Number 9

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

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.

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

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.

Blake Bortles, Lindsey Duke and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles, Lindsey Duke and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

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.


  1. alisha says:

    so beautiful!

  2. Michelle says:

    A truly amazing story of 2 very special young men! Everyone should read this posting.

  3. kathyr says:

    I’m no football fan, but this was a wonderful account that i read to the end. Bravo for #9! May he always have his priorities this straight, and may God bless him in his career. How special that CJ and he are friends.

    you, btw, are an excellent writer!!!

    i don’t know how to do a heart symbol, so i’ll just do a smiley face!



  4. Mary Alexander says:

    What an impressive young men both Blake and CJ are! <3

    • Mary Alexander says:

      I tried to edit, but it wouldn’t let me. That should say, “What impressive young men both Blake and CJ are!”

  5. Cathey says:

    I have heard about these amazing young men for years thru CJ’s family members. I’m so happy for Blake’s success. He deserves all the best. CJ is truly a lucky young man to have such support from his parents, sister and Blake. Kathy, you are a great writer. Even though I don’t know much about football I read every word of your blog.

  6. Sarah B says:

    That’s fantastic! I’m not a Jacksonville fan, I cheer for the Saints, but I think I’ll be rooting for this young man any time he’s not playing “us”.

  7. Scott Moore says:

    I just read your wonderful post about CJ’s #9 and the impact that the relationship between these two young men has evolved into a friendship for the ages. I am a proud UCF alumnus and now an even prouder #9 (aka #5) supporter as Blake pursues his dreams in the NFL. My nephew and I ran into Blake at the UCF spring game in April and he was truly pleasant and engaging. May he and CJ continue their friendship and chasing that dream together. Thank you for sharing this inspirational story with all of us. With some of the things we hear in the media about athletes it is so awesome to hear this kind of testimony.

    • Kathleen Williams says:

      Thank you so much! Blake is as wonderful as he first appears. He is making UCF and Oviedo High School so proud! We are all behind him as he starts his career with Jacksonville! He will always be #9 to us, though!

      • Kathleen,
        You probably don’t remember me, but I was CJ’s teacher at SSMS my first year there (7 years ago). I saw CJ’s story on the news. It looks like he’s doing great. I am teaching students with autism at the TLA Academy which is part of United Cerebal Palsey.

  8. Craig Froehlich says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m a UCF graduate and season ticket holder and both my boys are huge fans of Blake. I’ve always read stories about his amazing character, but actually got to witness it first hand. Two days after the draft we happened to be at the Oviedo Ale House eating dinner and Blake was sitting a few tables from us with some of his friends. My kids were so excited, the waitress went over and asked if he would mind taking a picture with them. He said of course, he greeted each one of them, shook their hands and ask them their names. He even signed my daughter’s ipad case. They were on cloud 9 (#9 I guess)! As a father, I instantly knew that Blake was raised by incredible parents, they should be very proud. My sons look up to Blake and I couldn’t ask for a better role model for them.

    • Kathleen Williams says:

      I am so glad that you got to meet him. He does have incredible parents! The whole Bortles family is very special. One day you will have to get Colby’s autograph, too!

  9. Grammie says:

    Love the Bortles family and especially Blake and Colby who have made such a difference in CJ’s life. They both have always accepted him simply as a friend!

  10. Linda McClellan says:

    all I can say is WOW!! I had no idea- I had no idea that Blake was CJ’s friend. I had no idea of the depth of that friendship or that Blake took time out of his own day to be the man that you just described….I am in tears reading this. Kathleen, thank you for sharing this…for sharing this story about CJ and his #9

  11. Eileen Wray says:

    I think that everyone who meets Blake from now on, will come to know what a great guy he really is, we are UCF!!!!!

  12. Polly Fritts says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the story of these young men, Blake and CJ. I don’t know either but would be so honored to know them. I was born and raised in Jacksonville but gave up on the Jags several years ago. I’m back! I will be following Blake because of his abilities but mostly because he is an exceptional young man and the world needs to know about him. How refreshing to hear about the good guys. Thanks!

  13. Rob Gass says:

    I went to the UCF 2014 Spring Game, and who was sitting to my left but Blake. I watched him, throughout the whole game, graciously oblige every request for an autograph or photo, despite the fact that he was engaged in a conversation with the folks he was sitting next to. Blake is obviously such a well grounded young man, he has earned his success, and I’m sure he will carry it well.

  14. Marilyn says:

    You wrote an exquisitely written column. The mothers of all of these boys are gifted to be able to raise such loving admirable men.

  15. runbei says:

    Thank you for this – it’s a wonderful story, made my day. Will share it with many friends.

  16. Reed Damron says:

    I’m a UGA fan and from now on a big Blake Bortles fan. The most impressive part (of a very impressive story) is Blake requesting no media coverage of his pre-draft visit. That tells you exactly where his heart is. May God Bless Mr. Bortles and his family. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Dianne Birmingham says:

    Amazing-I have tears in my eyes. I am a special ed teacher in a very large high school and I love my kids. What a wonderful young man–a very special young man. Thank you.

  18. Ken Waite says:

    Just became an instant Blake Bortles fan. And this is from a Louisville/Teddy Bridgewater fan! Classy young man with his head on straight.

  19. Lori Bruhns says:

    This is the best article! Thank you for sharing!!!

  20. Gil says:

    You got a Hero tag on fark.
    Hope your servers are good 🙂

    Nice story, great person.

  21. MT says:

    What a great read and to think he now plays for the Jags. 🙂
    We need a good leader and man of his character here in Jax and i’m very excited about his and the Jags future.


  22. Drew Miller says:

    Reading this while eating breakfast and my wife is confused by the tears running down my face. As I wipe them away, I tell her to just read the article. Very uplifting and a wonderful way to start the rest of the day. So proud to be a UCF grad right now and I’m rooting hard for Blake, Colby, CJ and all the kids at Challenger Football.

    • Kathi says:

      I’ve been a Jaguars fan since they were brought to Jacksonville on my birthday (November 30). Mark Brunnel and Tony Bosseli have always been who I think of whenever the Jaguars are mentioned. Jacksonville provided a wonderful family, Florida star and Heisman winner,(I don’t need to even say his name) and now I hear about #9. I have a new star (in every way) to watch for on Sundays. By the way, I’ll be watching with my “Challenger” son, Paul.

  23. I too am a big UCF fan, and a HUGE Blake Bortles fan. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

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