When he was turning five, Tyler Kessler received a kidney from his grandmother. Four years later, cancer was detected in his abdomen and chest, and his body rejected the transplanted kidney. Which is why he was forced to endure, at age 10, concurrent regimens of chemotherapy and kidney dialysis.
When he was 12, Tyler was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, a side effect of his chemo. Another medication left him hearing-impaired. Withdrawing from the world, he stopped speaking for almost three months. "Sometimes," confesses Tyler, who turned 14 on Christmas, "I felt like I was going to die."
But by then Tyler's father had begun a protocol previously unheard of in the annals of medicine: Bob Kessler resolved, in the fall of 2000, to take Tyler to a game in every NFL stadium and to share with him, after each of those games, the largest steak available in that city. "Tyler loves football," explains Bob, a regional director for Barnes & Noble. "And he likes a big piece of meat."
This is startling, if only because Tyler--for a host of medical reasons--is 4'6" and weighs 70 pounds. And yet, almost immediately, the Kesslers began to witness the curative powers of football and steak. "Wherever we would go," says Bob, "something special seemed to happen."
At the St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis, after a Colts-Broncos game last season, a waiter who was chatting with Tyler abruptly escorted him and his brother, Cameron, into a private dining room where Peyton Manning was eating with his family. "I didn't think it was polite because they were in the middle of a meal," says Tyler. "Peyton asked if I played football, and I said, 'I can't because I had a kidney transplant,' and he said, 'Oh, well, did you have fun at the game?' Then he signed my tickets, a hat, a photo of himself, a book...." The two talked for 20 minutes.
In Philadelphia, Tyler met Terrell Owens. "I know people think he's a bigmouth," says Tyler. "But he was a really, really nice guy. He asked me if I played football, and I said, 'No, I had a kidney transplant,' and he said, 'Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that.' He talked to me for 15 minutes."
Three weeks ago in Green Bay in a hotel lobby, Tyler met Randy Moss hours before the Vikings receiver mock-mooned Packers fans. "He was wearing a fur hat and a big furry coat and two large necklaces," says Tyler. "He looked kind of weird." But Moss signed autographs for, and talked with, the child, who now forms his own opinions of athletes, unfiltered by media.
So far Tyler has been to games in 24 of the league's 32 stadiums and has filled a trophy case with signed memorabilia in the family's Bethlehem, Pa., den. Several Saturdays each fall Bob and Tyler travel--on faith and frequent-flier miles--to an NFL city, leaving home with no connections, no publicity and often no tickets. Still without a kidney, Tyler packs three gym bags with dialysis fluid, his six daily meds, his daily growth-hormone shots and his portable dialysis machine, to which he is hooked up for 10 hours a night. Bob is inseparable from his cellphone, as Tyler is on a kidney waiting list at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"Scalpers see my son," says Bob, "and I don't know if they sense vibes or feel sympathy, but I know we're not paying as much as two other guys would."
Tyler and his dad have become adept at striding confidently past parking-lot security to stake out team buses. When St. Louis Rams receiver Torry Holt gathers Tyler in his arms, as he did in Atlanta, Bob can scarcely speak. "When Tyler is talking to Ben Roethlisberger outside the bus in Buffalo, I stand back and see my son just memorizing the moment," he says.
After returning home, Tyler replays those moments for his mother, Colleen; his 12-year-old sister, Caitlin; and Cameron, now six, who had a successful kidney transplant--from his mother--when he was four. "Tyler tries to explain who these players are, and I never know them," says Colleen. "But I know Todd Steussie. He's been wonderful." The lineman, now with Tampa Bay, befriended Tyler at his team's bus last year and has since phoned and e-mailed the Kesslers and gotten them tickets, including five for the Super Bowl in Houston last year.
Tyler's hoping to find tickets to this year's Super Bowl. And he would still love to meet John Elway, Dan Marino and Brett Favre. But if you ask who his heroes are, he replies, "I think my body is my hero because it helps me fight off diseases and viruses. But my dog Sparky is also my hero because he's my one best friend."
A seventh-grader at Saucon Valley Middle School, Tyler says, "Some people in my school think I can give them cancer." But he's been cancer-free for 27 months now. And those kids will learn, as those players he has met seem to know, that we're all judged by how we treat the least fortunate among us.
Of course, it's just a coincidence that Tyler was born on Christmas, comes from Bethlehem and now travels the land changing lives, one Sunday at a time.
For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to SI.com/writers.
In 24 of the NFL's 32 cities 14-year-old Tyler Kessler has experienced the curative powers of football and steak.