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On the bottom floor of a red-brick art gallery adjacent to the football field on the campus of Tufts University, the New England Patriots linebacker knelt beside a wheelchair and touched the arm of his 8-year-old friend.
Rob Ninkovich lowered his 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame, meeting the eye level of Riley Roman, a South Hadley, Mass., resident suffering from a crippling illness yet blessed with an indomitable spirit.
Together they smiled.
Buoyed by an unrelenting support system, Riley -- who has been living at the Ronald McDonald House with his mother, Andrea, while undergoing treatment for a recently diagnosed brain tumor -- arrived Wednesday in Somerville, Mass., for a tryout with the Tufts football team, an opportunity for the lifelong athlete and fan to once again become part of a team.
And in conjunction with Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization committed to connecting children with life-threatening illnesses to a team-based support system, Ninkovich and members of the Tufts football community arrived to make a young warrior's dream come true.
"It's not about having a relationship with an NFL player or even a football player," said Ninkovich, who has played for the Patriots since 2009. "I just want to be a part of his life, to put a smile on his face and make him happy. I call him my buddy. That's my buddy out there. He knows that he's got a friend who's always going to be out there for him.