I’ll admit it … I grew up hating the Florida State Seminoles.
As someone grew up appreciating the values of Midwestern college football, I found the Seminoles to be just a little too smug, a little too cocky and a little too boastful for my tastes. And that was just how they acted on the field. Off the field, it seemed like nary a week went by in which one of the Florida State football players was getting into some sort of skirmish with the law.
As far as I was concerned, hey earned the nickname “Florida State Creminoles.”
So loathsome did I find the Seminoles that, as a young man, I almost ended up cheering for Notre Dame when the two teams played.
Almost. Things never quite got that out of hand.
As I got older, my opinion of the Florida State football program didn’t change much — if anything, it may actually have gotten worse. The most recent episode involving Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston and his alleged crimes against a coed 0nly further cemented my feelings that the only good thing ever to come out of the Florida State football program was Burt Reynolds.
Until this week, that is.
Earlier this week, a group of Florida State football players went to have lunch with students at Montford Middle School in Tallahassee, Fla. — a nice enough gesture in and of itself, but what happened next was nearly enough to make me start singing the Florida State fight song.
One of the players, wide receiver Travis Rudolph, noticed a young man sitting by himself, completely isolated from the rest of his classmates. Rudolph slid up a chair next to the young man, Bo Paske, and asked if he could have lunch with him.
Rudolph munched on two slices of pizza while chatting with Paske, who was eating his packed lunch. What Rudolph didn’t know at the time — and what continues to bring tears to my eyes every time I read this story — is that Bo has autism.
Someone at the school snapped a picture of the two eating lunch and sent it to Bo’s mother, Leah Paske. She later posted the picture, along with this message, on her Facebook page:
“I do remember middle school being scary, and hard. Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them. Sometimes I’m grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn’t seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice that he doesn’t get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn’t seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It’s one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it’s nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He is a super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets.
A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption “Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son” I replied “who is that?” He said “FSU football player”, then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my sons school today. I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes. Travis Rudolph thank you so much, you made this momma exceedingly happy, and have made us fans for life! #travisrudolph #gonoles #autismmom#fansforlife”
Like millions of other parents with a child on the autism spectrum, I know exactly how Mrs. Paske feels every day she sends her child off to school. I have the same fears and concerns for my son, Max. I always worry whether he’ll ever be truly accepted.
Thanks to Rudolph, a player for a team I used to — emphasis on “used to” — hate, though, I have found a little bit of hope. There are still good people out there who are willing to give freely of themselves. What may have seemed like a small gesture at the time turned out to be far more monumental — for Bo, for his mother and for all of us — than anyone could possibly have imagined.
As college football season swings into high gear this weekend, I’ll be cheering hardest for my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. But thanks to a young man from Florida State, I think I may be cheering on another team, as well.
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong