Any little boy who has thrown a football around the yard dreams of playing in the NFL. Heck, half the middle aged men in America sitting on their sofas working on their love handles during “the game” are still secretly dreaming about it.
The NFL. The pinnacle. The elite. The very top of a very long, very steep, very hard to climb ladder. It’s years of hard work, sweat, endless practices, study, physical exhaustion, pain, self denial and a personal inner drive that almost defies description. It’s the place where the best are separated from the merely very, very good. It’s the end of the line for a lot of dreamers.
Last week was the NFL draft. Last week, hundreds of hopeful college players sat by their phones, waiting for the call. And last week, for a handful of special young men, that dream came true.
One of them is VERY special to us.
Those of you patient enough to have followed my bloggish ramblings over the past year may remember that CJ is an enthusiastic member of Challenger football. Challenger is a football program that lets children with disabilities actually play the sports they love to watch and dream of. Challenger pairs these children with a volunteer “buddy” from a high school varsity team. Right from the start, there were some amazing young high school football players that came out to buddy with the kids.
One was a local Oviedo high school quarterback. He and CJ took to each other right away. Aside from partnering with CJ at the Challenger games, he would come by just to hang out and shoot hoops or to sit in CJ’s room with him and watch old football games. And I do mean old. As in, games from the 1990’s. Games from when before CJ was born.
CJ doesn’t watch the same football as the rest of us, and he doesn’t watch it the same way either. You see, CJ has memorized the old games…play by play. And when a big play comes along, CJ pauses and fast forwards through it…and then turns to tell you what happened. In the more than half a decade CJ’s buddy has been visiting him, I don’t think he’s seen one significant play on our TV. And he’s never once questioned it, redirected CJ, or lost patience with our grainy, flickering well-worn VHS tapes of forgettable football with all the good stuff “edited” out.
This young man has repeatedly been kind to my son…faithfully kind, and so very patient and full of good humor. And over time, as my trust in him grew, my mother’s heart healed a little bit and my faith in the good things in this world was given a boost. I was grateful, every time I saw CJ’s excitement when his buddy would visit, and I began to hope hard as I watched a dream unfold.
CJ’s buddy got to play football in college. He was red shirted his first year and did not start for a couple of years. It had to have been frustrating and he must have been discouraged at times. Even with college classes and practice and a steady romantic relationship to tend to, he continued to visit CJ when he could over the holidays. Once, he had three days off between exams and practice for his bowl game. He came and spent more than two hours of that time with CJ…you guessed it…NOT getting to see the big play.
I kept accusing his mother over and over of forcing him to come visit. She kept insisting over and over that she had not.
His jersey number in high school was # 9. In spite of his buddy having a perfectly good name, CJ insisted on calling him Number 9 at all times. We got used to it. However, once he was in college, he was no longer a 9. He was now # 5. CJ went out of his way to explain that Number 9 was Number 5. I am sure people thought poor CJ was so confused and did not know his numbers, but he was spot on in his own loyal way.
Four years of college came and went. Things started to change. CJ’s buddy was tapped to play. Bench went to second string to first string. Play he did. And the university team started to win. And win. And win. CJ’s pride and excitement for his buddy was a joy. He knows little about rankings or scouts or drafts. But he knows what a dream feels like.
Meanwhile, I was standing to the side with my mouth open, watching this young man’s star rise beyond wild dreams, holding my breath, watching his family holding their collective breath…so, so proud.
Not too long ago, CJ was watching old highlights from 50 years of FSU football. (Yes, we have old FSU games. We can’t help it.) CJ knows all the players, the plays and everything that has ever happened on the FSU field. That day’s respite worker asked him who his favorite player was. He answered right away that it was # 9. She was trying her best to figure out who #9 was, as there was no #9 on the TV screen.
Well…..#9 IS his favorite player EVER. #9 comes to his house. #9 spends time with him. #9 plays big football, but #9 is HIS friend. #9 is in the big photo framed on CJ’s wall. #9 has nothing to do with FSU and everything to do with CJ. # 9 is #5 now, but he’s still #9.
Last Thursday night, #9 was drafted into the NFL. He got the call. #3 draft pick and the #1 quarterback pick.
Let me say that again: #3 pick in the draft, and #1 quarterback.
Never, ever tell me dreams don’t come true. Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the NFL might think Blake Bortles is #5, but to CJ and me he is and will always be HIS #9.
In between pro days and the combine, Blake made a special trip out to Challenger practice to meet with the kids. We knew he was coming, but were not allowed to tell anyone. NO ONE. The coaches didn’t even know. Blake’s mom printed 200 5×7 photos and Blake signed his name to every one and took photos with the kids for over an hour. He did not leave until the last kid and parent had every photo and autograph they wanted. Keep in mind this is a young man who was just days away from the draft…someone under tremendous pressure from all sides…and this was where he choose to focus his time and attention.
We were not allowed to call the press. We were not allowed to even tell the Little League players he was coming. He came in the back way and went out the back way. This was before the draft and we wanted to help him get some good press going in. Coverage of an event like this could have been PR gold for Blake.
We offered to tell anyone that might help.
We wanted to make sure that people knew what kind of man he was when no one was looking.
That wasn’t why he was there. That was never why he’d been there. He got it, even if it took us a while to catch up.
CJ got it all along. Blake was there for HIM.
Of course, word did get out. Oviedo Little League was contacted last week by the National Little League. They wanted to know how Blake was connected to Challenger. They interviewed the director of Challenger. They wanted photos. An article was in the works. I sent in photos as requested, just as originally taken. The article just came out and CJ is mentioned.
I love that everyone now knows that THAT is how Blake acts when no one is looking. And I love that they know it after the draft, so they can believe it just like we always have.
(PS….his brother does exactly the same thing. His brother, Colby Bortles, plays baseball at Ole Miss. We’ll be seeing him in the MLB draft in a few years. Love, love, love those Bortles boys!)
Blake and his beautiful girlfriend Lindsey have been CJ’s friends, supporters and fans from those first football tosses on the Challenger field when no one could have imagined the paths two entirely different boys would take, or that a dream could be so generously shared.
To # 9 who is #5 but always #9, thank you…and I’m still holding my breath…for both boys.