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Smiles Through Stuffed Animals

Posted Dec 6, 2011

Cards take part in the annual Teddy Bear Express

Offensive linemen Brandon Keith (72) and Jeremy Bridges (73) talk to Tavaris Tuesday at St. Joseph's Hospital during the Teddy Bear Express.

The smile on A.J. Jefferson’s face was a constant.

The Cardinals’ cornerback admitted it’s a little easier to be happy these days since his team has won four of five games. The grin, though, was about something much different Tuesday, standing in St. Joseph’s Hospital and watching waves of children come up for pictures, autographs and the coveted stuffed animals he and teammates handed out as part of the team’s annual Teddy Bear Express.

“It’s great to have a chance to make the kids happy,” Jefferson said. “They don’t expect us here, and we can put a smile on their face – and that makes me smile.”

The group was like a traveling circus traipsing through the halls. It was the offensive line show at St. Joe’s, Jefferson notwithstanding – Jeremy Bridges, Rex Hadnot, Brandon Keith and the injured Floyd Womack were the other players, along with Alice Whisenhunt, Big Red and a pair of cheerleaders. Big Red caused a ruckus wherever he walked, his silent slapstick punctuated with sneak-attack hugs, faux phone calls and the occasional banging of a counter.

(For a photo gallery, click here.)

Hadnot’s outgoing nature made him the natural leader – the group sang ‘Happy Birthday’ four times as they made the rounds to kids and doctors who insisted it was their day, and it wouldn’t have happened without Hadnot.

Bridges was drawn to the littlest kids, perhaps a paternal instinct since his wife, Brenda – who also showed Tuesday – is expecting the couple’s fifth child.

“This is the joy of my career,” Bridges said. “This is what makes being an NFL football player such a great job. Kids, and the people, and you get to bring joy to them.”

Later in the day, a second group – linebacker Sam Acho, long snapper Mike Leach, punter Dave Zastudil, kicker Jay Feely, quarterback John Skelton, cornerback Greg Toler and wide receiver Stephen Williams – did the same at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

At one point, Bridges takes to a small child who, when asked his name, shoots up four fingers – so Bridges named him “Four.” Hadnot, Bridges and Keith take a liking to a teen named Tavaris, sporting two casts on his legs and confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak clearly. Tavaris understands exactly who is visiting, however, trying hard to talk to Jefferson and Hadnot, and lighting up when he gets his picture taken with the cheerleaders.

Those are the moments that helped stretch out Jefferson’s smile, and brought exhilaration to Bridges.

“You feel immortal,” Bridges said. “You’re not. You are an ordinary person. But people put you on a pedestal, so you have to continue to be upstanding so kids can look up to you, so you can be a role model. Even if you think you are not, you are.”

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