ST. PETERSBURG — As the final seconds ticked away, John Shulby followed the winning All-Americans to midfield, where he shook hands and patted backs and tapped the helmets of the losing All-Americans.
He was a foot shorter than everyone else, a hundred or so pounds lighter, with red hair, a black shirt and shoes, and black-and-blue plaid shorts.
Strangely, he fit right in.
And that made his friend Colin Thompson very happy.
Thompson, a Pennsylvania football star and among the nation’s top 100 college football prospects, measured up against the other studs running around Tropicana Field on Thursday night in the Under Armour All-America Game.
He stands 6 feet, 5 inches.
He weighs a solid 250.
He’s a tight end with soft hands.
He’s smart. Runs well. Should fit right into the University of Florida’s offense next season.
That’s why he was invited to this week’s festivities.
But his other measurables — loyalty, big heart, selflessness, all of which should thrill Gator fans as much as his 40 time — is why he ensured Shulby came along.
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The two met in middle school, when Thompson was asked to make sure Shulby, who has Down syndrome, made it to the school’s track meets. Shulby threw the javelin and the shot put; Thompson threw the shot. They became instant friends.
“Hit it off right away,” Thompson said. “He’s a great kid.”
They don’t go to the same high school, but remained close friends . Thompson made him a part of the Archbishop Wood Viking football program, and coach Steve Devlin made him an honorary captain.
Shulby traveled to western Pennsylvania when the team played on ESPN2 earlier this season. He wore a No. 99 jersey, and followed Thompson and the other captains out for every coin toss this season, where he got to make the call.
The Vikings went 14-1 and won the state championship.
When they handed out the medals in a ceremony at Wood, Shulby couldn’t get out of his high school to attend. So afterward Thompson gathered about 10 of his teammates and they surprised Shulby at home with an impromptu presentation.
“Colin brought John into everyone’s life,” Devlin said. “John made new friends. And Colin made his high school career special. ”
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Shulby has accomplished quite a bit on his own.
He helped illustrate a book about accepting others, creating the cover and another page inside. In the spring, he made his first hole-in-one for the high school golf team, rolling one in from 150 yards out with a 5-iron.
But it will never compare to this final week of their final high school football season, hanging out in Orlando and St. Petersburg.
“It has been really cool,” Shulby said.
He got to chase balls and help out at Under Armour practices. He playfully sparred with coach Herman Edwards, and bet Steve Mariucci a chocolate chip cookie that the white team would win.
He changed his mind a little later, telling Mariucci he wasn’t a betting man.
“Then he came back again, and told me I could have his cookie anyway,” Mariucci said, laughing and patting his pocket. “I still have it.”
The white team, by the way, Thompson’s team, won 49-16.
In a week that was about extravagance and publicity, Thompson flew under the radar, which was fine by him, just as long as Shulby didn’t.
“Everybody was so nice to him,” he said. “It was so great. It was so amazing.”
Thompson only had one catch Thursday. He didn’t care.
Afterward, the football star did his interviews, while Shulby made the rounds and said his good-byes.
Their high school journey together is over. Soon, a new one will begin.
Shulby and his parents have already booked a trip to watch the Gators play Bowling Green in the fall.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.