- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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Joslyn Levell longed for a dance partner.
Yet no one would accommodate, until Bears sixth-round pick J.T. Thomas -- an outside linebacker from West Virginia University -- stepped in after a chance meeting. Thomas asked Levell out for the date of a lifetime Friday night at the Suncrest Middle School prom in Morgantown, W.Va.
An engaging 14-year-old who listens mostly to pop music, but extols the verbal ferocity of rappers Lil Wayne, Drake and her favorite, Eminem, Levell seems like most teenage girls obsessing in "Twilight," the latest gossip and fads.
However, she's anything but average. She knows it. She owns it.
"She's a cool little girl," Thomas says.
But unlike most little girls, Levell also has spina bifida, a birth defect which occurs -- according to the Spina Bifida Association of America -- in seven out of every 10,000 births in the United States, and confines her to a wheelchair.
Levell says, "I can't help if I was born this way," acknowledging the condition leads to people "having trouble accepting that I'm different," while possibly playing a role in her not being asked out for the prom.
Levell even took initiative to remedy her date dilemma, but "got turned down seven times in one week."
"All the guys at school don't like me," she said. "They're like jerks."
Thomas' 7-year-old brother, Jared, is autistic, and rides the same school bus as Levell.
Levell describes Jared as "the sweetest little boy," and on occasion he arrives at the bus stop with this hulking, 6-foot-1, 241-pound figure -- big brother J.T. -- who had just wrapped up a stellar career across town at West Virginia University.
Usually on the ride home from school, Levell rambles to bus driver Jake Tennant about what's going on at school and in her life but, most of all, with her beloved Chicago Bears. Levell's mother, Jennifer, grew up in Wrigleyville, and attended Lake View High School. The family moved from Wrigleyville to Morgantown in 2009, but its love for the Bears stayed firmly rooted.
"She always talks about how she loves the Bears and how we're from Chicago," Jennifer Levell said.
And before long, Joslyn connected the dots and realized that Jared's big brother, J.T., had been drafted by her beloved team. Little did she know, though, how much the bus driver remembered about her devotion to the Bears.
"When J.T. came back after the draft, the bus driver called and asked a favor," recalled J.T.'s stepmother, Rochelle.
Tennant explained Joslyn's love for the Bears to Rochelle, and asked if her stepson would step onto the bus one day to introduce himself to the little girl, maybe sign an autograph or two.
The next day, last Friday, when Jared Thomas' bus arrived at the bus stop, J.T. climbed aboard and found Joslyn, who was wearing a Chicago Bears ball cap. Thomas introduced himself, signed the hat and posed for pictures with Joslyn.
Then J.T. asked Joslyn how life was treating her.
"She was sad," Joslyn's mother said. "None of the boys were asking her to the prom, and the boys she did ask turned her down."
Joslyn explained the situation to J.T.
"All the guys at school are mean to me, and I was talking to him about that," Joslyn recalled telling the Bears linebacker. "I got turned down all those times. So I was kind of upset."
As J.T. listened closer, Joslyn's voice cracked, and tears started to roll down her face.
"She started to get emotional. I just felt like the people she got turned down by, they weren't looking at her as a person," Thomas said. "They were looking at what she didn't have, instead of what kind of person she was. I told her not to worry about it. Those things would work themselves out."
That day, at least, they didn't. But the conversation had an effect on both of them.
"He's awesome," Joslyn said. "He's so nice. I can tell he's really down to earth, not like a phony. He's grounded, not big headed the way you might think other big celebrities might be."
The big date
Almost immediately after that initial meeting, J.T. Thomas couldn't stop thinking about the "cool little girl" he'd just met.
So Thomas, 22, asked Rochelle to call Suncrest Middle School officials to see if he could escort Joslyn to the prom. School officials told him he'd have to sign a release and pay $5 for a ticket. So, the next day -- last Saturday -- Thomas called Joslyn to ask if he could escort her to the prom.
"I was shocked when he called. I knew [after the conversation on the bus] something would go down like that, but I didn't know anything like this would happen," Joslyn said. "Mom was trying to be sneaky, but she wasn't that successful."
Like most middle school gossip, within a half hour of J.T.'s invitation, "the whole school knew," Joslyn said. Three hours and seven stores afterward, Joslyn and Jennifer had picked out a smoky-blue number with a black overlay, replete with intricate embroidery.
"It's actually a really pretty dress," Jennifer Levell said.
In addition to the dress, Joslyn will visit a Morgantown hair salon Friday to get her hair done for the big occasion. J.T. Thomas, meanwhile, plans to "pick her up," present a corsage and keep things "traditional."
According to the Spina Bifida Association of America, the average lifetime cost to society for treatment of each infant born with the ailment is approximately $532,000. For Thomas and Levell, however, the return on a $30 corsage and a $5 ticket to the Suncrest Middle School prom might prove much more valuable.
Levell said: "I've accepted how I am. I do want to be normal. I've been practicing walking with a walker, and been doing really good so far."
None of that matters to Thomas, though, after a chance meeting with a 14-year-old with an infectious personality.
"I came to see her on that bus because I heard she was a die-hard Bears fan," Thomas said. "This is just about her being happy. Although that dance might last two or three hours, she might have something to remember for the rest of her life. Anytime you can affect someone's life positively like that, why not?
"How brave of her to ask to see me; she has no idea," he added. "I'm just as nervous as her about going to the prom. The thing is, we're all the same people, and that's what I want to stress to her and everybody else."