The smiles on their faces said it all: Christmas had definitely come early, and that was just from looking at the big kids wearing their Packers jerseys and Santa hats.
It was hard to tell who had more fun -- the players or the kids -- when 13 Green Bay Packers gathered at St. Matthew's Church Thursday to take part in an early Christmas celebration with children from Northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula who are being treated for cancer at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.
"Just to be able to put a smile on these little kids' faces is enough joy for me for the whole year," Packers running back Tony Fisher said. "They actually made Christmas for me."
In addition to Fisher, Kevin Barry, Josh Bidwell, Chad Clifton, Najeh Davenport, Donald Driver, Carl Ford, William Henderson, Jason Jimenez, Aaron Kampman, James Lee, Craig Nall and Javon Walker were in attendance.
The players spent the evening handing out autographs, playing games, painting faces, singing Christmas carols, reading Christmas stories and just hanging out with the nearly 200 patients and their families.
"It means so much to (the kids) because a lot of times when they are having a bad day at home or at the hospital, they just think of this and think of the players and their smiles," said Cathy Toonen, president of the Families of Children with Cancer program. "(The players) have such a great sense of humor and all the guys were up there singing and just being big kids themselves."
This year's celebration marks the second time that the Packers have teamed with the Families of Children with Cancer program, which expanded the party to include the patients' siblings and entire families.
"Our group likes to focus on the family because the other siblings -- even if cancer is so horrible -- they still see it as the child getting a lot of attention, getting gifts and presents," Toonen said. "Tonight, the players didn't know which child had cancer or which one was the sibling and that's what we really try to focus on, the entire family."
Despite posting a 1-22 record vs. the kids in tic-tac-toe, Bidwell -- himself a cancer survivor -- felt a special bond with the kids and what they were going through.
"I think they take a tic-tac-toe class or something," Bidwell said. "But I had a blast. It was so much fun. Some of these kids are going through so much hard stuff, way more difficult than what I ever had to go through. And to see how much joy they have, to see how excited they are to see us and seeing their energy level jump means the world to me because I know what they're going through. Their resiliency is just inspiring to me."
Other players were just as excited and thankful that the kids would take the time to listen.
"A little girl actually came up to me and asked me to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with her," Henderson said. "I think that may have touched me more than you would know because I have a very bad singing voice and for anyone to want to tolerate that with me, I'll do anything for them.
"But it's always about the kids. We play a sport for a living but these kids are dealing with real life issues. And for us to be able to come out here and hang out for a few minutes to take their minds off it and to take their parents' minds off it and get them in the Christmas spirit, it's a blessing."