The shoe painter spreads clean white acrylic over the tongue of a Nike Vapor Carbon Elite football cleat, erasing dirt and grass stains from the mesh.
Geary "Rasta" Taylor dreamed of being a professional athlete, then a famous artist, before settling into a thriving business niche as a custom shoe painter. P. Diddy, the Rays' cheerleaders and the mayor of St. Petersburg's Japanese sister city have his shoes.
"But this is the most important pair I've ever painted," he says.
They are for his only son, Taj Taylor.
He points his brush to a framed picture on his workbench of a teenage boy face down under the Friday night lights. In the picture, teammates are rushing to him.
Rasta remembers rushing to him, too.
"It was a really, really hard hit," he remembers. "His pulse was just not there, and I thought 'Is my kid alive?' I did not know."
As Taj's mother sat at his feet praying out loud, Rasta kneeled at his head and begged his son to come back.
"Four minutes, five minutes later there was still no response, and I'm just there praying in my head that he will open his eyes."
Rasta absentmindedly sweeps the brush over the shoe.
"It was absolute panic," he remembers and begins to weep. "I'm telling him 'Daddy's here. Son, come back to me.'
"That was the play that changed my life, and his, and his mother's."
Rasta wishes he wasn't painting football cleats for his son, who plays for Largo High. He prays as he paints the shoes and believes the prayers will go with Taj when he takes the field. When he watches games, he is an emotional wreck. Every hit creates another wave of anxiety. Is Taj walking or wobbling? Is he high-fiving teammates, or does he seem hurt? Is he throwing his body around carelessly to try to make a highlight for his reel?
Rasta is also proud of his son.
"He is 16, and he is invincible. He has a six-pack. He's cute. He feels immortal, and so do all of his friends, even when they are told the facts of the matter. We've all been 16 before. When I was 16, you would have had to drag me off the field. You only get that once, and I do love that about him."
Taj might have his dreams come true. He might play for the Gators, then go pro. But Rasta knows the odds are against it. For him the goal for Taj is being a successful student-athlete, learning life lessons by working hard as part of a team. He doesn't want his son to miss this moment in life because of his parent's fear. But he would never forgive himself if anything happened.
These shoes are special for another reason. When Taj opened his eyes that day on the field, the first thing he saw was his dad. Rasta believes his son's concussion changed things for both of them.
Since Rasta and Taj's mother separated, Taj has lived with her, and she has done the heavy lifting as a parent. Rasta has regrets. He threw himself into launching his business. He missed things. He knows important words have been left unsaid, emotions kept inside, life moments missed.
"Sometimes a child might not understand how much you love him or why you're not able to be here or there every time. Sometimes you make a promise that you can't keep.
"In its own weird, tragic way, it reminded me that I can always do things better. I can go a little further for my son. Tomorrow isn't promised to any of us. You just don't know if someone will make it back from the grocery store, or a football game. That's just life without a crystal ball."
Contact John Pendygraft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8247.