Tyler Devine column: The day Kirk Ferentz visited me in the hospital

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Kirk Ferentz visits Tyler Devine in the hospital in 2007

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa - With the addition of a new 12-story children’s hospital that overlooks Kinnick Stadium, a new tradition has been born.

After the first quarter of the Iowa football team’s game against Wyoming this past Saturday, the fans in the stadium turned and waved to the young children who are bravely fighting for their lives inside the giant building.

It was the start of a new tradition that seems here to stay based on how well it was received.

As someone whose last name is on the press box at Kinnick Stadium, thanks to my great, great uncle Aubrey Devine, who was the captain for Iowa's 1921 Big Ten championship team, this new tradition means more to me than any other.

It had me thinking of the time when I spent three days in the old UI children’s hospital, which is short compared to the amount of time most of the children spend there.

But for me, it was still a harrowing experience.  

It was June 2007 and I was on top of the world. I had just turned 16 and earned my driver’s license. I could drive anywhere I wanted to, for the most part, and I was beginning to workout with hopes of playing football for City High.

It was the epitome of freedom.

But my freedom didn’t last long, as I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (the fancy name for bone cancer) later that month after experiencing pain in my knee during a football workout.

I went in for an x-ray the next day and then had an MRI, which revealed the sobering news.

I remember being in the car on the way to visit family in Oklahoma when my mother received a call.

She was told they had found a quarter-sized tumor on my femur, right behind my knee and that it had to be removed immediately.

I don’t remember having much of a reaction, nor do I remember my parents reacting much. Maybe it was because I was young and naive, or maybe because we were all paralyzed at the thought of such a procedure. But to this day, I couldn’t tell you which one it was.

Fast forward past numerous biopsies, blood tests, appointments, 56 staples and 16 inches of scars and there I am lying in a hospital bed on the afternoon of August 3, 2007. I was in tremendous pain and facing three months in a full leg cast.

Since the tumor was directly behind my knee and near a major artery, I was told the surgery was somewhat risky.  

I am very fortunate that Dr. Joseph Buckwalter and his staff acted quickly because they probably saved my life.

The second of my three days in the hospital was truly memorable because I had three special visitors, the first being City High football coach Dan Sabers. He presented me with my number 12 jersey, which I would wear to every game that fall.

Coach Sabers is intense, but he also has a compassionate side. His support did wonders for me through the months of recovery.

My second visitor was none other than Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable, who I had gotten to know from living across the street from his daughter Jenni and her husband Brian Mitchell.

I will always remember my first two visitors, but it was my third visitor that day who really stood out to me

It was none other than Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz.

Captain Kirk sat with me and my parents for a few minutes and we just talked. I had grown up around his children, who also attended City High, so there was sort of a connection. 

But Kirk didn't know much about me. He just knew I was a young kid dealing with a serious health issue. 

I don’t remember what we specifically talked about, probably due to my high dosage of morphine, but I do remember one thing that happened.

Ferentz was preparing to leave my room when a nurse walked in and asked him for a favor.

“Coach,” she said. “I know you’re really busy but there’s a little boy next door that’s going to be here until February and found out that you’re here and he would love to meet you," I remember the nurse saying.”

Without hesitation Ferentz said it would be a pleasure to meet the young boy.

Ferentz said his goodbyes to me and my family and then went next door to make the day, week or year for  someone who was fighting a much tougher battle than me.

Ferentz is a wonderful example of what it means to be an Iowan. He wasn't born here, nor did he grow up in Iowa. But he has spent nearly half of his life in Iowa, and eventually, the state rubs off on you.

I’m not sure what happened to the kid in the room next to me. My guess is his eyes lit up when Ferentz walked into the room. Ferentz probably made him feel real important just like he did with me.

Hopefully, the kid gained strength from meeting Ferentz and used it to help with his recovery.

That moment will stick with me forever, as will seeing thousands of fans in Kinnick Stadium pay tribute to the children who are fighting battles that are far more serious than sports.

All eyes will be glued on Cyclone Stadium this Saturday when Iowa faces Iowa State in the annual showdown for state supremacy. I'm crushed when Iowa loses to the Cyclones, but the new tradition at Kinnick Stadium helps to put everything in perspective. 

It also serves as a reminder that people in this town, and in this state, are good, caring people.