In the middle school lunchroom in Tallahassee, Fla., every table was jammed with youngsters, eating, laughing, talking, engaging in the usual cacophony that goes on in that setting.
Except for one table.
There, sitting by himself, eating quietly, was sixth-grader Bo Paske.
Bo Paske has autism. He lives locked in a private world, a place other kids choose not to populate. He didn’t choose it, either. It chose him.
So, while other kids act like kids, Bo Paske flies solo. At least he did until one day last August, when the Florida State football team visited his school. And that’s when wide receiver Travis Rudolph saw Bo Paske, sitting alone.
There’s plenty of room at this table, Rudolph thought. And in an act of compassion and kindness, he sat down across from Bo Paske. Suddenly the young boy with autism wasn’t alone anymore.
The picture of the football player and the sixth grader eating together went viral and suddenly, for one brief moment, humanity ruled in that middle school lunchroom.
Rudolph became a hero, a football player to admire, who took the game beyond the traditional blocking and tackling. He had a lot of people rooting for him, especially the Paske family, as he went through his last season at FSU, catching 56 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. That pushed his career statistics to 153 catches for 2,311 yards and 18 touchdowns in three seasons.
Those are solid NFL credentials but a week before the April draft, Travis Rudolph’s world was jolted when he father was killed in an accidental shooting. Darryl Rudolph was just 55 years old and had been a vital part of his son’s development as a football player and a person.
It was an emotional roller coaster for Travis Rudolph, who went from burying his father to the NFL draft a week later. Knowing their friend would need all the support he could get at that terrible time, Bo Paske’s family stepped up. They gathered with Rudolph as the NFL conducted its grab bag of new players.
As the draft dragged on, one team after another choosing new talent, they all passed on the young man from Florida State, selecting other prospects instead. That is a grueling time for a player, waiting to hear his name called and never hearing it. The leftover players are called undrafted free agents – longshots in the NFL scheme of things. Some of them catch on for a post-draft look. Others drift off the NFL’s radar, never to be heard from again.
Travis Rudolph got a look.
The New York Giants are loaded with talent at wide receiver with Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Roger Lewis, Jr., and former Jets star Brandon Marshall. Nevertheless, they thought it was worthwhile to bring in Rudolph for their rookie mini-camp. They gave the young man an opportunity, which was all he ever wanted.
He is the longest of longshots, playing a position that is crowded with quality talent. Don’t expect to see him on the Giants’ opening day roster. Undrafted free agents rarely make it that far. He is almost certainly headed for the practice squad, a roster of players in waiting.
Still, there is something special about Travis Rudolph, the wide receiver from Florida State. He will always be remembered as the player who sat down for lunch one day to make sure a young man no longer was alone.