James Hardy never thought being the Bills' second round draft choice would entail learning a new language. But Tuesday, Hardy learned to speak Italian from a young patient at Women & Children's Hospital as the Bills Toyota Rookie Club visited young patients for a pizza party and painting activities.
Hardy and 13 other Bills rookies learned more than just a new language from Juliana, a nine-year-old patient who held court around a small table with wide receiver C.J. Hawthorne and cornerback Leodis McKelvin. The trio painted designs and logos onto ceiling tiles to be displayed in the Hospital recreation room.
Wide receiver Steve Johnson said the experience gave him a new perspective while helping to introduce his family to the community.
"Anywhere you go, you want to get out and know that there's more than football," Johnson said. "To bring my family out, it brings everything together."
Johnson wasn't the only one who left happy. Young patient Chris, who worked on a word search with Johnson and painted a football field and a Bills logo, said his favorite part of the visit was just getting the chance to talk to the players. He said he looks forward to eventually getting to know all the rookies.
The rookies weren't the only ones in the room with football experience, though. Juliana said she played football in school before coming to the hospital.
The visit was a humbling experience for tight end Derek Fine, who encouraged one young patient to drink more apple juice so that he could join Fine as a fellow tight end someday.
"I think it's important to do stuff for other people to help out their day," Fine said. "It took us an hour to come in here and light up these kids for the next week or how ever long it might be for them."
Fine added that visits like this also help brighten the spirits of the patients' parents.
"For them to see their kids smile and make them feel better (also) makes them feel better," he said.
Fine, Hardy, Johnson, McKelvin and Hawthorne were joined by fellow rookies lineman Demetrius Bell, cornerback Reggie Corner, defensive end Chris Ellis, running back Xavier Omon, linebacker Alvin Bowen, linebacker Marcus Buggs, offensive lineman Dustin Dickinson, running back Bruce Hall and tight end Jonathan Stupar.
Hardy, who has made personal visits to Women & Children's Hospital since being drafted by the Bills (41st overall) in 2008, said the interaction between players and patients is priceless.
"It's huge," Hardy said. "You always know how blessed you are. There's a lot of people that are not able or less fortunate to be in the situation you are, so you always have to go back and be an inspiration to them and let them know they're an inspiration to you."
That inspiration was evident in Chris as a nearby nurse commented that at first she had to convince Chris not to stay in his room during the pizza party. She said Chris' eyes "lit up" upon seeing the Bills rookies walk in the door.
After Johnson helped Chris finish his word search, he talked about the reality of the patients' situations compared to the ups and downs of the football field.
"When you come here and see the kids, it's like 'forget everything you're going through on the field, it doesn't even matter'."
Hardy said the reason he keeps visiting children is because he hopes he can give them something to smile about each week. He said his drive to excel on Sundays has a direct correlation to the children he meets at the hospital.
"Coming in here on your day off gives you more inspiration and more motivation to go out there and try even harder this weekend to give them something to cheer about."