Thomas Morstead Children's Minnesota

Saints punter Thomas Morstead presents a check with members of his foundation, What You Give Will Grow, Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels and the entire staff of the child life program at Children's Minnesota. (Joel A. Erickson/The Advocate)

MINNEAPOLIS  Thomas Morstead is sitting at a table in a packed food court in the Mall of America, one man amid an avalanche of people coming and going from Super Bowl LII's Radio Row.

Far more famous football players are roughly 20 yards away, making the rounds of radio interviews, with fans packed at the barrier, snapping pictures and asking for autographs.

A woman in an Eagles shirt stops and touches Morstead on the shoulder. She works with children. All she wants to say is thanks for what he's been doing. 

This has been happening all day. 

"I’m walking around in Minnesota, and people are recognizing me," Morstead said. "That's never happened in any scenario, right? For me, personally? That’s just crazy to me."

Morstead is making good on a promise to come back to Minnesota, to personally deliver the money he raised from the support Vikings fans poured on Morstead's foundation, What You Give Will Grow, for his toughness and sportsmanship in the Saints' stunning 29-24 loss in the NFC divisional playoffs. 

When a Vikings fan, Garrick Shurts, started the campaign in the wake of Minnesota's win, something took hold and took off. More people donated to Morstead's foundation in a couple weeks than in the history of his foundation.

Morstead knows what all the attention means.

Child life, the cause he's dedicated part of his life to helping, is getting the attention Morstead believes it sorely needs.

"People are asking, what is child life?" Morstead said. "They’re looking it up, and that's important because a lot of people give to charities, make donations to hospitals." 

Maybe more of that money will be earmarked for child life programs now.

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For most people, the idea of children coping with the physical toll of disease brings to mind new toys, the right coloring book, a pet to help distract a kid from the time he or she is spending in a hospital. 

Those things are tools. A child life specialist's role is much more difficult than that.

Imagine being a 5-year-old and trying to understand the medical process. 

Morstead has.

Why is a doctor poking and prodding areas that hurt with a needle? Why are they putting a port into my chest? Why do I have to take things that make me throw up and lose my hair?

"It’s almost like being a teacher in the hospital," says Sheila Palm, the child life manager at Children's Minnesota. "To help people with this experience, let this experience really be known, to understand it, to engage all the new people you’re meeting, seeing the new equipment, and we can help children put that together in an experience so they can cope."

But most child life programs are underfunded. Insurance companies do not reimburse hospitals and clinics for child life programs.

For that reason, child life programs have problems staffing enough people to cover the services that fall under pediatric care. Most cannot provide 24-hour care in emergency rooms. Specialty clinics often do not have the staff to help the kids that come there. 

And child life goes far beyond just medical trauma. 

"Child life’s not just about hospitals," said Dennis Lomonaco, the executive director of What You Give Will Grow. "It’s about kids in homeless shelters, kids in sexual abuse situations, anywhere there’s trauma that kids experience."

Morstead became aware of child life, both its benefits and its struggles with funding, through his friend James Ragan, who died at 20 because of pediatric bone cancer. When he started his foundation, What You Give Will Grow, he focused on helping the programs Ragan told him about.

The money Morstead has raised — $221,143 for Children's Minnesota, $114,787 for child life programs in Louisiana — will help make a dent in that lack of funding. 

Most will go to giving child life specialists more ways to help children. 

"People think about getting them cool toys or nice things to color or things they can do in the hospital to be kids," Morstead said. "We want to be a resource for the people that have to be there for these kids, and that’s really what we’re hoping the money will be used for — to continue to educate and help these child-life specialists get every resource they need."

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When Morstead finally arrived at Children's Minnesota at 1 p.m. Friday, the ceremony was far more than a mere presentation of a giant check to Palm and CEO Marc Gorelick. 

Morstead, humbled by the experience, thanked as many people as he could, including the class of fourth-graders he later took to The NFL Experience in recognition of their pooled $64 donation. He teared up while dedicating a portion of his donation to his grandmother, who died last summer and spent her life knitting caps for children who'd lost their hair.

Love Your Melon, an organization that knits caps for kids, donated caps of purple and black-and-gold in honor of Morstead's grandmother.

With the help of the Saints and the NFL, Morstead donated Super Bowl tickets to two child-life specialists.

Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels, the man Morstead tackled when he tore cartilage in his ribs, donated two Super Bowl tickets on behalf of his organization to a kid and his family.

Yesica Mercado Munoz, a 16-year-old from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, who suffers from type 1 diabetes and benefitted greatly from Children's Minnesota's child life program, read a poem written for Morstead, and the hospital presented a thumbprint tree that mirrored the logo for What You Give Will Grow. 

Twenty-five media outlets covered the event, and he'd already spent the day talking about child life on more outlets than he can count. 

Morstead spent most of the half-hour ceremony holding back tears. 

"You could never plan for this to happen," Morstead said. "And if you tried, it wouldn’t be as cool as it did."

Morstead's work is far from done.

The foundation's money for Louisiana is still being disbursed; the foundation will provide a certified training program for child-life specialists to learn how to help kids cope with disasters like hurricanes.

For one day, though, Morstead got a chance to see just how much reach a small gesture can have and reflect on what his foundation did in a few short weeks. 

"It’s a great reminder that there’s a lot of people out there that donated to some guy that they don’t even really know, and they wanted to be a part of doing something nice, just because," Morstead said. "That should inspire people at a very basic level."

Some would say it already has. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.