Pats Ninkovich helps ailing boy
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 for six years. "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."
They wheeled Riley from the field house onto the grass, flanked by family and friends -- and a few TV camera crews -- who turned out to see the kid, whom emcee and Tufts defensive end Zak Kline called "a fireball," burn bright. Cheerleaders hollered. A pep band blared the Tufts fight song. The crowd applauded and chanted his name.
Riley! Riley! Riley!
From his chair, clutching a powder-blue stuffed bear named Teddy beneath a fluttering Tufts flag, a white Jumbos helmet painted onto his hairless head, Riley watched as various players went through combine drills on the field. Relay races, distance throwing and push-ups. Riley's task was to predict the winners.
In the 40-yard dash, Tufts defensive back Patrick Glose toed the line against Nate Crary, the former listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, the latter, nicknamed "The Sea Monster," at 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. Kline solicited Riley's opinion befor the race. The little guy or the Sea Monster?
Riley picked the little guy.
Ninkovich discovered his biggest fan on a routine trip to the hospital.
Visiting the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston last year, in the last room he walked into, Ninkovich met Riley Roman. From that day, the two stayed in contact, trading texts through Riley's mother. Ninkovich kept telling Riley that the Patriots would get to the Super Bowl. After they lost in the playoffs, Ninkovich told him they'll make it next year.
"I really can't imagine how hard it is for him and his family to deal with what he's been dealing with the past few months," Ninkovich said. "I just wanted to be a friend, do anything I could to help him out, get him to change up his everyday grind of treatments and the things he has to do to try and beat this."
Nothing seems to slow down the kid who once smacked laser line drives so hard that he once injured an opponent on the baseball field. On Patriots Day this spring, he was watching the Boston Marathon with his mother after a week of treatments, and told her that he too wanted to run. They went out on the street, and went from telephone pole to telephone pole.
Ninkovich, along with his fiancee, Paige, drove to Western Massachusetts on an off-day in early January for Riley's birthday. They had hot chocolate, made by Riley and his mother from scratch. It was so good, they asked for more in paper cups for the ride home.
"Rob's not doing this for the TV cameras or the notoriety," said Dan Kraft, a 1987 Tufts graduate, board of directors member for Team IMPACT and president-international for the Kraft Group. "He's doing it because there's a real close affection and affinity between them."
Their relationship has only grown since. Riley autographed a football for Ninkovich and made him a Patriots pillowcase, which now covers the linebacker's favorite pillow. Last week, they saw "Chimpanzee" in theaters. At Tufts on Wednesday, Ninkovich was given a blue plastic wristlet by the Roman family, which he immediately put on. The inscription read, "Living the Life of Riley."
Though Ninkovich couldn't deliver a Super Bowl ring for Riley, he gave Riley his No. 50 New England Patriots jersey, requesting that he wear it every game for good luck. Andrea Roman sends pregame photo messages.
From the locker room, Ninkovich texts back.
"Nobody lives on a timeline," Ninkovich said. "It puts things in perspective as far as life. We can't control what happens to us. There's no way to ever know what's going to come around the corner. Live life as best you can and don't take anything for granted."
Mothers Day will mark the one-year anniversary of Team IMPACT, a non-profit that pairs collegiate teams with children facing life-threatening illnesses. The provided partnership is mutual. The potential pitfall of social isolation that often accompanies such situations is alleviated through athletic assimilation.
And on the flipside, there's perspective.
"This was a great way for us to end the year," Kline said. "We have testing and finals, but this moment rises above everything. It brings us closer together as a team and makes a positive impact, in not only the community but in our team mindset."
Boston College basketball adopted 12-year-old Robo Arcand last year. Teams at Brown, Bentley, UMass Lowell, Saint Anselm, Springfield and Curry have also joined the effort. Four members of Team IMPACT's board of directors are alumni of Tufts, where the latest friendships formed on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon.
"A big part of the concept is to provide the support, team camaraderie and the connection that you get through the vibrant, youthful teams and offer this to Riley through his battle," said Jay Calnan, a former Tufts defensive back and a Team IMPACT board member. "Riley is a shining example of how this program works."
On Tuesday night, Kline and five other players visited Riley in the hospital. Walking into the room, they saw the white Tufts helmet painted onto his head, Riley smiling ear to ear. Quiet from the treatment, Riley still managed to yell "Jumbo!"
Then Riley requested that, following the next day's ceremony, he and the players dance together, as new friends, to the Black Eyed Peas hit "I've Got A Feeling."
Following the mock combine, Riley was wheeled over to a table in front of a NCAA backdrop, typically reserved for news conferences, to announce his commitment to Tufts.
He received a varsity letter, a white helmet autographed by coaches and players, and a wallet, for all the money he'll make as a first-round draft pick.
He was presented with a sweatshirt, a T-shirt, a stuffed elephant and another T-shirt for Teddy. He got a silver metal chain link from receivers coach Tony Fucillo, a symbol of the group's tightness. Last, he was given a Tufts jersey.
Number 64. After Riley's favorite video game system: Nintendo 64.
Tufts coach Jay Civetti then brought out a certificate, marking the Jumbos' decision to bring Riley on board. With Ninkovich looking over Riley's right shoulder, his mother and a football-shaped balloon hovering over his left, Riley took a black Sharpie from Civetti and signed his name on the paper, in a script befitting a true 8-year-old warrior.
Alex Prewitt is a regular free-lancer for ESPN.com.