01-23-2004-UNKNOWN

1-23-4, 5 p.m.

MOBILE, Ala. _ Ann Cunningham really only asks one thing of her players when they leave the Children's and Women's Hospital here downtown.

"You will go on to bigger and better things," she says. "But please, where ever you end up, please always take time to visit a children's hospital."

This is the stuff that rarely sells. Nothing newsy or sexy here. This won't do it for the fact junkies because this is just about everyday living; the inexorable, invisible effort to make a chunk of the world a little better.

Ann Cunningham grew up watching the Senior Bowl in her hometown. It might just be a date on a NFL calendar, but to the people who live here, it's a holiday. She has worked at the hospital for 14 years, but every year she volunteers for a week to work in the Senior Bowl office.

About 40 Senior Bowl players North and South signed up for her bus trip Friday morning. So did North head coach Marvin Lewis, because he always does, and he arrived with Bengals business manager Bill Connelly. So did two of Lewis' assistants, secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi.

Coyle, because as a perennial Bowl coach at Syracuse, such visits became more than routine. Cioffi because he's a new father and he thought now should be a first time.

Because everyone had reasons as different as the helmets bobbing on both sidelines Saturday. Oklahoma cornerback Derrick Strait got his first pick as a pro standing in the hallway when three-year-old

Tyrone whipped his new autographed football out of his room. Tyrone had fallen down and badly hurt his knee and had been cooped up in the hospital for a few days and you could still see where they had put an IV in his arm.

"Here's a kid who is hurting and he's still got a smile like that. That helps me," Strait said. "Just to say you helped put a smile on a kid's face is saying something."

Coyle and Cioffi ended up walking the corridor in a group with three of their players. Strait, Ricardo Colclough, another cornerback, and Penn State defensive back Rich Gardner. Somehow, Virginia Tech's Nathaniel Adibi, a South defensive lineman, surfaced with them and all four were grouped around three-year-old Robbie as he got out of his bed and cowered on his mother's lap.

But by the time Coyle took the picture with his camera, Robby was throwing the ball back at them.

"I picked it up before I came over here," said Coyle of his disposable camera. "Just to have some kind of a keepsake. This is something special for the kids. They remember it. And I think it's just as good for the players. It's something you do that means something to everybody."

Colclough has become the Favorite Son of this game. A big-time player from a small-time school. He figures about 800 students are on the campus of his college no one knows, Tusculum College in Greenville, Tenn. On Friday, he walked into a hospital staffed by about 900 and virtually owned the place.

He saw a five-year old boy in the rec room playing with a toy kitchen. The child saw the big guys walk in, but kept himself busy at the stove. Colclough took three strides and was right with him.

"What are we cooking?" he asked. "Let's have a feast. Let's use all these pots." The kid stared at him, then started showing him where to put everything and Colclough shook his head.

"He wants to eat healthy."

"He looked a little quiet, so I went over there. I'm not quiet," Colclough said. "I've got a little brother. He's 15 now, so maybe that's why. I've done it before. I enjoy doing this. I like to get out and meet different people."

There was a 12-year-old boy hooked up to an IV machine as he stood in the hospital's classroom, and he told them how he was a basketball player and why he liked it better than football.

"Work on that mid-range jumper," Strait said. "It's a lost art."

Eddy, 2, had been in there a long time. There was a Christmas decoration on his door, and his bed was surrounded by glass except for the top. The guys reached in and held his hand and showed him the football they were signing. Eddy didn't say anything. But he sat up and watched them like a quarterback.

"Hey Eddy, who's this?" Coyle asked as he picked up a purple dinosaur. "Barney? You like Barney, huh? Barney likes you."

It was the premies that they probably left thinking about. And the parents. One mother proudly lifted her eight pound, seven-ounce baby that was born three months ago at less than two pounds. They were getting ready to go home Friday for the first time.

"He's been lifting, putting in his work," said Gardner as they signed a ball that mother and son would no doubt keep from a special day.

"That's tough. I could never hold a baby like that," said Strait as they left a three-week old that still had two more months left in the hospital. "How would you? Where would you put your hands?"

For awhile, Ann Cunningham took the neo-natal ward off the tour. The players had said it was too heart wrenching, but she got a few to go down there this year.

One of her players, Oregon State wide receiver James Newson, brought some T-Shirts with his picture on the front and his stats on the back. Must be something about those Oregon State receivers.

When Tyrone made a repeat appearance riding a tricycle into the rec room, he started throwing a football again and posing like he was the Heisman.

"Hey, we've got a guy like you. Do you know Chad Johnson?" Coyle asked.

Strait and Gardner do.

"Oh yeah," Gardner said. "The fines."

But this celebration didn't end up on ESPN. After an hour, the players headed back to the buses, to lunch, and to a walk-through.

"They don't have to come. They didn't have to wake up early in the morning, but they did," Ann Cunningham said. "That says something about them. I say it every year and it sounds trite. But every group is always the nicest."

A few hours later, she is answering jangling phones in the Senior Bowl office even though she is the hospital's associate director of development.

"The Senior Bowl is one of our leading benefactors," Ann Cunningham says . "So every year I volunteer and help here the week of the game. Right now, they're renovating our lobby. They've renovated our therapy machines and they gave us funding to put computers in our oncology ward. So now the children can play on the computers while they're getting treatment."

They gave the players juice and cookies and let some of them ride on the souped-up golf carts they use to shuttle patients to appointments, another item funded by the Senior Bowl.

No, it won't make big news like Strait's two interceptions did in Thursday's practice and Colclough's week-long climb from obscurity.

But it happened. Maybe tired. Maybe trite. But at least for an hour in the jungle that is now pro sports, it was honest and good.

"It reminds you," Strait said, "that there are more important things than football."

At her volunteer desk, a grateful Ann Cunningham could only hope "they keep going to these hospitals. I tell them people remember it for the rest of their lives."

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