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Georgia player Eric Stokes (27) strategizes his dodgeball game plan with a fellow camper. The Georgia football team makes its annual trip to Camp Sunshine in Rutledge, Georgia, on June 18, 2019. Camp Sunshine is a camp that caters to children and teens living with cancer. (Photo/Daniela Rico)

At the end of the third quarter of every University of Georgia football home game, fans turn on their phone flashlights and hold them up, to "light up Sanford," inspiring the team for its final fifteen minutes of play. At Camp Sunshine, the team repays that favor.  

Camp Sunshine is a camp for children who have been diagnosed with cancer. Though the organization hosts a multitude of events and programs for families and children dealing with cancer, one of its most well attended is the week-long summer camp programs in which the Georgia football team has visited annually since before the Kirby Smart era.

The Georgia football team has been paying visits to the camp since the Vince Dooley era.

The camp was founded in 1982 and moved to its current location in Rutledge in 1993.

The camp is designed to support children through educational, recreational and support programs.

Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart has his own personal experience with cancer. Smart’s older brother, Karl Smart, was diagnosed with cancer in high school and was a camper at Camp Sunshine.

"This place means a lot to my family, to my brother, to so many people that are here now," Coach Smart said.

The campers have come to know and love their idols on the Georgia football team, but it seems the players love venturing to the camp grounds even more.

"It is a privilege to be out here with these kids," senior defensive tackle Michael Barnett said. "It is fun, having fun with them and playing games and treating them like kids."

The visit on June 18 began on a rainy Tuesday after two buses full of red jerseys emptied, and the players convened in the gym. Once the rain slowed, players were taken on a tour of the facilities, including the camp radio broadcasting booth where junior quarterback Jake Fromm and sophomore defensive back Eric Stokes, among others, joked with the campers about what radio shows they would host.

Fromm said he would host a show about either sports or hunting and fishing. Stokes was adamant his knowledge of doughnuts would shine through.

After the tour concluded, the campers and players convened back in the gym to hear from both Coach Smart and his brother Karl. The players also signed autographs and took photographs with the campers.

Karl Smart’s message to the children was a simple one: "Dream bigger."

Karl Smart stressed the importance of family when he spoke on the gym stage. Being one of the first campers at Camp Sunshine, he is able to give back to the camp with frequent volunteer work.

The annual trip means as much for the Bulldogs’ head coach as it does for the players.

"I think they understand there’s kids out there that don’t have the benefit of the athletic prowess that they have," Coach Smart said. "They have to go through a lot tougher adversity."

Coach Smart is passionate about the cause, and he knows just how difficult life with cancer can be. Karl Smart placed an emphasis on the support he received from his brother and how important that was to his positive outlook on life.

"Being the family member of a cancer survivor, someone who went through it, all you want to do is try to help your sibling," Coach Smart said speaking to a crowd of media and campers. "A lot of times, that’s not just necessarily through words. That’s just through being there."

The Bulldog athletes always cherish the time they spend with the program, saying it’s a hands-on way for these players to impact the community.

"It’s unbelievable," Fromm said. "Just how eye opening it is. As soon as you throw on that jersey it is a different world. I am so thankful we have an opportunity to be on this stage and get to spend some time with some awesome people."

In just a short amount of time, Bulldog football players laughed, brought energy and played a mean game of dodgeball with the kids.

Several players described being touched by the days events.

"I just think it’s a really incredible experience," senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said. "The opportunity that playing for Georgia presents for you is something that we can be appreciative for years to come."

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