VOLUNTEER SPIRIT: Former Tennessee DL reunites with child he visited in NICU
By: John Dunn
The All Vol Call in Show
Call it coincidence, serendipity, or anything else you want to, but no matter what you call it, a recent reunion between former Tennessee defensive lineman Marlon Walls and a young child he visited in the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital NICU during his time as a player is beautiful.
While attending the University of Tennessee, Walls, among others, was often offered the opportunity to visit East Tennessee Children’s Hospital to help encourage young patients, and hopefully make their day a little better. Former “VFL Coordinator” Antoine Davis would come around to players and ask if they wanted to go visit the kids in the hospital, an opportunity at which many jumped at, including Walls.
During one of those visits, Walls and his teammates met a young girl named Ellie Kate. Immediately, there was a connection.
“Back in 2013, VFL Coordinator Antoine Davis approached a few of us after weight lifting and asked us if we wanted to go visit the children in ETCH,” said Walls. “We jumped at the opportunity to do something meaningful, especially with children. When we started, we started going about twice a month, but it wasn’t long before a few of us, myself included, were going back multiple times a week; just as often as we could.”
“Once you’ve gone, it’s truly humbling,” Walls continued. “Having a daughter myself, it really hit home with me. I could never imagine what it feels like to be in that situation, and if I had an opportunity to make someone’s day a little better, it was the least I could do. When God says ‘move’, you move. I loved going to visit Ellie Kate in the NICU. She was so little and so precious.”
Walls' step-daughter recently competed in a softball tournament, where an unexpected reunion took place. Following one of the games in the tournament, Walls was approached by a woman named Whitney. Whitney informed Walls that she was Ellie Kate’s mother, and the two began to reminisce about Walls’ visits to the NICU. It wasn’t long before Walls and Ellie Kate were face-to-face again for the first time in years.
“I was absolutely blown away by how big she had gotten,” Walls said with a laugh. “I remembered her as this tiny little girl, and here she was in front of me playing softball and having fun. I’m still mind-blown at the fact that we were there, in the same place, at the same time. I loved going to the NICU when I was at Tennessee. Forming those relationships and bonds with the children and their parents meant a lot to me, and still does. I’m thankful to have reconnected with Ellie Kate.”
Whitney and her husband Zack are both Tennessee alumni, and were always grateful to see Walls and his teammates on their visits to ETCH.
“We were in the NICU for what seemed like forever,” said Whitney. “Ellie Kate was very sick. We had been there through basketball and football season, just constantly in the hospital. We always loved to see the players come to visit. It made things better. We had just gone from students to parents, and are big fans of all the athletic programs at Tennessee. Having the players in there helped distract us all from some of the worry and monotony of being in the NICU so long.”
“You could immediately tell that they weren’t there for publicity or anything like that,” Whitney expounded. “They would come and visit on their own time, and they all always wanted to hold her. They were always very down-to-earth. It meant the world to us. It still has an impact on us. Ellie Kate has the photo of her and Marlon on her iPad, and thinks it’s the ‘coolest picture ever’. She loves to tell all of her friends about how she is friends with a former Tennessee football player.”
Ellie Kate is now a happy, healthy young lady, who gives back to her community. Every year, Ellie Kate has a lemonade stand, and donates the proceeds to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, where she spent time as an infant. She treasures her friendship with Walls, and loves the University of Tennessee, and even wants to cheer there one day.
“Marlon is really cool,” said Ellie Kate. “He played football at Tennessee. He is very big, and he is very nice. We are all going to go swimming soon, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun; Marlon is a lot of fun. We are going to deliver toys to the hospital together very soon. I am very glad I saw him again at the softball game.”
From the NICU, to the softball fields, and back, Walls’ and Ellie Kate’s friendship has come full circle, as they plan on giving back to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in multiple ways, showing exactly what the “Volunteer Spirit” is all about.