The kids never ask Vince Danielsen why he has come to see them dressed in his Calgary Stampeders football jersey and a Santa Claus hat. And even if they did, Mr. Danielsen wouldn't know where to begin.
There are many reasons for him visiting the Alberta Children's Hospital bearing gifts and friendship, and each reason is now tightly interlocked with the others. Yes, Mr. Danielsen was in hospital at 15 with a rare form of cancer. Yes, it happened over the holidays, forcing his parents to cook and eat Christmas dinner at the hospital rather than leave their youngest child alone. But mostly, it has to do with his repaying an act of kindness by Vancouver's biggest football star, B.C. Lions kicker Lui Passaglia, who visited him when he was sick.
"That visit from Lui, that's where a lot of my motivation comes from. That day he was able to take me away from what I was going through, all the blood counts and pills, everything that evolves around sickness," Mr. Danielsen said. "If I can help these kids take their minds off their situation for five, 10 minutes, it lets them have fun again."
"Little things mean so much to them," he added. "I remember what it meant to me."
A lot of people in Calgary know Mr. Danielsen. They recognize the name and face. They understand that after seven seasons in the Canadian Football League he has become the kind of sure-handed receiver quarterbacks would give their knee cartilage for.
But not everyone is aware of Mr. Danielsen's most recent endeavour, the Innovative Fitness Christmas Visit. The fitness club he owns doesn't just ask people for a charitable donation. It asks a select number of clients and co-workers to visit the hospital with him so they can deliver the presents and see the look on the children's faces. It's the personal touch that makes everything work, Mr. Danielsen said -- and it all flows back to an unexpected meeting 13 years ago.
Mr. Danielsen was almost 15 when he began having problems with swollen lymph glands in his neck. Antibiotics did little, so a biopsy was done in the fall of 1986. Before the results were in, Mr. Danielsen led his Vancouver College Grade 10 football team to a provincial championship. The game was held inside B.C. Place with Mr. Danielsen playing quarterback on offence and safety on defence. It was a highlight performance by an athlete who seemed destined for greater accomplishments.
Two weeks later, the biopsy results were in and they were staggering to his parents. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and only a 50-50 chance of surviving. He underwent chemotherapy and spinal taps, lost his hair and spent Christmas at the B.C. Cancer Agency because there was no available space at what is now the Children's and Women's Health Centre of British Columbia. That is when fate intervened.
A Vancouver College teacher who happened to be a former teammate of Mr. Passaglia at Simon Fraser University, told the Lions kicker about the Danielsen boy and asked if Mr. Passaglia could visit. It turned out the Danielsen family lived close to where the kicker grew up, not far from Empire Stadium. Mr. Passaglia also attended Vancouver College, in the late 1960s.
When he dropped by the Danielsen home in the early days of 1987, Mr. Passaglia wasn't sure what he was going to see.
"Kids with cancer, you just don't know. But he was in good spirits and very positive. We talked about football. We talked about his illness. In my discussions with him, he was a brave young man," said Mr. Passaglia, who had his picture taken with the boy and even let him try on the Lions' 1985 Grey Cup ring. "You hope you're doing something positive. You say your prayers for the kids and hope they get better, but you don't know how it's going to turn out."
It turned out amazingly well for the Danielsen boy, who took Mr. Passaglia's words of encouragement to heart and recovered in time to play football the following season. Mr. Passaglia kept tabs on the boy's high school career and also his time with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. Then one afternoon in Vancouver before a Lions game against Calgary, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound rookie receiver with the Stampeders made a point of reintroducing himself to the man whose kindness had not been forgotten.
"I don't think he knew who I was at first," Mr. Danielsen said. "He's visited so many kids in his career that I kind of surprised him."
"The last time I had seen Vince, he was in Grade 10," Mr. Passaglia said. "So when he came up to me, it caught me off-guard. He was so big. We always said 'Hi' after that. There was that affiliation because of that moment in time we had shared when he was sick."
While Mr. Passaglia was Mr. Danielsen's motivator, the older player said his compassion for others came from his parents and from being a B.C. Lion at age 22 and watching his older teammates, including Al Wilson and Bill Baker, do their share of charitable work. It is a most natural order -- veterans lead, rookies follow. And now it has spread from player to player, team to team, generation to generation.
"I was never scared of meeting a stranger and I've always been able to give a little of my time. I was taught that part of life is giving back," said Mr. Passaglia, who capped a brilliant 25-year career in the CFL by kicking the winning points in last month's Grey Cup game at age 46. "To know that Vince is doing something good in Calgary, that's great. It's humbling and rewarding. It shows we can all make a difference."