How many of us have found ourselves alone in a sea of humanity, feeling left out, inadequate, awkward? The answer made it easy for Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph to reach out to a middle schooler named Bo Paske and give a simple act of kindness universal appeal.
It’s hard to imagine the 6-2, 195-pound junior being anything but smooth, fluid and at ease as the center of attention. Travis was ranked the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver prospect by Rivals in the 2014 recruiting class and led the Seminoles last year in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions.
But it’s hardly the case, and the feeling hit home when Travis and some of his teammates visited Montford Middle School in Tallahassee and Travis spied Bo sitting alone at lunch.
“I was a kid like that not too long ago, and I remember the impact when I saw guys playing college football who ended up coming back to us,” Travis told reporters in Tallahassee, “so I felt like maybe I could change someone’s life.”
Travis sat down, and they struck up a conversation.
“He started off and was so open,” Travis says. “He told me his name was Bo and how much he loves Florida State, and he went from there. It was really easy to (talk) with him. He had a nice smile on his face. He was a really warm person.”
What Travis didn’t know was that Bo has been diagnosed with autism. He learned that only when Bo’s mom, Leah, posted a note about the exchange on Facebook. “I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten,” she wrote.
To Travis, Bo was just a kid at a lunch table who didn’t need to be alone.
“He’s a normal kid to me,” Travis says. “It’s heartbreaking that he’s in that situation, but I feel like he’s a great kid.”
Leah was correct. Travis’s conversation with Bo has rippled outward in concentric circles, growing ever larger. National media from ESPN and Sports Illustrated spread the story, but the greatest impact remains on Bo, Leah and the athletes at Florida State.
“That’s a blessing,” Travis says. “I feel like God makes things happen for a reason.”
Travis and Bo have kept in touch, and Leah communicates frequently with Travis and his parents. Bo and Leah are welcome at Florida State’s practices and games, where fans recognize them and ask to have their pictures taken with them.
“It’s still surprising to me, the kind of feedback I’ve gotten,” Leah says, “but I think people were happy to see a nice story, especially in sports, when so many stories revolve around athletes in trouble.”
Best of all, Bo isn’t eating alone. “He’s sitting with a group of girls — GIRLS — which I think is very sweet, and he is definitely a much bigger Florida State fan,” Leah says. “Who knew a small act of kindness could create awareness for people being left out, not just special needs kids, but anyone?”