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Grandmother inspires Bucs’ Chris Godwin to pay it forward

A coronavirus scare close to home has the receiver reaching out to strangers for stories of their personal heroes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin doesn’t have to wonder where his toughness comes from.

His 89-year-old grandmother, Hermenia Spann, recently spent time in a Delaware hospital after contracting the coronavirus.

“Honestly, things have improved a lot," Godwin said. “When I got word of her having the virus, I was worried sick because I feel like so much of this is unknown. Thankfully, she’s back at home. I wouldn’t say she’s completely out of the woods yet, but the fact that she’s at home is a big step in the right direction."

Related: Bucs’ Chris Godwin: ‘Sports are great, but I don’t think it’s worth the loss of life'

Godwin, 24, has always been empathetic to those touched by the pandemic. But when it struck his family, he thought even harder about how every moment is a gift.

But merely purchasing meals or donating money didn’t feel like a satisfactory response. He wanted to provide a personal touch and use his platform as an NFL player to illuminate others.

Godwin posted a video message on Twitter, asking for the stories "of our unsung heroes, the people that have not only been working to keep us safe, but also to keep our country operating at full force and just the sacrifice they’ve been making.”

The response since that May 11 post has been overwhelming, with replies pouring in from Ocoee to London, from the families of victims, health care workers, first responders and Bucs fans.

And the care packages — filled with gift cards and autographed items — have been plentiful.

• • •

Joanna Abernathy’s unsung hero is her 61-year-old husband, Billy. The emergency coordinator from Bartow has been a Bucs season ticket holder since 1982. Section 147, Row F.

“I remember the game when the rain was cascading down those steps over at the old Big Sombrero,” Billy said. "After that game, we actually threw away our shoes.

“The funny thing is when there were the losing seasons. I’ve seen the Ray Perkins, the Lee Bennetts, the Throwin’ Samoan. We had Vinny Testaverde. Some of the times you couldn’t get nobody to go with you, so my brother and me would go by ourselves, but actually I would leave two tickets on the windshield wiper of my truck, hoping somebody would come by and take them. Well, whenever I came back by, there were about 10 other sets of tickets on my wipers, and it was funny, you know?"

Joanna and Billy Abernathy can be found at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games every year. Billy has been a season ticket holder since 1982. [ Courtesy of Joanna Abernathy ]

The Abernathys met at a governor’s hurricane conference three years ago and married in Washington D.C. in January. But the two don’t see much of each other these days.

Billy has been working 12- to 15-hour shifts. Normally, his team responds during hurricanes, but this pandemic has been less predictable.

Related: Tom Brady, Bucs players take the field at Tampa’s Berkeley Prep: exclusive photos

“When we have a tropical system, we know where landfall is going to be,” Billy said. “We know what we’re dealing with and how long we’re going to need to recover. But we’re in the dark. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the end is and what’s going to happen. It’s a very eerie feeling. All the emergency managers, we don’t know what the end result is. Our main thing is to help bring in the resources for the people, but now we’re bringing in the resources for all the medicals and trying to keep them up so they can take care of the people.

"It’s good for us to step outside the box, but my God, we’ve been going at this a while and we don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s a different creature. We’ve never dealt with a pandemic of this magnitude before.”

Godwin, who sent an autographed football and Publix gift cards to the Abernathys, also had a message for Billy: “Sending love to Billy for working these long hours and keeping Polk County safe."

Richard “Batman” Wood has always been Billy’s favorite Bucs player. He may have a new one.

“For this guy to reach out and respond the way he did, he’s all class and he’s a very sincere person,” Billy said. "He’s a real human. He’s not only an athlete, he’s been raised right and not above any of us. ...

“I would like to shake his hand one day. I know that opportunity will probably never come, but I would like to shake his hand and tell him thank you."

• • •

Tampa’s Drew Aponte, 35, is a sergeant in the U.S. Army deployed in Europe. His wife Chantal, a full-time registered nurse, is “the real MVP” for taking care of their three kids (Giovanni, 12; Bella, 7; and Evelina, 1).

“Wow, Drew, that’s awesome," Godwin told him. “Shoutout to your service and your wife for all that she does as well."

Related: Bucs owners donate five million meals to Feeding Tampa Bay

Godwin’s actions also have impressed Aponte.

“It’s really good to see Chris reaching out on a personal level,” he said. “This pandemic has unfortunately hit him really close to home, so for him to take the time out to acknowledge those who are making a difference means a lot.”

Tampa’s Drew Aponte, left, and his family: wife Chantal and children Giovanni, 12; Bella, 7; and Evelina, 1). [ Courtesy of Drew Aponte ]

• • •

Kevin McManus’ 60-year-old father, Pat, died after contracting the virus from a patient at a hospital in London where he worked as a nurse manager. Pat, who had multiple sclerosis, moved from a managerial role back to the front lines during the pandemic.

"He was determined to be with his colleagues,” Kevin told the Belfast Telegraph. “Dad knew 100 percent what he was letting himself in for. He was a big, strong man, but as we know this cruel virus takes no prisoners.”

Kevin, a self-proclaimed New York Giants fan, shared that story with Godwin: "I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I want to send you a special package to London. Please DM me. Stay strong.”

That special package? An autographed football and handwritten note from Godwin.

Godwin is “a true gent,” McManus tweeted.

• • •

The coronavirus may have paused sports, but as Godwin has discovered, there is no shortage of icons to root for.

ICU nurses in Gainesville. Paramedics from the Palm Coast. Respiratory therapists in Wisconsin. Police officers in Tennessee. Publix workers from Riverview.

WWE superstar Titus O’Neil even slid into Godwin’s Twitter mentions to give a shoutout to a doctor at Brandon Regional Hospital.

Related: One Buc’s support of Tampa Bay restaurants sparks circle of giving

“I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was going to get," Godwin said. “You’re not sure whether people want to share something like that or not. But I got some really, really dope responses. It was really, really inspiring, too, because you’re aware that there are people out there that are helping us move the country forward and doing the things that we aren’t really talking about. ...

“That was my aim of the whole thing, just trying to bring a little positivity to a dark situation.”

• • •

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