By Greg Ostendorf
ATLANTA -- Deshaun Davis and his new friend Jesse, an Alabama fan, were in the midst of an intense Connect Four game last week at Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta. The stakes were high. If Davis won, Jesse had to say `War Eagle.' But if Jesse won, the Auburn linebacker had to utter the other two words.
The two went back-and-forth before eventually, all Davis had to do was one put in more piece and the game was over. Before he could do it, Jesse cleared the board. He wasn't ready to accept defeat, and he certainly didn't want to have to say `War Eagle.'
"Come on Mr. Bama," Davis said.
So Jesse, wearing a pair of Alabama slippers, said "War Eagle" in a room full of Auburn players. He'd later admit that he'd be rooting for the Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
"We shared a good little moment," Davis said. "That's something I'll always remember."
Jesse was one of a handful of kids from the hospital who spent time with the players when they visited last week as part of their bowl activities. Some of the players played Connect Four or Jenga with the kids. Others visited the AFLAC Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. But they all provided a positive impact for the kids and gave them a release from their everyday routine.
"That really tugged at my heart just to see the kids, the smile on their faces," Davis said. "I know they're going through a lot. You could just see before we walked in the room, before they actually saw us, it was kind of like a dull moment. But as soon as the whole team walked in, the whole environment changed. How they interacted with us and their families and the parents, they just welcomed us in and let us play with their kids. It was real heartfelt for me."
For Jude (above), another young boy in the hospital, he couldn't wait for the Auburn players to arrive. Unlike Jesse, he was a diehard Auburn fan. He attended the Iron Bowl the month before, and though he'd gotten to meet various celebrities and professional teams from Atlanta, none of that compared to getting to spend time with the Auburn players he cheered on every week.
So when the team first arrived, he walked around to each player and had them sign his football. His favorite?
"I hung out with Daniel Carlson for a while," Jude said. "He was really nice."
Jude and Carlson played a couple games of Jenga where they talked about school, how Jude is a baseball player, and just anything to get his mind away from the difficult things he was going through day in and day out at the hospital.
"It always leaves you with more of an impact than what you leave with them," Carlson said. "I think they enjoy it and it means a lot to them and that's extremely special, but it definitely puts my life into perspective every time. I'm very fortunate to have that influence and the ability to put a smile on their face."
Later, Jude and Carlson were joined by teammates Will Hastings and Chandler Cox. Then at the end of the day when the players got together to take a group photo, Jude went right up and stood in the middle of them like he was part of the team.
It was a special moment for Jude and for his parents.
"Kids stay in the hospital for, depending on their illness, lots and lots of days in a row," Jude's father, Patrick, said. "And having the monotony broken by having the players come in is a huge deal. It's a great diversion, especially if they're a fan of the team. They've watched them on TV. And the guys are all so great. When they walk in the door, they're immediately engaged with the kids. That just means so much to them as they stay here in the hospital."
Christopher, a father of three, might have been as excited as anybody that Auburn was coming to the hospital. He and his wife both graduated from there, and his father played on the '72 team.
"I was the kid who was 8 years old on the corner selling programs," Christopher said. "I grew up going to all the games with my dad. We love everything about Auburn. We still go back for several games every year. We were at the Iron Bowl this year. That was incredible."
So of course, Christopher knew all the players. His youngest daughter, Hope -- who is need of a liver transplant -- probably didn't know any of them. She was more interested in the Chick-fil-A cows that accompanied the players in the room with the kids. But whether it's the players or the cows, it was all about the kids and making their day a little brighter.
"We all watch them on TV," Christopher said. "We've been to the games. But I think it's more just about filling the little ones' hearts with the joy. When you have a platform to do that, really what it communicates is that you just care and love them enough to give back. For us as a family, it was really cool."
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who also made the trip to the hospital with his players, has always told his teams to use their influence in a positive way. So in the middle of bowl week, while they were busy preparing for the game, the players took a few hours away from the field to positively impact a group of young kids who might have needed a pick-me-up.
"It really just shows how we actually have a huge influence in today's society and how we can use it and make these kids' day," Hastings said. "Maybe that will influence them to do something crazy one day, too, something awesome, something to change someone else's life."
"It was a humbling feeling," added senior Tray Matthews. "It was an experience that I'll always remember. A lot of these kids were in the hospital while we were enjoying our holidays. We took advantage of our platform by just having fun with the kids. We had a lot of fun. We're some big kids ourselves. We didn't come here just for show or anything. We genuinely meant it."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: