Ohio native Tyler Gardiner (left) gets a tour of the Bucs' facility from his favorite player, CB Ronde Barber
Eleven-year-old Tyler Gardiner has grown up in Massillon, Ohio, about 50 miles south of Cleveland. He's also grown up a football fan, so smart money would make him a fan of the Browns, or perhaps the downstate Bengals if he's on that resurgent bandwagon. And Tyler's favorite player? Well, one might guess Cleveland's Andra Davis or Cincinnati's Chad Johnson.
Wrong. This young fan just happens to adore Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber.
How did this happen? Did living just a few miles from Canton give Tyler an appreciation for all great NFL players? In fact, it was nothing so mysterious. As he explains, it all started with Madden.
"I started playing with him on the [video] game, then I started reading about him and watching him," said Tyler. "That's how he became my favorite player."
On Wednesday, Tyler met his favorite player, face to face. It was a dream come true.
For the past three years, Tyler has been battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells. He is currently in his third go-round with chemotherapy and cancer treatments and, frankly, he hasn't yet made the progress for which everyone is hoping.
But Tyler's imagination remains as active as that of any 11-year-old, and he has for some time harbored the aspiration of meeting Barber during a visit to Tampa Bay. Through the generosity of private donors and the citizens of Massillon, plus a little help from the Aladdin Foundation, Gardiner was able to realize that dream on Wednesday.
It was a family trip. Along with his father Dennis and brothers Justin and Nick, Tyler flew to Tampa on Tuesday and stayed overnight in a beachfront hotel. The next afternoon, the Gardiners met up with Barber at the Buccaneers' practice facility. Tyler was certainly ready, as he arrived at One Buc Place fully decked out in his Tampa Bay wind suit and matching hat.
Barber, who first learned of Tyler's wish during his Pro Bowl visit to Hawaii, was waiting with a big smile and all sorts of goodies.
Tyler happily received a Buccaneers football, which Barber autographed, plus a pennant, a t-shirt and a hat. Barber then took the Gardiners on a guided tour of the facility, showing off the team's meeting rooms before circling back to his own locker. Here, Barber had his best gift waiting – the cleats he had just worn in the Pro Bowl, with a signature on each shoe. One other surprise awaited the young guest, as Head Coach Jon Gruden stopped by the locker room to say hello and wish Tyler well.
"You keep fighting," Gruden told Tyler. "And just know that you're welcome here any time you want to come back and visit."
Barber then led the party out to the Bucs' practice fields, where pizza was waiting. The group spent some time talking and laughing over lunch before it was time for the Gardiner family to catch their plane back to Ohio. Tyler clearly enjoyed his visit.
"It was really cool, that's all I have to say," he said. "This keeps my mind off bad things. This and watching a football game."
Barber, of course, was thankful he could be a bright spot in an otherwise trying young life.
"It's a rewarding feeling for both of us," he said. "It's definitely an honor, and I just feel privileged to have the ability to be here and spend some time with him."