A couple of pictures of Rex Hadnot and his friend Ephraim -- like this one -- adorn the Cards' adopted apartment at the Ronald McDonald House. For more photos, click here.
Rex Hadnot was just 8 when his younger brother Joshua – born with three holes in his heart – was forced to have the first of a handful of surgeries.
Hadnot had to remain in school as his mother traveled from Lufkin, Texas, to the hospital in Galveston where Joshua needed to be. But while she and Joshua were away, they stayed at a local Ronald McDonald House.
Flash forward to Wednesday, when the soon-to-be-30 Hadnot – now a guard for the Cardinals – was part of the crew from the team celebrating a refurbishment of the two-bedroom apartment the team "adopted" at the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Phoenix.
"When I heard about this (work) here," Hadnot said, "it definitely hit home and it was definitely something I wanted to do."
The Cardinals' involvement with the Ronald McDonald House – an international series of complexes where families of sick children can stay when they aren't close to home – began two years ago when Valerie Slowik, the wife of quality control coach Ryan Slowik, was looking for an ongoing project.
Valerie Slowik had experience with the Ronald McDonald House herself, having spent a Thanksgiving there as a teenager in Wisconsin because her niece had Down Syndrome. When Ryan was hired by the Cards, Valerie set up monthly visits (or sometimes twice monthly) to help serve dinner and interact with the families.
Alice Whisenhunt, wife of Cardinals' coach Ken Whisenhunt, and other significant others from "The Cardinals' Women's Group" began taking part. So too did players like kicker Jay Feely – who grew up with a mentally and physically disabled brother who later passed away – and Hadnot, tight end Jeff King, quarterback Kevin Kolb and linebacker Sam Acho.
Coincidentally, the roots of the Ronald McDonald House come directly from the NFL. In 1972, Eagles tight end Fred Hill found out his 3-year-old daughter Kim had leukemia. Hill, in the midst of holding fund raisers, looked into ways how the money could help – and temporary housing for families needing to be near medical facilities for sick children became the answer.
The first Ronald McDonald House was opened in Philadelphia in 1974 (the fast-food chain was brought on board soon after as a sponsor). There are more than 280 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide.
The ability to sponsor a room was exciting, Valerie Slowik said, and the refurbishment included new TVs, a Larry Fitzgerald framed jersey, a Fitzgerald Fathead stuck to the wall and Cardinals' bedding and pillows. Alice Whisenhunt said a new Ronald McDonald House is being built locally, and the plan is to adopt an apartment there as well.
But it is the interaction with the children and their families that is the fulfillment.
"Some really tug at your heart," Whisenhunt said.
The connections grow strong. Hadnot has become close with a patient named Ephraim. Slowik was excited to hear the first patient staying in the updated Cardinals apartment is Montana, a child with whom the Slowiks know well from their work at the House.
But, Valerie Slowik admitted, "it's a double-edged sword." It can be fun catching up with friends, but given the circumstances, "we are happy when they don't have to come back."
Happy endings aren't always guaranteed.
Hadnot's brother Joshua ended up having three surgeries before passing away in 1993 when Hadnot was 11. When he became a professional athlete, Hadnot created the Joshua's Wishing Well Foundation, in part to help families going through the same thing his mother did, and the same thing those are going through who stay at the Ronald McDonald House.
A couple of pictures of Hadnot and Ephraim are part of the new décor at the Cards' apartment. Hadnot chuckles when it is pointed out.
"(Joshua dying) was a tough experience but it was something I wanted to build on, and not just have it end with my brother's passing," Hadnot said. "I want to help other families.
"It's not hard. It's more fun than anything, to be in the NFL and held in a (regard) that I never would have imagined myself being held."
Hadnot looked at one of the pictures of he and Ephraim. "I'm just enjoying people," Hadnot said, smiling and shaking his head. "Pictures of me. I can't believe it, man."