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  • About Jack Strickland

    Jack Strickland is a retired AP writer who was nominated by our newspaper for The Pulitzer Prize. His writing about Florida prisons, cancer victims, sports, and just plain folks is a special treasury for readers. He is active in the war against cancer. He, himself, is a survivor. As a reporter he covered many of the major stories in Florida. He lives in Gainesville where he is an advocate for cancer patients of all ages. Jack finds special joy in getting sports stars and teams involved in the care young cancer victims. He claims that the athletes benefit from the involvement as much as the patients. He says he managed to miss many tackles as a football player long ago, and learned that defeat can be temporary and serve as the foundation for success.
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    Jack Strickland's Florida Tales...

    Kids at hospital show No.1 Gator basketball team true courage as laughter, smiles are shared

    March 11, 2014

    Statewide

    By Jack Strickland

    The number one nationally ranked Florida Gators basketball team faced two daunting challenges last week, one of them unknown to sportscasters.

    They destroyed perennial powerhouse Kentucky on the basketball court on Saturday afternoon.

    But earlier that week they brought smiles to the faces of another audience facing a battle even harder than the one the team faced.

    Yes, everyone knows they played before a sellout crowd at the O’ Dome and a national television audience.

    At game’s end the Gators climbed a ladder to cut down the nets signifying a championship season. This year they went undefeated in the SEC. No team has done that since Kentucky did it in the 1950’s.

    Sports commentators on major networks raved about the Gators stellar performance.

    Little did they know that the Gators’ best performance of the week occurred two days earlier, without fanfare or media attention, on Thursday evening. That’s when members of the basketball team visited the pediatric floor at Shands Hospital.

    They brightened the hospital stay of very sick children. It’s part of the Florida Athletic Association’s program of giving back to the community. The media was not notified or invited. Publicity and personal glory was not the objective of the team visit with the kids at Shands.

    Every patient visited was different. The team was greeted by a variety of responses from the kids and their families. One thing was constant. For a few minutes the children and their caregivers were transported to a happy world far away from the hospital routine of needles, painful physical therapy, and medicines.

    One little girl from Tallahassee recognized the Gators when they appeared at the door of her hospital room. She is the only Gator fan in a family of dedicated Florida State Seminoles. She was on the phone talking to her father in Tallahassee when the Gators arrived. In the excitement she accidentally hung up on her dad.

    For several minutes star college athletes and a shy young girl facing tough medical challenges laughed together and clowned around. They joined forces and teamed up as they teased the girl’s mother and got a tentative acknowledgement that she really likes the Gators, too.

    The patient lamented accidentally hanging up on her father in the excitement. She wanted him to know the Gators are her friends and they were there with her and her mother in her hospital room.

    Someone suggested she call him back. With a giggle, she dialed the number and put the phone on Skype so she could see her father and he could see her.

    When he answered she told her father some friends were there who wanted to say something to him. She focused the camera on the Gator basketball team. On cue they did the Gator Chomp and yelled, “Go Gators!” The uproarious laughter of the girl and her mother drowned out the shocked stammers and stutters of the stunned father.

    The family said they would watch the Gators play Kentucky in the televised game on Saturday.

    All three promised to be tuned in pulling for the Gators to win it all.

    The Stephen C. O’Connell Center was packed to capacity on Saturday when the Kentucky Wildcats came to town. The sound was deafening as the partisan crowd cheered on the Florida Gators.

    In my mind’s eye I could hear the gleeful giggles and uproarious laughter that came from the pediatric floor at Shands Hospital when the Gators visited.

    In my memory, that exhilarating sound trumps the roar of the crowd coming from the arena. It is fun to visualize hospital bound kids glued to their televisions as they cheer on their new friends on he Gator basketball team. With inspirational friends like that the ordeal of hospitalization is lessened.

    And, the Gator athletes also drew inspiration from their hospital visit. Teenage patients who are basketball fans were asked to share with the team things that helped them in their battle against medical issues. Could they give the team any pointers that might help the Gators be victorious against Kentucky on Saturday?

    The kids offered a variety of suggestions. Never, never give up. Play through the pain. Remember you are not alone, it’s a team effort-trust and rely on your teammates. Always think positive.

    Coach Billy Donovan might want to make the “Shands Kids” volunteer coaches. They just might inspire the #1 team in the country to play its best through March Madness on the way to winning the national championship. Clearly, the mutual admiration society formed between the kids and the athletes inspire both to meet their challenges they face on the court and at the hospital.

    Saturday was Senior Day at the O’Connell Center as four Gator seniors, who are starters on this year’s team, were saluted as they played their final game before the Gator home crowd at the O Dome. 

    Coach Donovan said the 2014 team may be the best he has coached. He saluted the seniors for their outstanding performance both on and off the court. He said all four will graduate and have become well rounded citizens during their college years. He pointed out that the four had grown up together in college and had formed a bond of love with the school and community. He said they will take it with them as they move on to the NBA and professional basketball.

    The four seniors seemed to demonstrate that truth at the end of the post game victory celebration with several thousand fans who stayed to savor every moment of the joy. After the nets had been cut down and the victory speeches had been given, the four seniors marched in unison to center court, knelt down on their hands and knees, and kissed the Gator logo on the hardwood. 

    Shands Kids everywhere, who are spread far and wide after their hospital discharge, can claim partial credit for helping shape these college athletes into the well-rounded, dedicated citizens they have become.

    Over their four years in college, as the athletes visited and brightened the lives of the hospitalized kids, they were inspired by the kid’s courageous battles against long odds. The kids left their mark on the world class athletes.

    And the kids? They have been known to grow stronger at the broken places and brag that All-Americans are their friends who visited them at Shands hospital . . . and they have autographs to prove it.