As much as his son has gone through in 10 short years, JD Ross didn't hesitate after seeing what the youngster asked Santa Claus to bring him for Christmas.
Garrett Ross, who has endured two heart transplants and 22 surgeries since being born with congenital heart defects, wanted an Air Force football jersey, hopefully senior safety Chris Thomas' No. 34.
JD, a lieutenant in the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, asked the AFA athletic department, through a friend, if that might be possible. What ensued was something remarkable, a memory for a lifetime.
Not only did the elder Ross receive a jersey, but the family was invited by head coach Troy Calhoun to join the Falcons in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Armed Forces Bowl against Houston on Dec. 31, at no cost to the family. They flew in the day before the game, went to the team hotel — and instantly, Garrett became the center of attention.
"Coach Calhoun came up, hugged Garrett and said, 'We're so glad you're here!'" JD Ross recalls. "Chris Thomas ran off and got a ball that everybody signed. Everybody was so great. Garrett was a little tentative, and if there had been one negative word, it probably would have popped his bubble. But everything was perfect."
They went to an event the night before the game with families of Air Force players, and again, Garrett was the star attraction. Everyone knew who he was and treated him accordingly.
"I just couldn't believe it," JD says, "because they were telling Garrett how inspired they were, and how they were getting so much out of this. And all this at a bowl game that was a big, big deal to the whole academy."
Then came game day, which was even better. Garrett rode in the team bus with the Falcons to the stadium, and he was inside the dressing room before the game.
Air Force, of course, proceeded to deliver a convincing 47-20 victory over the favored Cougars, with Thomas among the stars. In the final minutes, Garrett was taken to the bottom of the stands, and soon Thomas appeared.
"His nose was busted and bloody, but here he comes anyway, and he gives Garrett a high-five," JD says. Garrett became part of the postgame celebration, with players and coaches saying he had been their good-luck charm. And after everyone returned to the team hotel, the phone rang in the Rosses' room.
"It was some of the players," JD says, "and they said, 'Mr. Ross, would it be OK to bring Garrett up so he can just hang out with us?' There they were, on New Year's Eve after winning a bowl game, and you know what a lot of other teams' players might have been doing. But they all just had a great time, having fun with this kid at the hotel, saying things like, 'We hope we can be as tough as you someday.'"
The relationship hasn't ended. Calhoun has invited Garrett to attend some spring practices. And the impact on the Ross family has been what you might expect. Garrett, who has been through three open-heart procedures and still has to be checked frequently at Children's Hospital in Denver, has some new role models in his remarkably normal life.
"It was the way everybody handled it that meant so much," JD says. "And I mean all the players, coaches and families. They didn't do it for accolades or recognition. This is who they are, and we saw the true character of their program. Garrett saw how they behaved, and how much character they showed. I don't think we'll ever see the lessons from those few days end."
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