mom, her son also spent the day trying to get his head around the guy with the "funny name" who would also accompany Blechen that day.

"He was so excited all day long the day they were supposed to come," said Peyton's mother, Misty. "He kept trying to say DeVonte [Christopher]'s name, and laughing at what a funny name it was."

Misty contacted Blechen and Christopher on Facebook to try and line up the visit.

"We knew [Peyton]'s surgery was coming up, and we knew how happy he would be if somehow the players could come," she said. "So I just got on Facebook, and sent them e-mail, and I didn't know if it would work, or they would really come, but I just thought 'why not give it a try?'"

Christopher, who was the first Ute to contact Misty, recalls the day he got her message.

"I saw her e-mail, and I was like, of course I'm going to go see him. Five years old and having open heart surgery? That's big. That's rough for just a little guy," he said. "So I just knew for sure that was something I was going to do. If there was anything I could do to help cheer him up, I was all about that."

Indeed, Christopher and his teammates did help cheer Peyton up.

Not only did Blechen and Christopher agree to make the visit, they told the Bards that they were going to bring some other Ute players along for the visit.

"I'm a big fan, and everything so I would have been excited about whoever they brought up. But I thought they would bring some scout team guys up, or something," Misty joked. "So it was just so amazing when Jon Hays and Travis Wilson walked in the door. I was so surprised. At the time, we didn't know who our starting quarterback was going to be, and the next thing I know, here they both are in my son's hospital room."

Visitors to the hospital must go through a check-in process, and receive a visitor's badge before they are allowed access. As junior Brian Blechen already volunteers his time at the hospital, he arrived to Peyton's room first.

"I knew him and his family were going through a tough time, so I was excited to go up and try to help out in any way that I could," explained Blechen. "I just brought him up some Ute Under Armour wrist bands and stuff, and I could tell he was excited, even though he was shy."

Shortly after Blechen arrived, Christopher arrived with Hays and Wilson in tow, and also bearing gifts.

"DeVonte, Jon and Travis walk in, and they've got this huge thing of balloons for Peyton. It was just so amazing that they came, and then spent their own money in the gift shop to buy him all this stuff," Misty recalled the day that Ute football players brightened her son's hospital experience. "They didn't even have to come, and I was so grateful that they did. The stuff they brought him was just extra. It was very cool. It was so amazing."

In addition to the balloons, the gracious Ute players brought Peyton all kinds of coloring and activity books, crayons and stickers and similar things they thought could keep him busy during his recovery.

"We just wanted to give him something that was fun to play with. We wanted to cheer him up, and so we just brought some of that kind of stuff with us," senior quarterback Jon Hays said.

Normally a vocal and outgoing little boy, Peyton was extremely shy when his visitors arrived, despite the excitement he had displayed all day as he awaited their arrival. Doctors had told the Bards that children can often fall into a depression after a major surgery like the one he had just endured.

"He was so shy that he didn't even talk to them at first. He was like all the way across the bed, under his blanket. The players were so good with him and tried to get him out of his shell," said Mom. "Finally, DeVonte had enough of his shyness, and just grabbed the Cars stickers and started playing with him, and being silly."

Christopher also recalled the moment.

"He was just super shy, under his blankets. He loves [the movie] Cars, and those were the stickers that we brought him. So I just grabbed those stickers and as soon as he saw that I had them, I guess he liked that and got excited, and started playing," he said.

As a gift from someone else, Peyton had received a new pair of slippers during his stay at the hospital, and after his visit from Ute players, they may be his favorite possession.

"I got the stickers and grabbed a pair of slippers [Peyton] had, and just started putting them on, Christopher said. "So we decorated them together and he was pretty happy, and came out of his shell. It was cool."

"When we got home, Peyton kept telling me, 'mom, we've got to keep the stickers on my slippers!', said Peyton's mom.

After roughly 30 minutes, several gifts given, and even more photos taken, the players wrapped up their visit with the grateful Bard family.

"They stayed for maybe about half an hour, but I think they would have stayed longer," Mrs. Bard said. "But the time that they were there, they were so nice and so great to Peyton, and all of us. It was such a good day for him. I remember that Brian [Blechen] told us that they were going to win Saturday, and they did. It was amazing."

For the visiting Ute players, the sentiment was about the same.

"Doing this kind of thing is kind of my joy outside of football. My grandmother ran a homeless ministry for about the last 30 years, and I spent my life there helping people out," said an obviously touched Christopher as he recalled his experiences. "Since I was little, that's just what we did. Playing football, and being an athlete, my grandmother told me that it was a blessing and an opportunity to use my place in life to help people."

"Things have definitely been rough [this season] and doing something like this just helps me keep everything in perspective," Christopher continued. "I might be struggling on the football field right now, and I'll only wear this jersey five more times in my life, but that's just temporary, it's not permanent. I think of people out there, kids, who might never see, or walk again, or whatever might be wrong in their lives and they can't change it. It's forever, it's permanent. When you think of that, it puts your own problems back into perspective.

Each of the four players acknowledged how such an experience can help keep events in their own lives in perspective, and how powerful that notion is.

"I haven't really been here that long, but everyone here [in Utah] has been so good to me, and so supportive. They've embraced me," explained Wilson. "So to be able to give back to the community, and become a part of it is just a really big thing for me. It was really cool going up to see him and his family. They're really big Ute fans, so it was just big."

"This is just a chance to use what we do to give back to the community, and we're lucky that we just get the chance to go out and do something like this," said a thoughtful Hays. "Way more important than football, or anything else, to get a chance to help out a kid, whose sick, and his family who's worried or stressed is always a good thing. It helps keep you focused on the things that are really important."

For Blechen, who sat out the first three games of the season due a suspension for violation of team rules, volunteering to work with kids was something he actively sought out. Looking initially for a way to "change my focus and outlook", what he got in return was infinitely more powerful and rewarding.

"We come out here and work hard, then we go home and do our school work and watch more film, and maybe you lose track of everything else," he said. "This is just a way to reach out to people and kind of get a different perspective that kind of changes everything. To be able to do this, it's awesome. I can't explain it."

The impact of working with kids, and especially kids in some kind of need is inexplicable, indeed.

Long before the Bards reached out to him to visit their son, Blechen had been volunteering at Primary Children's Hospital, helping and visiting sick children and their families since the summer of 2012.

Once a week, every week. The visits haven't stopped since the start of the football season, either.

"It's changed me. Volunteering has changed my life in almost every way, everything from how I look at things to managing my time," he explained. "I've had to learn even more how to prioritize my time, and it's a struggle to manage everything so that I can go up there once a week. I've learned so much, and it's been big for me. It's more than worth it, and I feel like I get more out of it than maybe they do."


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