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Vols visit children's hospital

Every Tennessee football player who visited East Tennessee Children’s Hospital for a couple of hours Thursday has had health issues.

Tennessee senior defensive end Jacques Smith (left), senior defensive end Marlon Walls (center) and senior tight end Joseph Ayres (right) visit 2-year-old Jaygen during their Thursday visit to East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman will miss at least another month after undergoing hand surgery two weeks ago. Fifth-year senior tight end Joseph Ayres’ recently suffered a career-ending torn right ACL. Senior defensive end Jacques Smith missed this season’s first two games with a fractured thumb. Fifth-year senior defensive end Marlon Walls missed an entire season with a excruciatingly painful torn Achilles tendon.

None of those four Vols have been through anything like most of the patients in Children’s Hospital, though.

And all four of them had no problem admitting that to 247Sports.

“Look where we’re standing right now,” Ayres said. “It could be worse. I could be a whole lot worse. We’re all blessed to be here.”

Peterman, whose first career start will be his last for at least a while, adamantly agreed, saying Thursday’s trip was “exactly what I needed” to stop feeling sorry for himself and gain perspective on his “little” problem.

“Absolutely, this is big, and that’s why I wanted to make sure to be here right after I got out of class,” said Peterman, whose solo tour of the facility started just as Ayres, Smith and Walls were finishing theirs. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t thinking about myself all the time and gain a more broad perspective. There’s a lot more going on that just me and my little thumb problem.

“I’m just really happy to give back and see what’s really important. These kids are what’s really important.”

Make no mistake, though: Thursday’s trip — a low-key visit that Tennessee’s athletic department didn’t publicize ahead of time — was a fun experience for all four players, who visited patients on several different floors and signed several dozen footballs.

Nathan Peterman with 9-year-old Hunter

Thursday was also an educational experience for Peterman. Two-year-old Emma taught the quarterback with no sisters how to play house, and she sharply corrected Peterman when he pulled a doll out of the house’s bathroom.

“That’s mom,” Emma told him. “She has to go to the bathroom right now.”

Peterman apologized and promptly placed mom back in the bathroom to finish her business.

“I have to say little Emma was my favorite,” said Peterman, who caused several children and their parents to laugh while signing autographs with his casted hand. “She wanted me to play with her dollhouse, and I grew up with all brothers and not many girl cousins, so that was my first time playing with a dollhouse. So that was good. I learned some things today. I learned how to play with a dollhouse.”

Ayres, Smith and Walls spent more than two hours in the hospital, even taking a trip through the intensive care unit to visit with some of the most sensitive patients in the building.

That didn’t stop the three seniors from bringing the children some fun, though.

Walls was often the life of the party, cradling a few infants and laughingly taking target practice from Ayres and Smith.

Eleven-year-old Landon told Walls he played basketball, and Walls quickly replied that basketball was also his “first love.”

Jacques Smith, Joseph Ayres and Marlon Walls with 11-year-old Landon

“Don’t tell nobody, but my belly got too big for basketball, so I had to play football,” Walls said.

That got Smith’s attention.

“Landon, can you believe Marlon used to play linebacker?” Smith said. “Look at him now.”

“Hey, don’t be starting that, Jacques,” Walls shot back with a smile.

Ayres got into the act when Walls dropped a perfectly thrown pass from two-year-old Jaygen.

“That’s why Marlon plays defense,” Ayres said, much to the delight of Jaygen’s mother.

Jaygen’s mother even had some fun with Walls, who heard the boy yelled at the TV with his father during games and told him they’d try to make him yell a little less during Saturday’s home game against sixth-ranked Georgia.

“Oh, he yells when he’s excited,” Jaygen’s mother said.

Marlon Walls with 11-year-old Landon

“Well, then, I hope you yell the whole day, big guy,” Smith said.

Another boy told Walls that he loved playing video games, especially Temple Run and Call of Duty.

Smith told the boy he’d just bought the new NBA video game, and that it was “awesome,” and Walls added that he’d give him a run for his money on Temple Run.

“Oh, man, I’ll hang with you on Temple Run, but you’d beat me all day on Call of Duty,” Walls said. “I can’t hang with you there, man.”

The visit with little Jaygen — who gave all three players a high-five on their way out the door — was one of just several visits where Walls ultimately became the center of attention.

According to one of the hospital’s employees, that’s par for the course.

“Oh, we love all the guys who come, but Marlon is here almost every time they come,” the employee said. “Some of the guys are kind of timid, especially at first, but Marlon just dives right in and makes himself at home. He just kind of does what he wants. The children love him. He’s great.”

Walls said having a 3-year-old daughter makes Children’s Hospital an important trip for him, and that he never misses an opportunity to visit with the patients and thank the employees for everything they do.

Vols redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman poses with his 2-year-old "buddy" Emma during his Thursday visit to East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

“This is always the best part of the week for me,” Walls said. “I come by as much as I can, just to get away from football and all the coaches yelling at you and just enjoy life and help somebody else yet. I have a 3-year-old daughter, and it’s really tough any time you see a little girl and she’s hurting, because the first you do is put yourself in that situation. You know how much you love your child, and you see the parents here, and it’s just tough.

“It’s amazing, man. You just try to help them out as much as you can, especially when you know what it feels like to be a parent. To be in a situation like that, it’s crazy to just think about. Just being able to be over here and be a blessing as much as I can, it’s the best thing I could do for them right now.”

Peterman visited Landon’s room a little later, and he told the boy he also loved playing basketball as a kid. He also told Landon he was jealous of the boy’s ability to make shots.

“I couldn’t shoot at all,” the quarterback said. “That’s why I had to start playing football.”

Peterman also visited a couple of a boys named Hunter. He told 4-year-old Hunter he knew what it felt like to have IV needles in your arm, because he’d just had surgery, and he spent several minutes complimenting 9-year-old Hunter’s artwork.

“Oh, man, these are great,” he told the boy. “I really like this one (of a house). That’s really, really good.” 

All four players also stopped for pictures with several hospital employees, and a group of giggling nurses seemed particularly pleased to get their pictures taken with Peterman.

“That’s just Tennessee being Tennessee,” Walls said. “I think the university gets the credit for that. Just being a part of a great university with so many fans and such a big fan base, just seeing our jerseys makes them smile. It’s amazing to be here. It’s a blessing.”

Marlon Walls holds newborn William

Smith didn’t disagree, saying the East Tennessee community has given him more than he could ever pay back in full.

“It just makes you grateful for everything you have,” Smith said. “We’re a part of something special here at Tennessee, and being able to do things like this helps you see that.”

Another hospital employee slightly disagree with Smith, suggesting the players probably do more than the children than they realize.

“Mickey and Minnie (Mouse) were here today, but they don’t play for the Vols,” the employee said. “Even most of the little girls here get more excited about the football players.”

Emma certainly seemed smitten with the players, demanding that Peterman “come back later and play with me.”

Peterman bumped into dollhouse partner-in-crime later near an elevator, and she said bye by either blowing him a kiss or making a fish face — the hospital staff couldn’t come to a final verdict.

“Either way, it was awesome,” Peterman said. “She’s my buddy.”

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