He would wait each week in a tunnel near the players’ locker room after football games at Notre Dame Stadium. His spine cruelly curved, his arms and legs forever hindered by nerve disease, the boy in the wheelchair was hard to miss. And easy to ignore.
With other kids screaming for autographs and game-used items, player after player would walk past Timothy Donovan without ever noticing. Or, worse, deliberately avoiding notice.
“Most of Timothy’s life, he’s just kind of been overlooked,” his mother, Paula, said. “People just don’t see past his disabilities, and that’s sad because he’s got a great sense of humor if you just get to know him. People see what they want to see, I guess.”
The Donovan family had no expectation of anything different for the opening game of the 2017 season. And, later, they had no idea what to think when a 300-pound, bearded freshman bent down to strike up a conversation with Timothy.
A conversation that has lasted five years, and changed countless lives.
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These are hurried days for Dillan Gibbons. The St. Petersburg native got his undergraduate degree at Notre Dame, is one class shy of his master’s at Florida State, and days away from his final college game after transferring and becoming FSU’s left guard in 2021.
He also became something of a celebrity earlier this month after winning the Wuerffel Trophy, given to the college football player who best exemplifies the concept of community service.
When the NCAA permitted athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness (NIL) 18 months ago, Gibbons was among the first to take advantage. If you consider raising money for others as taking advantage. Gibbons started a GoFundMe account to help defray Timothy’s medical and travel costs to visit Tallahassee with his parents from his Fairborn, Ohio, home for FSU games.
Eventually, that led to Gibbons creating the non-profit Big Man Big Heart to raise money for a variety of causes while recruiting — and counseling — other college athletes on how to start their own charities.
“There are individuals in the darkest corners of the earth who need their stories told,” Gibbons said. “Part of that is raising money for people, and we’ve been able to raise over a half million dollars just in the past couple of years. But the most powerful part is the interaction. Sharing these stories. Just on social media alone, you’ve got over 50 million interactions already.
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“People reading about somebody like Timothy Donovan, and really taking the time to realize the struggles others are going through. Maybe sending something nice, or maybe just a personal message. It’s just incredible to see that kind of impact, and not just from the dollar-figure.”
Big Man Big Heart has already helped cancer patients, a car accident victim and hurricane relief efforts, among other causes. A lot of the campaigns have been several states away. Some have had a more personal touch for Gibbons and his teammates.
The past two years, FSU football players have taken part in a Christmas shopping trip at a Tallahassee Walmart for at-risk youths with the local Boys and Girls Clubs. Kids get a $100 gift card, and their families are given another $150 for holiday expenses.
You might expect the children to race toward their dream gifts, but Gibbons was stunned to see one boy bypass the toy aisle to head to the grocery section at Walmart. There, he began filling his shopping cart with box after box of Ramen noodles to make sure his family had food for the month.
“Even at that age, these kids are looking out for their families,” Gibbons said. “Just incredible.”
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So where did it all start? Gibbons will tell you it was working with his siblings in a St. Pete law office where they watched their mother, Lynn, an attorney, helping people at the lowest point of their lives.
But if Gibbons thought he learned empathy at a young age, he has come to realize that the lessons never end.
Having exchanged phone numbers with Timothy Donovan after their first meeting in 2017, they routinely checked in with one another between games and in the offseason.
Gibbons, who graduated from Clearwater Central Catholic, struggled with foot injuries and had trouble cracking the starting lineup his first few years at Notre Dame. Feeling sorry for himself, he would get on the phone with Timothy and find out he was hospitalized again with pneumonia. Or was being fed through a tube. Or was facing another surgery.
It was Timothy’s courage and resolve that helped Gibbons understand what real hardship looked like. And now, five years later, he’s got two seasons as a starter at FSU under his belt and a longshot chance to make it to the NFL in 2023.
Timothy, meanwhile, has become a minor celebrity himself around Doak Campbell Stadium. The Donovan family made it to eight FSU games this season, despite the costs, the medical complications and the 12-hour drive to Tallahassee.
“We’re just so grateful to Dillan for everything he’s done for Timothy,” Paula Donovan said. “You know, Timothy never really had any friends in his life. And now, his friendship with Dillan has changed everything. We bring Timothy to games, and it’s like everybody knows him in Tallahassee.
“We go to our seats and people are constantly calling his name, stopping us, asking to take pictures. Everybody has shown so much love toward him, it’s unbelievable. We went from him having zero friends and nobody paying attention to him, to seeing all this love and support. It’s overwhelming.”
A big man with a big heart. Big enough to spread and grow.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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