Kyle Rudolph received a distressing message on the way to the airport after a late-night loss at Arizona in 2015.
A 5-year-old boy he had befriended was dying. His parents thought the Vikings tight end should know, and they wanted to thank him for his love and support.
The team plane landed before dawn. Rudolph raced home, hoping to find a gift for Anton — something Vikings-related if possible, because his little friend had become a huge fan. The only thing Rudolph had was his Pro Bowl jersey, the one he wore in winning MVP honors.
At 6 a.m., Rudolph walked into Anton Delgado’s room at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Rudolph gave him his Pro Bowl jersey with a message written on it: “From a Pro Bowl MVP to a real life MVP.”
Rudolph stayed with the family for several hours, his final visit before Anton died of complications while being treated for a rare genetic condition in December of that year.
“Kyle entered a really sacred space,” said Anton’s mother, Vanessa. “He knew we had no idea when Anton was going to pass away. It could have been when he was in the room. He still was willing to enter into that space because it meant so much to Anton and so much to our family. It brightened our day in the hardest week of our lives.”
Rudolph and his wife, Jordan, sat behind the family at Anton’s memorial service and then waited afterward to hug his parents.
“We truly feel blessed to have the opportunity to know that family and to take something from the strength that they showed through those tough times,” Kyle said.
His community involvement will be Rudolph’s legacy long after his football career is complete. Known for his large catch radius as a jumbo-sized tight end, Rudolph’s philanthropic work shows that his heart radius is infinitely larger. He has partnerships or works closely with numerous charities and organizations, most of them focused on kids.
He and Jordan personally donated $250,000 to help fund a 2,500-square foot playroom at Masonic Children’s Hospital called “Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone.” The space, which serves as a temporary getaway for patients and their families, includes a basketball hoop, sports simulator, kitchen and lounge.
The Rudolphs met with corporations throughout the Twin Cities to ask for their financial assistance in building the End Zone. They raised more than $2 million.
Vikings players nominated Rudolph for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award last season. He was an easy choice.
“I think you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t use the platform that we have to impact these kids’ lives,” he said.
Rudolph is carrying a torch passed down from former Vikings players who took an active and visible role in community involvement, particularly at the children’s hospital. There was Steve Hutchinson, then John Sullivan, then Chad Greenway.
“Kyle always says, ‘I want kids and people to look up to me and if I’m only great on the football field, that doesn’t say a whole lot about me and my character,’ ” Jordan said.
On the field, his career has been both productive and marked by change. He has gone to two Pro Bowls, played in three different home stadiums, had four different offensive coordinators and will have caught passes from 10 different quarterbacks once he connects with Kirk Cousins in a game.
In that dizzying seven-year span, he has also been on teams that finished 3-13 and 13-3.
“We’ve been through pretty much everything here except for a championship,” he said. “That’s the last thing on our list and we want to make sure we’re a part of that.”
He hopes to play his entire career with the Vikings, in part because of the connection he and his wife feel to the community through their charity work.
The Rudolphs host holiday parties at the hospital for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they also wanted to do something more unique.
“With the last name Rudolph, the guy loves Christmas,” Jordan said, smiling. “I have more Rudolph figurines than I know what to do with.”
A brainstorming session produced an idea that has become their favorite event: A trip to the North Pole.
Thirty pediatric patients and their families arrive at the airport and board a private jet. The window shades are pulled down. Elves tell the kids to close their eyes, shake jingle bells and believe.
The plane then taxis to a different hangar that has been decorated to resemble the North Pole. The kids are treated to a festive party. Their reaction is unforgettable.
“It’s so magical,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph’s younger brother was diagnosed with cancer as an infant, so he understands the power of compassion. He tries to provide more than a fleeting moment in their journey.
“These families will tell him things that they won’t even tell their own doctor or family members about what they’re going through and the pain that their feeling,” said Nick Engbloom, the hospital’s director of development for community partnerships. “Kyle, in return, becomes very close to people.”
Rudolph and his wife make unscheduled visits to check on patients and families. No cameras, no attention. They go because they care. Jordan often gives parents her cell number so they can call her anytime.
“They leave a mark on us,” Jordan said. “I feel good that a mom at the hospital can reach out to me when she just needs a shoulder.”
Nearly three years after Anton’s death, the Delgado family remains close with the NFL couple.
“We will always share a special bond with the Rudolphs and could never thank them enough for what they did, not only for our sweet boy but for our whole family,” Vanessa Delgado said.
Vanessa and husband Jason adopted Anton from Russia when he was 2. They knew about his serious health condition. They hoped to give him a better chance at life.
The family lives in Texas but relocated to the Twin Cities for 10 months while Anton underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Their son and Rudolph hit it off instantly when they met.
Anton loved Kyle’s big muscles. Kyle loved Anton’s spunky personality. They made each other laugh.
“He would light up the room,” Rudolph said.
Anton told people he had two best friends: His nurse and Rudolph.
On their final visit, Anton was weak but managed to open his eyes and smile when he heard Rudolph’s voice. He knew his best friend was there.
Anton died two days later. He was buried in a Kyle Rudolph Vikings jersey.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org