It’s teenage week at Camp Sunshine, and 220 kids attend a weekly camp where weather is the least of their worries. The inhabitants of Camp Sunshine have been diagnosed with cancer, and their days are filled with treatment as well as recreational time. However, this week offers the campers an escape from the worries they face each day. This is the week when campers get an opportunity to meet a select few Georgia football players.
This is the week these kids have waited for all year.
Camp Sunshine board member Mo Thrash said this is more than an hour visit in the campers’ eyes.
“It’s an inspiration to the children,” Thrash said. “These children have gone up against terrible odds with fighting cancer. They see their heroes out there in the Georgia Bulldogs and for them to take their time and effort to come be with these kids is beyond words.”
More than 60 of Georgia’s children’s organizations use Camp Twin Lakes as a site for their camps, but Thrash said most of these kids have one wish in common.
“It just means so much to these kids,” Thrash said. “Honestly, I’ve been to so many hospitals through the years and all they want to talk about is Georgia Bulldog football and coming to Camp Sunshine.”
The Bulldogs arrive around 3:30 in the afternoon wearing all smiles, decked out in their uniforms and ready to meet an eager group of campers.
Thrash speaks to the players about how much this visit means to the campers. Fan favorites like Michael Bennett and Keith Marshall listen on as Thrash speaks so highly of their stardom.
“I hear kids at the hospital talk about the Bulldogs all the time,” Thrash said. “Y’all are heroes to them whether you’re a star or you sit on the bench.”
The players’ tour moves from the cafeteria, to the infirmary and on to the camp’s radio station headquarters. The players are intrigued by the idea of a radio station ran by campers, and even begin to inquire about what running the station entails.
“What kind of music y’all bumping in there,” asks junior linebacker Brandon Burrows.
This is Burrows’ second visit to Camp Sunshine where he said he learns something new every year.
“The kids bring me back with their excitement,” Burrows said. “Every year they bring more to the table and this year is a testament to that.”
The highly personable Burrows made a few friends at Camp Sunshine this year. One of those friends was Becca, who Burrows said made a lasting impact on his life.
“She is one of the happiest kids I’ve met and she has Spina Bifida and cancer,” Burrows said. “That was really humbling because I pushed her down the path in her wheelchair. She explained to me what her life was like. I’m really glad I came out and I’ll be back.”
Burrows said he begins to open up more every year and the campers do the same. Burrows faced off against Gainesville High junior Kabish Buffington in a game of one-one-one. The heated match-up featured a back and forth between the two, but Buffington may have edged Burrows with his three-point shooting.
“Last year I just played a little football here, but this year I’ve played some basketball too,” Burrows said. “I played a game of one-on-one that lasted 20 minutes. He [Buffington] can play and he gave me a run for my money.”
This is Buffington’s third year at Camp Sunshine where he said he awaits the Bulldogs’ arrival with great anticipation each year.
“It’s really cool for them to come out here and share time with us,” Buffington said.
Buffington isn’t currently on Gainesville’s list of active players, but he plays a large part on the staff as a team manager. His story is one of many the Bulldogs had a chance to hear.
Senior cornerback Blake Sailors said he is overwhelmed by the optimism and excitement he sees from campers.
“It’s awesome,” Sailors said. “It’s just a really cool place where everybody is in such high spirits. I was talking to some people and hearing their stories and it’s just amazing.”
Along with many of his teammates, Sailors said meeting the campers shows how insignificant a lot of the little problems in life are.
“Everyone is super happy,” Sailors said. “It’s a great place to be for all these kids, but it’s good for us too. Just to see all these kids going through that type of adversity, and we think we have it hard.”
Senior fullback Corey Campbell said the kids who come to Camp Sunshine are some of the toughest he’s ever seen, and he plays in the SEC.
“I love coming out here with these kids,” Campbell said. “It’s just nice to see how enthusiastic they are. I definitely couldn’t be in a situation like this, but they are and they have the same mentality as us.”
Campbell has visited Camp Sunshine for three consecutive years, but said his third experience was just as uplifting as his first.
“It’s very inspirational coming out here and watching these kids carry on their everyday lives even though they’re suffering these life-threatening illnesses,” Campbell said.
After three years Campbell has even made a longtime friend, sixth-year camper Noah Mobley.
“I’ve seen him every year I’ve been here,” Campbell said. “Every time I come here he runs up to me and says ‘what’s up Corey,’ and we’ve been walking together all day and catching up on things. It’s nice to have a face you remember and a face that remembers you.”
Mobley is appreciative of the opportunity to hang out with the Bulldogs in such a casual setting.
“It’s cool that you can play football with somebody and play games like this,” Mobley said.
Marshall, a sophomore tailback at Georgia, said he’ll be back for a third visit next summer.
“It’s just a great experience to come out and see these kids and it’s really a blessing to us,” Marshall said. “I’ll definitely be back every year I’m here. It made their day for us to come out here, but it was really a great experience for us.”
Offensive guard Chris Burnette stands before a host of campers just minutes before the annual pick-up football game. He and his teammates introduce themselves to the campers.
Burnette has made it a point to come back to the camp as much as possible. Thrash said this is a testament to how much the visit plays a part in the players’ lives outside of football.
“Chris comes back to see these kids every year,” Thrash said. “That shows it means just as much to the players as it does to these kids. Seeing what these kids go through shows these boys that what they go through is really nothing in life.”
The campers listen to the player intros and give their own unique reactions to each player. The young men get rowdy for the explosive Marshall while the teenage girls go gaga over Bennett’s looks. Each camper has their own favorite Bulldog and it becomes apparent at this point.
“Thanks for letting us come back,” Burnette addresses the crowd. “It really encourages us to see you guys doing what you do out here.”
After Burnette’s speech the game is set for kickoff, and Campbell is the first player to go down. Campbell was juked on the opening kickoff where he consequently fell to the ground.
The game goes on for a few minutes before rain showers begin to fall. Thrash calls for an end to the game while players and campers call for a request of their own.
Players, counselors, campers, onlookers, doctors and parents all wanted the same thing. Everyone just wanted to see one more down from their heroes.
“One more play Mo,” everyone shouts as the rain falls on Camp Sunshine.