To the casual onlooker, it probably looked like just another young fan getting a chance to meet a professional football player on the sidelines of TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis this past Sunday before the Carolina Panthers took on the Minnesota Vikings. But what young Ryder Smith and Panther’s tight end Greg Olsen shared in that moment was more than just a simple meet-and-greet. They also share stories of courage and hope, as both Ryder and Olsen’s young son, TJ, are battling hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS.
As Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Fox9 News reports, despite being only 4 years old, Ryder has already endured three “major surgeries” at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus to help manage his condition. Olsen’s son had gone through the same number of surgeries by age 2.
Young Ryder’s trip to the sidelines began, according to Mayo’s HLHS Cause to Cure blog, after he and his family were randomly selected to receive a special “Game Day Experience” package. Olsen appeared via video during a recent Mayo HLHS program “Feel the Beat“ event to announce the giveaway, which not only included a chance for the winner to meet Olsen on the sidelines before the game, but also the opportunity for the family to stick around stick around and watch the Vikings beat the Panthers 31-13 from “excellent seats.” (Sorry, Mr. Olsen.)
In a piece that profiles his family’s struggles with HLHS, Olsen tells FoxSports.com that he’ll never forget the “helplessness and fear” he felt after his son was diagnosed with the disorder. “It was a moment in our life where it was out of our control,” he says. “There was nothing we could do for him, nothing we could do to change it … I can put myself right back in that car driving home, crying, trying to figure out where to go from here.”
And that’s why he tells Fox9 News that it was so great for him to meet someone like Ryder, who’s not only older than his own son, but who’s also doing so well living with HLHS. “Very few people know what that journey is like, and that’s something that we share,” Olsen says. Ryder’s dad, Jared, tells KAAL-TV that the experience was a pretty special gift for Ryder, who turned 4 ½ on Monday. “We got to go down on the field, and we got to see all the players and meet Ragnar,” he says. “We talked to Greg, and we took some pictures and talked about how we can relate.” Not to be outdone, the local heroes also had a little something for Ryder, who was happily sporting a signed jersey from the Viking’s Harrison Smith when the KAAL cameras arrived.
You can read more of the Olsen family’s HLHS story here. Then, be sure to let us know what you think about this story by sharing your comments below and sharing this story with others using the social media tools above.