On the surface, the relationship between Lavel Dumont and Wyntr Knisely appears to be all about football. Lavel is an offensive lineman at the University of Toledo, Wyntr the consummate fan. “I like everything about football,” Wyntr said. “I like the NFL. I like the stats. I like the quarterbacks and their styles.”

In reality, the sport merely served as the spark that inspired Lavel to reach out to a young stranger and form a most unlikely but deep friendship that feeds both of them.

You could say he took the ball and ran with it. That’s unheard of for most offensive linemen. Not Lavel.

The two met in the summer of 2020, when Lavel drove past Wyntr, playing football by himself in his yard. “You could tell he was giving a lot of effort, so I promised myself that I would stop and ask him about football and if he wanted to come to a game,” Lavel said.

Lavel didn’t know at the time that Wyntr has developmental delays resulting from a heart condition or that Wyntr had moved to Toledo right before the pandemic, so making friends was especially challenging. Perhaps Lavel also sensed a kinship; he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a youngster and controlled it through sports.

The two exchanged phone numbers, catching Wyntr’s mother, Jenn Lowe, off guard. “I was super concerned my son gave a grown man his phone number without consulting me,” she said. “But Lavel is so shy and humble. The first thing he did was apologize. I love the fact that he was taking time out of his day to hang out with Wyntr when he has a very busy schedule of his own.”

The two met frequently for socially distanced catch and video games. Wyntr even created a player in his Madden NFL game modeled after Lavel and gave him the top rating of 99.

As Wyntr’s 16th birthday approached, Lavel and Jenn hatched a surprise. As part of the plan, Jenn told Wyntr that Lavel couldn’t come to his party, “and I got mad about that,” Wyntr said. But as it turned out, Lavel showed up with 15 of his teammates. “They were like ‘no problem,'” Lavel said. “They asked for the address, and they were all for it.”

The Rockets made Wyntr’s party the social event of the season. “It’s one thing to do community service organized by the team but another to have a player just volunteer to organize hanging out at a birthday party,” Jenn said.

Since then, Wyntr and Jenn have moved to Alabama, but the distance seems to have strengthened their bond. The two talk and text at least weekly, and Wyntr provides a critique of Lavel’s performance. “If he misses a block and his quarterback gets hit, I’m going to yell at him. I tell him he has to do pushups,” Wyntr said. “Knowing that Lavel plays on the line made me realize that the line is more important than other players on the team.”

Lavel’s initial invitation to a game was put on hold last year because of Lavel’s season-ending injury and COVID restrictions. The reunion was rescheduled for Toledo’s home game against Northern Illinois in October. This time, Wyntr brought the gift: a framed portrait of Lavel.

“This is a mutual relationship,” Lavel said. “Wyntr helps me just as much as I help him. He keeps me grounded and humbles me. He explains how much he wants to play, so he can look to me. And I can be appreciative of what I have.”

Wyntr uses Lavel as a sounding board as someone who knows what he’s going through. “The difference I’ve seen in Wyntr since their relationship has developed is leaps and bounds,” Jenn said.

Though he’s not a big baseball fan, Lavel did his homework on Stan after learning he would receive the Musial. “Reading about his impact in the community and what he did with his platform,” he said, “I hope I can do that someday.”

Mission accomplished. Already.

“Wyntr helps me just as much as I help him. He keeps me grounded and humbles me. He explains how much he wants to play, so he can look to me. And I can be appreciative of what I have.” Lavel Dumont