As Kyle Rudolph sat down to a stack of letters, written to him from patients he had helped through his work at the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital, he saw the name at the top of the stack and knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his composure for long.

It was from the Delgado family, whose relationship with Rudolph dates back to a friendship he formed with their adopted son Anton during his visits to the hospital. Anton, who suffered from a rare genetic disorder called epidermolysis bullosa that prevented the top layer of his skin from being firmly attached to his body, died in Dec. 2015 from complications while being treated for the condition. Rudolph’s final visit with the Delgados came hours after the Vikings’ Thursday night loss in Arizona, and Anton was buried in Rudolph’s jersey.

“You meant a lot to Anton, which meant a lot to me,” his sister Kenya Delgado wrote to Rudolph. “I didn’t know you very well, but every time someone said, ‘Vikings’ or ‘Kyle,’ Anton’s face would light up the whole room. I remember one of the few things that would make his day was you, and mashed potatoes.”

Rudolph got through three-quarters of the letter, he said, before his emotions took over.

“Getting to know these people, getting to know their families, being welcomed into their families — we say all the time, some of our happiest memories are when we get to reconnect with these families once they’re out of the hospital,” Rudolph said. “We go for Halloween and Christmas and Thanksgiving and all these different holidays, and you’re seeing some of the same patients over and over again. You hope that in 30 days, when you come back, they’re gone, and they’re better, and now we can get together for lunch or dinner outside of the hospital. But yeah, you do — you build these relationships with the parents and a lot of these families.”

The Vikings’ long-standing relationship with the Masonic Children’s Hospital appealed to Rudolph, whose younger brother Casey battled neuroblastoma as a kid. The deep relationships he’s formed with parents there might have taken him by surprise.

His work at the hospital was why Rudolph was named the Vikings’ Community Man of the Year and their nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, given during Super Bowl weekend to a player for his excellence on and off the field.

The 29-year-old Rudolph was recognized on Wednesday for his work at the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital, where Rudolph and his wife Jordan opened Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone — a 2,500-square-foot space where patients can relax, play with siblings and friends and spend time in healing therapies. Jordan Rudolph said Wednesday the space has seen more than 4,000 patient visits since it opened in March.

“A mother told Jordan and I, when we were down there hanging out in the End Zone, that, ‘My son, when we leave here, he complains that he doesn’t want to go back to the hospital,'” Rudolph said. “When I thought about it, he believes that when he’s in the End Zone, that he’s not in the hospital. Whether it’s for rehabilitation, baking cookies in the kitchen — there’s all different kinds of ways that we can use the End Zone for treatment — these kids don’t think that when we’re in this space, for however many hours it is, we might as well be at home, because we’re not at the hospital. That was our main goal; I don’t think we realized at first that it would be possible to actually make that happen. But when we get feedback like that from parents, that’s what it’s all about.”

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