Inside the lobby of One Buc Place, Travis Grandlienard studied the displays — the uniforms, the history of Raymond James Stadium, the silver Vince Lombardi trophy kept in a clear, glass case. Just then, a door opened and out walked Bucs rookie wide receiver Mike Williams. "Where's my man Travis at?" Grandlienard, who has a rare disease that causes him to hunch over, peered up over his glasses. He was face-to-face with his favorite player. Williams opened his arms and embraced Grandlienard, 25. "Oh . . . my . . . God," Grandlienard said.
• • •
Grandlienard's Christmas surprise Wednesday started with a birthday wish Nov. 6. All he wanted was a Williams jersey.
Grandlienard explained why Williams is his favorite player: "He has a lot of talent. He's a young competitor. He's a great guy, on the field and off."
When his uncle and aunt finally found the jersey online, "it was the highlight of his birthday," said aunt Sandee Davies. "He was just elated."
Grandlienard has faced so many physical struggles over the past several years, his family feared he was sinking into a long-term depression.
So Davies and her husband, Ken, had an idea. What if they wrote to Williams and asked him to sign Travis' jersey?
In mid November, the St. Petersburg couple typed a letter.
Dear Mr. Williams, My husband and I are guardians to our nephew Travis Grandlienard. He is 25 and has had a really tough life. His Mom, my husband's sister, died of cancer when he was 13 and his father deserted him.
Grandlienard, they explained, has an aggressive form of rheumatoid arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. At age 20, his neck began to curve forward, making it impossible for Grandlienard to hold his head up straight. The genetic disease can cause the spine to fuse, forcing the person into a perpetual stooped posture. Complications can include spinal fractures.
"Both of his doctors said they have never seen anyone with ankylosing spondylitis as advanced at his age," Davies said.
Grandlienard has already undergone one surgery on his neck. Once he's strong enough, doctors plan to perform another on his spine.
"We were wondering if there was any chance that you would sign the jersey for him. It would mean the world to him and be a bright spot in his uncertain future."
• • •
Williams said he gets a lot of mail from fans, but he was struck by the picture of Grandlienard the Davies tucked into their letter. The photo showed Grandlienard before his surgery in 2009 and his chin was lowered all the way to his chest.
There were other factors, Williams said. Like the idea of losing one's mom at such a young age.
A self-professed "mama's boy" raised by a single mother, Williams said, "I don't know what I'd do if I lost my mom."
Then there was the request, so humble and unassuming. The Davies weren't asking for tickets or gifts or anything extraordinary — just an autograph.
Williams, 23, could relate. As a child growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., he always wanted an autograph from Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly but never got one.
So, he took the Davies' letter to the Bucs community relations staff.
"I think we can do better than an autograph," he told them.
When asked later, Williams said, "To get him to live his dream is all I wanted to do."
He wanted the Davieses to bring Grandlienard to One Buc Place, where he could have lunch with the team and watch practice.
It would be a surprise.
• • •
The day started with lunch in the team's private dining room.
Williams helped Grandlienard through the line as he piled his plate with chicken, rice and pasta.
They sat with wide receivers Maurice Stovall and Ed Gant, offensive lineman MarcDile, tight end Kellen Winslow and linebacker Adam Hayward.
Quarterback Josh Freeman came over and signed Grandlienard's football. Then came defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and coach Raheem Morris, who joined Travis at the table.
When offensive coordinator Greg Olson stopped by to say hello, Grandlienard opened his windbreaker to show him his No. 19 Mike Williams jersey.
"That's a Keyshawn (Johnson) jersey isn't it?" Olson teased.
"That's going to be our rookie of the year," he said.
• • •
After lunch, Grandlienard toured the facility — from the auditorium, to the state-of-the-art gym to the room where Morris holds news conferences.
There, Grandlienard got to take the stage and he made his prediction for Sunday's game: a 24-10 Buccaneers victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
• • •
The handful of spectators allowed at Wednesday afternoon's closed practice sat back on a patio, craning their necks for a look at their favorite players.
But Grandlienard was on the field with Williams, wearing a pair of receiver's gloves given to him by Williams.
"This is the best time of my life," he said.
On the field, he was one of the guys. They called him "T-dog" and "Trav, the man." They gave him high fives and fist pounds.
He stayed on the field for two full hours, never complaining about the stiffness in his back.
As practice ended, the players huddled around their honorary Buc as he led the team's closing cheer — "1-2-3-BUCS!"
"Even if I didn't have this today, whether they're 3 and 13 or 16 and 0, I'm a Bucs fan for life."
• • •
Williams made sure Grandlienard got his autograph. But instead of signing the jersey Grandlienard was wearing, Williams presented him with a new one, signed and framed.
"It's so uncommon for someone so young, who is in the limelight like he is now, to think about someone less fortunate than himself," Davies said. "We never in a million years dreamed something like this would happen."
She told Williams: "Your mama would be proud."
"You ready for one more surprise?" Williams asked, pulling a stack of tickets from an envelope.
On Sunday, when the Bucs play their last home game of the season, Grandlienard will be there.
He'll get to roam the sidelines before the game with special passes. Then he and his family will be Williams' guests in a private suite.
The Christmas surprise will be complete.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.