I was just baffled. They brought out the cake and everything. It was pretty awesome.” Hutchings' birthday: a Thursday, two days before the Red River Shootout with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. "They were leaving out that Thursday afternoon to go to Texas,” Hutchings said. "Adrian Peterson was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week before. And he brought him up there. "One of the biggest games of the year — always. I totally couldn't believe it.”
The players, they laugh and they howl.
And they connect, so much so that they end up coming back, too.
A list of OU players who have joined Stoops for room tours at Children's Hospital would be lengthy.
"I'd ride up there with coach Stoops,” Gutierrez said. "He knew each of the kids by name, and that really impressed me. He'd sit there and talk to them for a little while. And not just the kids, but the parents. It's a hard time for the parents, too.
"It was great to see that kind of a person and to play for that kind of a person. I'll always take that and know that no matter how busy you get or how famous you get, there's always time for other people.”
Pass it on.
"The neat thing is watching him bring his players and teach them how to be a good person, too,” McNall said.
"I always say I'm not a big football fan, but I'm a huge Bob Stoops fan because of all he does.”
Passing it onThat first pep rally evolved into an annual event around Christmas. Now the tradition involves sending the Sooners off to their bowl destination. The children make banners and perform cheers. They present awards and "bowl rings” — candy ring pops and light-up rings — and even hand-made trophies. One year, there was an Orange Bowl trophy made with plastic fruit.
Building a connectionTangner often shadows Stoops on his trips to Children's Hospital, shooting pictures to present to the patients and their families. She keeps copies, too. And there are enough to fill several bulky photo albums, the images capturing the bond between Stoops and the children. Forget, she said, that Stoops is a popular football coach. That may get their attention. But there must be something special to maintain it and create a connection. "They can be in the dumps, because they're up there in the bone marrow unit, there for several weeks at a time,” said Tangner, who has seen a lot in 15 years of serving at the hospital. "And he can walk in and you can just see it. You can feel it. "And the parents are just so grateful, because you'll do anything for your kid to just feel better.” Stoops might toss a football in one room, play dolls in another. Mostly, he just talks. About stuff. Kid stuff. And, sometimes, he plays coach, too. "That's what he tells the kids in the bone marrow clinic. He walks in, and he knows them all by name. ‘You've got to keep it up. You've got to stay strong. You've got to keep fighting.' ” McNall sees the struggles every day. She works on the front line, where disease wages an unfair war with kids. Disease too often wins. Bob Stoops can't beat that. But he can provide reinforcement. "Honestly, it gives them something positive to look forward to, to do,” McNall said, "someone special who is special to a lot of people, who thinks of them as special. "I had one kid who told me, ‘Except for this cancer thing, this has been the best year of my life.' ”
Making memoriesThe rooms and halls of Children's Hospital are filled with stories. Some heart wrenching. Some uplifting. Stories of pain and suffering and sacrifice. Of loss. And conquest. There are Sooner stories, too, involving Stoops and his players. There's the tale of little Kaci McGee, who at the age of 4 would watch an entire OU football game just to see Stoops. And she referred to him as, "My Coach Stoops,” which she'd repeat over and over as she followed him from room to room at the hospital. There was the funeral for Justin Scott, a teenager who lost a battle with a bad form of leukemia, where no black clothing was allowed, only crimson and cream. Where Stoops and several players served as pall bearers. "It's not a little thing he does,” McNall said. Said Tangner: "I can't tell you how many times I go and there's the football that he's signed, right by the casket. Or in the slide show, there he is with them. And how much it means to the families.” There was Stoops last December, sad that he would have to miss the annual pep rally because he was due to have shoulder surgery the same day. And there was Stoops, on the arm of his wife Carol, showing up still groggy from the procedure. "Who would have come straight from surgery?” Tangner said. "It had to mean something to him.” And what about Hutchings, now 21 and a junior at OU, beating cancer. Stoops still meets with him two or three times a semester, just to have lunch and check in. "He gave me his cell phone number and told me to call if I ever needed anything,” Hutchings said. And there's Kourtlyn Uzoma, who died last spring. When he was too sick to attend the Miami game he so wanted to see last fall, Kourtlyn was presented with a game ball, signed by all the seniors. "That game ball is in my house,” his father, Clement, said through tears, "and every day I see it. Bob Stoops came into our life, and I look at him as a Christian man, then secondly as a coach. "My son for the last two years was in the hospital. Bob Stoops came every week to see him. I can remember when it got to the point Kourtlyn couldn't talk, they would bump hands. "I don't know how to describe Bob Stoops except to say he's an angel. An angel God sent to visit all these kids.”
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How to help
Inspired by Bob Stoops? Or just want to help and don't know how? One of the critical issues facing patients with cancer and other illnesses is the need for bone marrow transplants. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, only 30 percent of patients in need of marrow or blood cell transplants find a match within their family. The other 70 percent may turn to the NMDP to search for an unrelated donor. For information on becoming a potential donor, or to make a monetary contribution, visit www.marrow.org.