TAMPA — The USF senior night festivities, replete with parents, pomp and a bit of poignance, will be down a matriarch tonight.
When Ryne Giddins makes his final trot from the southwest tunnel of Raymond James Stadium, Sabrina Giddins' light-brown eyes won't be there to meet his. One by one, Giddins will hug his dad, girlfriend and girlfriend's mom. But in Sabrina's case, he will have to improvise.
In the ensuing three hours, he will embrace his mother's spirit instead.
Bowl ineligibility be darned, this is one Bull intent on fighting to the end. Any other approach would dishonor not only his school and teammates, but the woman he deemed his best friend.
"That's something she did day-in and day-out, every day, until the day she passed," said Giddins, a fifth-year defensive end.
"That's something I take to myself: Regardless of how the situation looks, always finish out strong. Don't give up or don't give in. You never know what can happen. Don't let your foot up."
In the most emotionally wrenching autumn of Giddins' college career, his mother's exhortation has evolved into more than a mantra. At times, it has been an elixir, providing temporary relief from the absence and anguish.
It's what got him through the Florida Atlantic game — he had a sack — roughly 48 hours before the rare form of uterine cancer finally got the best of his mother. It's what sustained him against Miami — he had a sack — the first game he ever played without her.
And it's what invigorated him the day after her funeral service, when Giddins stuffed a Cincinnati running back for a loss on fourth and inches near USF's 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, helping preserve a six-point win.
"What can I say? He's a gladiator," senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore said.
"He's been through a lot, personally and physically, and things haven't always gone his way, but he's persevered, and he's fought through the storm," coach Willie Taggart said. "You appreciate guys like that and you look at our football team and it's like, 'If he can go through that, why can't we go through it and see it through?' "
In a previous life, before he brandished dreadlocks and experienced dread, Giddins arrived on campus as a cornerstone of the Bulls' highest ranked recruiting class ever.
He had graduated from Armwood High as the program's all-time sacks leader and a Parade All-American. When he chose USF over practically everyone else, it was hailed as a recruiting coup by then-coach Jim Leavitt.
But three games into his college career, Giddins sprained his ankle and took a medical redshirt. The next year, he missed the opener with an infected blister on his right foot and ultimately made only two starts, totaling 19 tackles for the season.
Questions arose about his motor and whether he had his foot on the figurative pedal every play. Even after earning second-team All-Big East honors in 2011 (44 tackles, 5½ sacks, three forced fumbles), questions abounded over his consistency.
He needed a breakthrough in 2012. Mortality broke through instead.
That spring, at the behest of her husband, Rhett, Sabrina, who worked by day at a dental lab, consulted a doctor about why one side of her body seemed more bloated.
"She didn't really think it was nothing too much, because none of the (normal cancer) symptoms occurred," said Giddins, the youngest of three children. "That's what happens with this cancer. They say it's so rare and so developed that you won't notice it until it's too late."
From surgery to radiation to chemo, his mother attacked the illness with all she could muster. On the field, Giddins struggled to mirror her aggressiveness. On his first series of the first game, he injured his left shoulder. The pain lingered throughout the fall. He played on.
He started seven games, managing 25 tackles and four sacks. At season's end, he had surgery for a torn labrum.
"When we got here, for a multitude of reasons, he was rusty, his focus wasn't totally there," first-year Bulls defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said.
"With his mom's situation and everything, that's tough on anybody. And I don't care if you're a coach, a player, in the business world, that's tough when you're going through family situations like that."
As Giddins' final college season dawned, his mother essentially was bedridden. The cancer had spread, and the potency of the medicines combating it had damaged her heart. Meantime, Giddins forged onward, trying to revitalize his flickering NFL hopes.
He leaned on his faith and his longtime girlfriend, Cierra Harris, throughout his family's ordeal. Mostly, he allowed himself to be buoyed by his mom's desire for him to continue the pursuit of his degree and a pro football career.
"Just to go through some of the different situations that he's been through, he hasn't had any downfall," Lattimore said. "He's always walking around smiling. He's the one that keeps a lot of us going."
On Sept. 16, 11 days after her 58th birthday, Sabrina died at Tampa General Hospital, surrounded by her family. On Sept. 27, the entire defensive line, as well as many current and former USF coaches, shoehorned themselves into a Brandon funeral home for the service.
The next night against Cincinnati, Giddins could barely suppress his adrenaline.
"It was like shaking up a soda can, all the frizz and friction, it just gets really hard; that's how I was," he said. "Every person I hit, every time I was on the field, just released it a little bit."
Entering the season's final stretch, Giddins' senior-year numbers are modest (nine tackles, team-high four sacks). Consistency remains a struggle, but his persistence never has been questioned.
In the spring, he will take his shot at the NFL. In the summer, he hopes to graduate with a major in communication science disorders (i.e. sign-language interpreting) and minor in criminology. It's a promise he made to his mom.
Tonight, senior night, she'll have the best vantage point of the festivities.
"Ryne definitely has grown a lot," junior defensive tackle Elkino Watson said. "He definitely became a strong young man, faced a lot of adversity in his lifetime and still has been able to come out here and play with a smile and give great passion to the game."