Republic FC midfielder Gabe Gonzalez admits he was probably as nervous as some of the young patients he visited recently at UC Davis Children’s Surgery Center.
It was Gonzalez’s first visit to a hospital as a representative of the popular Sacramento soccer club, and he had some initial reservations.
“In the beginning, you are kind of hesitant because you don’t know if you are going to be good for the part,” said Gonzalez, a first-year member of the team. “But it was great that I came with ‘RoRo’ because he’s good at breaking the ice. I could follow his lead.”
RoRo is Rodrigo Lopez, Republic FC’s star player and a veteran of hospital visits. The engaging Lopez has been to various units of the UC Davis Children’s Hospital at least a half-dozen times since Republic FC partnered with the facility.
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Republic FC has been a huge success, drawing sellout crowds to Bonney Field, winning the USL championship in its inaugural season and making a strong bid to join Major League Soccer. The club’s personable players are winning even more converts off the field with their visits to hospitals, schools, churches and various other community events. In all, the players have donated 250 hours and the club 400 hours.
Veteran goalkeeper Dominik Jakubek grew up in Lodi and played at San Joaquin Delta College, Sonoma State and Chico State. He has coached and trained area club players for several years before landing a backup role with Republic FC.
“The way this city has embraced us, the way the fans support us, we love doing our part,” Jakubek said.
Jakubek represented Republic FC at a Feed My Starving Children benefit last summer at William Jessup in Rocklin and helped distribute gifts to elementary school students in Elk Grove in December.
“We put together boxes that included rice, ground protein, beans, vegetables,” Jakubek said of the Rocklin benefit. “Then they are shipped around the world. It’s a great cause, and it was neat to be a part of because there were hundreds of volunteers trying to make the world a better place.”
It also gave Jakubek a chance to tell the uninformed about the minor-league team.
“Some of the more curious were asking why some of the volunteers were taking pictures with me,” Jakubek said. “I’d tell them, ‘Hey, I’m with Sac Republic. I came here to help you out.’ It’s pretty inspiring when people say thank you.”
Forward Thomas Stewart, with his engaging personality, has been a popular choice at numerous community events and school visits.
“We love giving back to the community because there are a lot of people interested in Republic, and once they get to know the players, there’s a little bit of a bond,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the hospital visits have had the biggest impact on him, “because you see a lot of people suffering injuries or who are unfortunate with their health.”
Lopez is Republic FC’s go-to representative for interacting with sick and injured children and their parents. That role hits close to home for the 2014 USL first-team midfielder because he spent several nerve-racking days in the hospital when his son Roman, now 2, was born with a heart condition.
“It’s extra special for me to come out here,” Lopez said. “You see these kids fighting and suffering and how strong they are, so you want to do whatever you can to help put a smile on their face.”
Lopez coaxed a smile from Rose, a shy 5-year-old and budding artist, and had an animated conversation with Jayovonnie – the 6-year-old did most of the talking – during the visit to the surgery center. Jayovonnie got the best of Lopez as they played baseball on the child’s Wii.
Dena Lemus, Rose’s mother, and Cynthia Faulk, Jayovonnie’s mother, didn’t know much about Republic FC, but they came away impressed with the visitors.
“I think it’s great they’re doing this,” said Lemus of Sacramento. “For children to have to come to a hospital for any type of procedure, they are nervous, and there’s a lot of anxiety. To have someone famous take time out from their schedule to come and talk to the kids, it’s great.”
Added Faulk, a Woodland resident: “I think it’s really sweet, especially for the little ones like my son. He’s such a huge sports fan. (Lopez) is so comfortable and natural around the kids. You can see he cares, that it’s not for show.”
The players’ biggest fans were among the hospital staff; Lopez and Gonzalez posed for a group photo with the doctors and nurses in the surgery center.
Nurse Heather Sims is a member of the Tower Bridge Battalion, the boisterous rooting section at Republic FC matches. She wore a Battalion T-shirt under her hospital gown.
“The team is great,” she said. “They’re entertaining on the field, and they’re very interactive with the fans.”
Sims said Lopez is a special favorite.
“We love RoRo for obvious reasons,” Sims said. “He’s very friendly, very charismatic, and he’s an awesome player. It means a lot for these kids. They’re pretty scared because they are about to go in for surgery.”
Afterward, Gonzalez was pleased he visited and wants to do it again.
“I felt a little iffy coming in, but now that I’m leaving, I have a totally different feeling,” he said. “You never know if you might impact someone’s life or at the very least put a smile on their face.”
- Saturday: Republic FC at Arizona, 7:30 p.m.