Shrine visit shines a two-way light
Tom FitzGerald, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, January 10, 2005

Sacramento -- The yearly visit of some of college football's finest players to the Shriners Hospital for Children on Sunday was a heartwarming show of people with speed, talent and the drive to excel.

The players were pretty impressive, too.

"As much as football players may be inspiring to these kids, they are much more inspiring to us,'' Stanford defensive lineman Will Svitek said. "This is definitely a life-changing experience for us. I know I'll be back here.''

For three hours, the players in Saturday's East-West Shrine Game at SBC Park mingled and competed in games with youngsters who showed them what it really means to play hurt.

You would have been hard-pressed to find a tougher competitor in the building than 11-year-old Derek Hill of Citrus Heights (Sacramento County). Using a crutch with his left arm to support his body -- he has severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and a dislocated bilateral hip -- he beat one hulking football player after another in one-on-one basketball.

"At least I made him work for it,'' said 6-foot-3, 305-pound Tennessee offensive lineman Jason Respert, whose 2-foot height advantage was negated by Hill's startling quickness. After establishing his domination on the court, Hill announced, "I don't like football. I like basketball.''

Most of the other patients seemed to love football, and probably will a little more after this occasion. The feeling was mutual.

In words echoed by the players all afternoon, Cal tight end Garrett Cross said, "Meeting these kids makes you realize how lucky you are. You've got to respect them for going through what they've been through.''

Kids like Patricia Murray, 15, of Redding (Shasta County), who has cerebral palsy. She had just undergone surgery on her legs on her fifth time in the hospital. "She was wrenching with pain this morning,'' said her mother, Pamela. "She was so afraid she was going to miss this.''

Like Joshua Halbleib, 19, of Shingle Springs (El Dorado County), paralyzed as a result of what was thought to be a relatively simple back surgery at another hospital.

Like Andrew Hazard, 16, of Somerset (El Dorado County), who has spina bifida. Hazard still receives e-mail from former Shrine players Akbar Gbaja- Biamila of the Raiders and Mike Karney of the Saints.

Like Erika Mendoza, 11, who sustained burns on her face, hands and legs in a 1997 car accident. Among the players she was beating in air hockey was Brigham Young safety Aaron Francisco, who was well aware of the work of Shriners Hospitals long before he was chosen for this game.

Both his father and girlfriend had been treated as children at the Shriners Hospital in Hawaii, his dad for club feet and his girlfriend for a deformity in her hand. "I feel honored to be here, knowing the Shriners are doing this for the people I love and thousands of people around the world," Francisco said.

Another player from Hawaii got a warm welcome at the hospital. Alex Ghenis, 16, of Palo Alto told University of Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang, who passed for an NCAA-record 17,072 yards, that he watched the game in which Chang threw four touchdown passes to Chad Owens (another Shrine player) in a victory over Michigan State.

"The wind was blowing 40 mph with gusts up to 60,'' Ghenis recalled. Ghenis endured a spinal-cord injury in a mountain-bike accident on July 4 -- "my own little fireworks show.'' Since then, he has been out of the hospital only 10 days.