TODAY   |  November 02, 2012

NFL star: Helping sick kids ‘better than a touchdown’

Pro bowler and Atlanta Falcon tight end Tony Gonzalez is making a difference in the lives of sick children  by passing out little dolls called shadow buddies that help them cope with cancer, heart defects and other conditions they’re fighting. NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren reports.

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>>> kids. obviously being sick is not only a scary experience for kids, but can also make them feel different. that's why atlanta falcon tony gonzalez makes sure that kids know they have a buddy. nbc's kristen dahlgren has more.

>> reporter: these kids are called shadow buddies, kids with cancer, kids with inhalers, teaching them about their illness and making them feel less alone and even a big strapping football player like tony gonzalez can get a lot from these dolls and the children he gives them too-to-

>> ryan's first throw of the game. a third down conversion to tony gonzalez .

>> reporter: a 12-time pro bowler , tony gonzalez has been called one of the best tight ends to ever play the game , but it wasn't always that way.

>> i was the worst kid on the team.

>> reporter: as a child, he was scared, bullied.

>> this guy would come down to my school every single day and wait for me.

>> reporter: but he decided to stop living in fear, and things started to click for the young player. he became an all-american, was drafted by the kansas city chiefs , and then again learned life isn't always easy.

>> i just cracked under the pressure and i dropped 17 balls that year, led the league in drops? a teammate gave gonzalez a book of vince lombardi quotes, and the tight end realized he'd have to work harder at the game.

>> you have to go out there and do more than anybody else, and that's what the great ones do. when i go out before practice now, i catch, you know, at least 50 balls before practice even starts.

>> reporter: he changed his life off the field as well, and looked for a way to give back. what he found was a second family.

>> miles is my little brother .

>> reporter: miles is miles postelwaite born prematurely with multiple birth defects . will the had dozens of surgeries when gonzalez met him in the 1990s . he complained about not having any friends like him and his mom made him a doll and shadow buddies were born. just as the friendship between tony and miles grew, so did their cause.

>> this is the cesare buddy, and he's got a little helmet.

>> reporter: shadow buddies are 24 condition-specific dolls, little friends for kids who can feel all alone, whether they are suffering from heart defects , asthma or cancer.

>> you can see the hair is falling off, just like the child.

>> reporter: tony, and now his wife october, visit hospitals to help distribute the buddies. to date the tony gonzalez foundation has handed out more than 55,000. many who wear number 88 and look a little familiar.

>> you think it looks like me?

>> my family is a big falcons fan, aren't we?

>> reporter: for kids in the hospital and their parents, it can be a big boost.

>> we're happy because it's kind of sad, like i've been here for four or five day.

>> this is the most i've seen amani smile the whole time we've been here.

>> reporter: it's not always easy.

>> you go into a cancer ward and you see kids that aren't going to make it.

>> reporter: but for gonzalez there is nothing like it.

>> when you do go in there and you bring a smile to one of these kid's faces, way better than scoring a touchdown.

>> reporter: he says the kids teach him about being tough.

>> and this one is a boy that has falcons.

>> had a smile on her face all day.

>> as athletes we only have a short window and we want to make it count.

>> reporter: at 36 gonzalez says this is his last season in the league.

>> the hope is the same hope i've had since my rookie year and that's to win a super bowl .

>> reporter: ring or not, he has no plan to leave the shadow buddies team, a cause that he says changed his life, too.

>> every time i talk to kids, i always tell them that story, it's not about how you start, it's how you finish.

>> reporter: tony says that he wishes he could bottle up how good it makes him feel to help these kids and share them with anyone. in case you're wondering miles is 24 and he and tony are still great friends.

>> you can tell how much it means to him.

>> reporter: oh, yeah.

>> that's terrific. kristen, thank you