RUTLAND, Ga. -- The game was dodge ball. The battlefield was once the basketball court of the gymnasium at Camp Twin Lakes, but now it was a war zone. Chromatic spheres zipped across the boundary separating the two factions like a horizontal hail storm. The cacophony of yelled instructions, encouragement, accusations and bravado was deafening.
The two warring factions were comprised in part of some 40 teenagers who were taking part in Camp Sunshine, a camp especially designed for kids coping with the effects of cancer. They were joined on both sides by members of the University of Georgia football team who were visiting that day. After signing autographs, posing for pictures, and playing a touch football game as well as rounds of mini-golf, tennis and basketball, the players split up to engage in the wanton destruction that is dodge ball.
One brave soul rushed the boundary to pick up loose ammunition. Inside linebacker Kosta Vavlas didn't make it 10 feet before a he was engulfed by a relentless volley of balls to the head, neck, sides and, in an especially embarrassing moment, buttocks as he turned and fled to avoid the deluge. Teammate Shaun McGee took particular delight in coordinating the attacks on his opposing teammates. The balls he threw at the campers had zip – no one here wanted to be coddled, they wanted to play. The balls McGee threw at teammates though, those left a mark. Observers (who were not immune to collateral damage) could hear those balls whistle threw the air.
Those same observers would be hard pressed to say which group was having more fun. As the day had progressed, the Georgia players went from being representatives of the Bulldogs, slightly unsure of what to do, to being big kids just slightly older than the campers themselves. The campers also became more comfortable with the players, and intimidating behemoths like the 6-foot-7 Xzavier Ward became approachable. Campers who had covered their mouths and giggled while taking a photo with Todd Gurley would later lean casually on Sterling Bailey's broad shoulder.
Then the smack talk began.
It started innocently enough during the touch football game, when a young camper told wide receiver Chris Conley that once the camper put on his shoes, Conley wouldn't be catching a pass. Conley responded in kind by throwing a touchdown pass when he lined up at quarterback. Another camper drilled Nathan Theus with a tennis ball during their match, prompting laughs all around. Kicker Marshall Morgan took a turn on a drum set in the cafeteria but was promptly kicked off by a camper whose drum solo astounded everyone. The camaraderie and laughter continue throughout the day, the apex being the take-no-prisoners dodge ball battle.
A barefoot Hutson Mason sat on a side table in the middle of the conflict, watching the combatants dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. While both sides would have liked to have the accurate Bulldogs' quarterback hurling balls for their team, Mason held himself out, nursing a black eye he picked up recently in an intramural basketball game. As the chaos raged all around him, the cerebral signal caller seemed introspective and reserved.
"It's humbling," Mason said. "To sit here and see some kids in a wheelchair and some kids that can barely walk…I was just doing a little pondering, thinking about the people in my family and how we have been blessed. No one in my family has ever had cancer. You feel like, 'Why do I deserve to be so lucky?' "
Mason wasn't gloomy – far from it. In fact earlier in the day a camper cracked him up with a song lyric.
"One of the kids in the painting cabin said, 'I'm not here for a long time, but I'm here for a good time,' " Mason said. "And I said, 'Well that's George Strait! I like it buddy.' So that kind of made me laugh. It was pretty cool to hear a quote like that from a young kid who has cancer."
Although the trip to Camp Sunshine is a yearly event for the Georgia football team, they aren't forced to go. Some, like Vavlas, have made the trip every year they've been in school. Others told campers they would be back next year, including Conley, who will graduate after this season.
So much is written when a Georgia player is dismissed from the team or transfers to another school. Talk radio spends hours dissecting sometimes imaginary and sometimes real problems with the players, coaches or administration. A visit like this one gets much less press. A visit initiated by the players themselves gets even less.
Take Cooper Smith for example.
"Last week we went to see a kid who is a huge Georgia fan at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta," Mason said. "We took a bunch of guys to surprise him. He had just had his second heart surgery. His cousin told us on Twitter that Cooper had to have three big heart surgeries."
Unprompted by the school or coaches, the players took it upon themselves to do a good deed.
"Keith Marshall kind of led it and we all said we should go see this kid," Mason said. "It was a good group of us: Todd, Malcolm [Mitchell], Keith, [Michael] Erdman, Kosta Vavlas was in there, David Andrews, Reggie Carter and a few other guys. He had his surgery on Monday and we went on Wednesday and the only person that knew we were coming was his dad."
No media outlet or representative was invited to accompany the players. There was not an accompanying press release. It was a spontaneous trip after morning workouts and a grueling 7-on-7 practice. Nor were the players looking for headlines according to Mason. However, the players did mention on the way that their trip would "never make it into the paper but if any one of us screws up it will be in the paper."
Their arrival was rather overwhelming.
"The kid was so shy but he was a diehard UGA fan," Mason said. "We sat there and Chris said a real nice prayer for him and we signed a bunch of stuff. His mom started crying and you could see how much it really meant to them. It was awesome."