Watch: A great day for Darian Gibson
On Friday, seven-year-old Darian Gibson trotted onto the field at One Buccaneer Place to enjoy an experience straight out of his dreams. Just a year removed from two open-heart surgeries, Darian was suddenly surrounded by one of the things that had always helped him during the tough times.
"He always liked football," said Christie Pelham, Darian's mother. "Believe it or not, when he first came home from the hospital at six weeks old, if we put on football, that would calm him down.
"We used to call St. Joseph's our vacation spot because we were there so much. It was always good when [the Buccaneers] had games because we'd be close to the stadium and I always told Darian to pretend he was at the stadium. We sort of made it a game sometimes."
Darian's delay in coming home as an infant and many subsequent hospital visits were a result of hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), also known as 'half-a-heart.' Through all the battles caused by HLHS, Darian always found an escape from reality in football. That gave the Florida-based television series Reel Dream Makers the perfect place to start when they sought to provide Darian with a one-of-a-kind experience.
The Buccaneers were only too happy to become involved, helping Darian get closer to the game he loves than he could have otherwise. After enduring four surgeries in seven years, Darian wants to function like any other kid but there are certain limitations to what he can and can't do.
"Football is his favorite thing and he'll never be able to play because of his heart condition," said Pelham. "If he gets hit the wrong way or falls the wrong way it could cause serious problems."
Thanks to the Buccaneers and Reel Dream Makers, however, Darian will have many positive experiences this upcoming football season.
In coordination with the TV series, Darian and his family were invited to visit the Buccaneers' facility on Friday. Unbeknownst to the seven-year-old, he would receive a behind-the-scenes tour of team headquarters and a VIP spot from which to watch the morning practice. As wide receiver Vincent Jackson streaked across the field during practice, Darian could be seen tossing a miniature football to himself, imitating the Tampa Bay star.
As the morning practice session wrapped up, Head Coach Greg Schiano welcomed Darian onto the field, introducing the young fan to his 90-man squad. Jackson then stood up and extended his hand to Darian, ostensibly to welcome him to the team. In his palm, however, were season tickets for the family to the Buccaneers' 2013 season.
"We've had a lot of struggles; it's just been kind of tough to do everything I want to do with him, being a single parent," Pelham said. "This at least gives us something that every Sunday we can do together. We can spend that time and be able to bond over something we both love. Perfect ending, amazing ending,"
That actually wasn't the end of the surprises for Darian, however. When the young fan attends the Buccaneers' preseason opener on August 8, he will be on the field to serve as the team's honorary captain as it hosts the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens at Raymond James Stadium.
Reel Dream Makers helps provide families facing a recent tragedy, illness or life-changing circumstance with a memorable experience. On Friday, Darian and his family got one they will surely remember forever.