I must admit I didn't think much about it at the time. The boy and his friend happened to be wheelchair-bound, visiting practice with the father. But Tide fans come in all shapes and sizes--including handicapped. And except for the sign's simple statement, there didn't appear to be anything too unusual.
Just a fan, hoping to attract the attention of a favorite player.
As you'd expect, during water breaks Nautyn McKay-Loescher did stop by to speak with the group, and other Tide players took time to visit as well. Football fans can be demanding at times, but thankfully I've yet to meet the athlete that could resist a child.
Like most everyone else there that day, the scene caught my eye for a moment. In fact, thinking it might make a good photo, I snapped a couple of pictures of Nautyn talking to the boy. And then I passed it off.
But later, while obtaining the boy's name for the photo cutline, I learned the story behind the picture.
Along with several other Tide players, two years ago Nautyn was introduced to Benji Kenny by a mutual friend--and the defensive end was amazed by the child's knowledge of the Crimson Tide. Prompted only with his jersey number, Benji rattled off Nautyn's name, position and the story of how the Canadian native came to play football at Alabama.
"I first met him during my freshman year," McKay-Loescher related. "When he found out who I was, he was telling me everything about me. I've been friends with him ever since."
Benji's father, Michael Kenny of Pelham, remembers that first meeting and how gracious the players were in talking Tide football with his son. But McKay-Loescher took a more personal interest. "As for Nautyn, he wanted to talk to Benji about Benji," Mr. Kenny recalled. "He listened to the details of Benji's several major surgeries and how frustrating Cerebral Palsy can be."
A devastating disease, Cerebral Palsy has left Benji's 13-year-old body crippled. But his love for Alabama football has always been a positive in his life. "It gets to you a little bit," McKay-Loescher explained. "We're so lucky in that we're gifted with the ability to run and block and not have to be in a wheelchair and not have to have surgeries performed on you so that you can walk.
"I hang out with them when they come up, once every six months or so when they have the time to come over here."
Earlier this summer the Kenny's were just leaving the Alabama Football Complex, as McKay-Loescher arrived to work out. "I spotted them as I drove up in my truck. I told them to hold on, that I was going to be out in a second. Brooks (Daniels) and I came back to talk to them."
As Mr. Kenny tells the story, the first thing Benji did was thank Nautyn for beating Auburn last November, something the Tide lineman had earlier promised he'd do for the young boy. McKay-Loescher responded by telling Benji that he was his friend. "I beat Auburn for you."
"Nautyn, do you mean that? Am I really your friend?"
"I'll always be your friend," was McKay-Loescher's reply.
A slogan originally used by the Boys Town charity comes to mind. Once plastered on billboards across the nation, it stated simply: "No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child."
Overly sentimental to the point of being maudlin?
But then truth often is.
Despite what the team roster claims, McKay-Loescher stands no more than 6-2 or so. And in the world of big-time college football that's frankly more than a little bit short to be playing defensive end. But in the eyes of one young man at least, he's super-sized.
After all, as Benji's sign said, "Nautyn is my friend."