- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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He was a sixth-round pick who hadn't played a down all season, so it didn't surprise Chicago Bears linebacker J.T. Thomas that most of the kids who attended the team's annual holiday party for children weren't that interested in his autograph.
But one was: 14-year-old Anthony Grandberry from the South Side of Chicago.
Grandberry swore he knew who Thomas was. And even though the rookie from West Virginia was skeptical, he gladly gave Anthony an autograph.
"Honestly, he made me feel like a Pro Bowler," Thomas says, smiling.
A small gesture can make a lasting impression. Thomas was feeling sorry for himself when he met Anthony in December. His first season in the NFL hadn't been at all what he'd hoped. He was put on Chicago's injured reserve list before the season because of lingering hamstring and back issues. It was tough for him to accept that he was a nonfactor for the Bears.
So it mattered that Anthony, who has had severe epilepsy since he was 7 years old, made Thomas feel special that Dec. 13 afternoon at the party at Soldier Field. The player made a vow that he would someday return the favor.
A returned favor might be some free Bears swag for the kid, and Thomas did that on Christmas.
As it turned out, though, Thomas was thinking on a much bigger scale.
On Saturday, the night before Super Bowl XLVI, Thomas walked into Anthony's church on the South Side with two tickets in his hand.
"Hey Anthony, you want to go to the Super Bowl with me?" Thomas asked.
The kid, who just moments before had been singing so loud that his voice cracked each time the choir reached the chorus, suddenly fell silent.
This isn't the first time Thomas has done something extraordinary for a child.
He garnered national attention in May when he took Joslyn Levell, an eighth-grader with spina bifida, to her junior prom because none of the boys at her school had asked her.
Thomas was instantly hailed a hero. But his generosity didn't just change one life.
It changed two.
Thomas always has been a giver. His younger brother, Jared, is autistic. Thomas used to give him baths and do all the things with him that a great big brother does.
He learned from Jared that children with special needs value being treated like they're normal above all else. He saw how much it meant to Jared when the two spent time together. His heart expanded when he saw the beaming smile on Joslyn's face as she introduced Thomas to the boys who'd found other dates for the dance.
The experience with Joslyn made Thomas think about how he could use his platform as an NFL player to do something meaningful. Could a Bears rookie who had yet to play in a pro game change the lives of kids on a regular basis?
Thomas was inspired enough to try. He recently started the J.T. Thomas Foundation, whose primary mission is to raise awareness for children suffering from disabilities.
And he made the first order of business doing something special for Anthony.
Last week, Thomas set his ambitious plan in action. He drove 1,300 miles from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Chicago with a group of volunteers who call themselves the "Ready Ready" crew. Along the way, they visited epilepsy centers in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando to raise awareness about a condition that affects more than 300,000 children under the age of 15.
As Thomas has learned, having epilepsy can be a lonely existence for the children coping with it. For parents of epileptic children, finding normalcy and support is draining.
Anthony's mother, Tonya Harris, can't keep a regular job because Anthony requires full-time care. Two brain surgeries were supposed to decrease his seizures substantially, but he still suffers through two or three a week.
"It's stressful not being able to provide like I want to," Harris says.
Dressed in a shirt and tie, Thomas arrived at Revealing Missionary Baptist Church, where Anthony has been a member for a year, early Saturday afternoon. When Anthony saw him, he didn't look at Thomas like he hung the moon. He looked at him like he invented it.
When I asked Anthony, who also received a $1,000 scholarship to attend a summer camp from Thomas, what he planned to do at the Super Bowl, he looked at me as teenagers do when they want you to know how tragically dense you are.
"Have fun!" he shouted.
On Sunday, as Thomas picked Anthony up for the game, the kid was wearing a Bears skull cap. It was the only way he could begin an adventure like this.
As Thomas discovered over the next three hours on the drive to Indianapolis, Anthony's singing abilities extend far beyond gospel.
"Any song that comes on the radio, he sings it," Thomas says, laughing. "He doesn't want anyone singing but him. He was pretty much the captain of the radio. It was fun to see him open up."
When Anthony saw Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl, his mouth fell open just as it did a day earlier, when Thomas handed him the tickets.
Anthony is still learning about football, so Thomas had to explain some of the action. Anthony took lots of pictures, and, naturally, sang all the way back to Chicago.
If the first football game you ever attend is the Super Bowl, wouldn't you sing too?
Thomas' grand plan is to do something like this every year, but in a bigger way. He put up the money to fund this trip, but the hope is that as his foundation grows, so will the outside support.
For now, Thomas is satisfied. He met his goal. And at this point, what he's done for Anthony and Joslyn should get him into the Good Guy Hall Of Fame.
"Me and his relationship has grown for this trip," Thomas says. "My main thing was to make him feel the way I felt, and I believe I accomplished that."
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss