A special bond

James Harrison and Kendle Haught share the same May birthday, something that quickly brings a smile to the seven-year old girl's face. But there is a much stronger bond that the two enjoy, one that goes much deeper than a date on the calendar.

It's an unlikely friendship of two people at opposite ends of the spectrum. Harrison is a hard-hitting linebacker, with amazing physical talents and rarely a smile on his face on the field. And then there is Haught, a soft-spoken, sweet young girl, whose physical skills are limited as she scoots around in a wheelchair, a result of Muscular Dystrophy, but whose smile is ever present and would light up Heinz Field.

They met when Harrison attended the Muscle Team Event several years ago, a Pittsburgh fund-raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The event pairs local athletes and firefighters with an MDA Goodwill Ambassador, who is a local child living with the neuromuscular disease, for an evening of fun and games.

There was something about Haught that touched Harrison, as she broke through the tough exterior and found a spot close to his heart.

As the two talked before this year's Muscle Team Event at Heinz Field, Haught quietly sang the praises of Harrison, time and again saying how nice he is, even when Harrison whispered in her ear, "No, say he is ferocious, he is real mean. We have to keep my reputation." She just couldn't do it.

"Kendle is what makes coming here special," said Harrison. "Ever since I first came here and met her it's really inspired me to want to come back year after year. This is real personal. You get to get close and personal with the child you are with and you are with the person for the event and do what you want to do."

The MDA Goodwill Ambassadors have the chance to play carnival and table games with the assistance of the athletes and firefighters.

"I get to see our kids experience a joy many don't get to," said Debbie Frick-Watts, the Regional Director for MDA. "For example, Kendle, who has been paired with James Harrison for two years now, they get along so well. Her eyes glow. He is a nice down to earth person. You see him on the football field and he has that look. With the kids they are gentle giants.

"This is their way to be a sports star because they are in a power chair. They are not able to go run track and field, but they get to be celebrities tonight. That way it's fabulous."

Harrison was joined at the event by current teammates Ramon Foster, Tyler Grisham, Ryan Mundy, Kraig Urbik and Justin Vincent. And at times, it was hard to tell who was enjoying themselves more, the kids or the adults.

"I love spending time with kids," said Mundy. "Any time you can spend quality time with them it's special."

Also on hand was former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who understands the importance of being involved in the community, especially when it involves children.

"Muscular Dystrophy is a terrible illness," said Russell. "It affects kids. To be here and watch these young people in their wheelchairs still having fun and playing, an event like this is meaningful."

For Foster and Harrison, it also had special meaning being that they have children. In Foster's case, he has dealt with health issues with his young son Ramon, Jr., who had to undergo surgery as an infant for a heart defect.

"As far as we have come with him and to see how he has become a bigger, stronger child, it was definitely a struggle for us in the beginning, but now there is always hope in the end," said Foster. "Hopefully my story someday can help parents down the line. Any time I can give back in that respect I try to."

Harrison knows how lucky he is to be on the other side, to have healthy children.

"I have been extremely blessed to have two children and both of them come out healthy and have no extreme issues," said Harrison. "I am happy and extremely blessed to have that. To come here and give something back is great."

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