The hospital visit brought back some vivid memories for Houston Dillard.
He met many of the youngsters at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland last week when he and the rest of the all-stars from the Freedom Bowl Classic toured the facility.
The football players were there to cheer up the patients.
The patients inspired the football players.
Especially one Houston Dillard, a recent graduate of Heritage High School.
You see, Dillard understands the anxiety associated with being in a hospital bed for weeks at a time.
So Dillard decided not only to play for them at the Classic — which his East team won, 21-0 — but also to let them know that dreams can come true.
"I know exactly how they feel. I know what it's like to be in a hospital, to deal with the hardship," Dillard said. "They feel what I felt. My goal was I wanted to be as normal as possible."
For Dillard, that meant convincing his doctors to allow him to play sports.
Sure enough, he played football. He was on the track and field team. He even wrestled for a time.
That did not seem possible when he was born.
Rushed out of his room when doctors noticed something they had never before seen, his mother, Bonnie, and father, Jeff, did not even get to hold Houston that day. Houston was born with
bladder exstrophy — his bladder formed outside of his body.
Taken to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, doctors there had to separate both hips in the procedure to insert the bladder into Houston's body. Since then, Dillard has had almost 30 procedures and more than a dozen surgeries. He spent weeks in a hospital as a first-grader. He has had painful bladder stones three times since then -- all requiring surgery.
And it is a condition with which he will have to deal for the rest of his life.
"When I go to a hospital, it's almost like I'm home," he joked.
Unlike many other diseases or conditions, Dillard said he was fortunate that he was able to keep his problem a secret from most other children during his younger years. Perhaps his friends knew he was sick, but he said he never wanted to let anybody know what he had, for fear of being the target of teasing at school.
The patients at Shriners last week could not hide their scars, their pain.
That's why Dillard came forward: to let them know they were not alone. He shared some of his story with them, including his triumph of becoming a varsity football player.
"It was amazing to see the smiles on their faces," Dillard said.
Dillard's doctors were worried about contact sports. If he got hit just in one specific area, with enough force, it could cause major damage to the surgically repaired area of his body.
"That was pretty scary, but I was very determined," Dillard said. "Football is my main sport. I loved watching it, and I wanted to do it. So I just did it."
Dillard made second-team all-league as a linebacker for the Timberwolves last fall. Then he was asked to play in the all-star summer showcase.
"All the physical disabilities I have had made me stronger," said Dillard, who also is an Eagle scout. "You put your mind to it, you have a goal, and you do it."
That's the message he wanted to get across to the youngsters in the hospital last week.
"I guarantee they can find something they are good at," he said.
Paul Valencia covers high school sports for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4557 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.