TWO YEARS AGO, at 14, Tyler Kessler was attempting to stave off cancer and kidney failure with an unusual course of treatment. He and his dad, Bob, had set out to visit every NFL stadium and share a steak after each game. Having endured, simultaneously, chemo and kidney dialysis, Tyler was trying out the curative powers of pro football and red meat.
The Kesslers were kind enough to share their story on this page (AIR AND SPACE, Jan. 31, 2005), including Tyler's size (4'6", 70 pounds), best friend (his yellow lab, Sparky) and three wishes (to meet Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre). Maybe it's because he was born on Christmas Day and comes from Bethlehem—the one in Pennsylvania—but Tyler seemed to embody the phrase "the least of my brothers." And here's what you did unto him.
Twenty-four hours after that column appeared, a CBS executive called to say that Dan Marino would like to meet Ty at the Super Bowl. Oh, and did the Kesslers need game tickets? (Turns out, they did not, because another reader had already donated a pair.)
Within days, at least one season-ticket holder for every NFL team wrote to offer the Kesslers seats for any game.
Dave Silk of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team invited the Kesslers to Lake Placid for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Miracle on Ice squad, at the team's expense. Silk set up two goals in beating the Soviets, but it was this assist that gave me goose bumps.
Matt Millen, embattled president of the Lions, personally hosted the Kesslers in Detroit, where Bob and Tyler watched a Sunday Lions walk-through from the sideline. "When they broke huddle at the end of practice," says Ty, "every single player walked straight over to us. They were shaking my dad's hand, telling him, 'You did a great thing for your son.'"
The next day, as Ty stood on the field after a Lions-Rams preseason game, St. Louis receiver Torry Holt peeled off his game jersey and handed it to him.
New England center Dan Koppen, who is from Whitehall, 10 miles from Bethlehem, invited the Kesslers to last season's Pats-Colts Monday night game, before which Ty—as an honorary captain—stood at midfield for the coin flip. Colts captain Peyton Manning, who had spent 15 minutes with Ty in an Indianapolis steakhouse a year earlier, looked down at him at midfield and said, "What's up, Ty?"
Last Christmas morning, Ty's siblings, Cameron and Caitlin, waited for their big brother to finish his morning dialysis before going downstairs to open presents. The last of those gifts was a trip to the Pro Bowl. Rams guard Todd Steussie provided a day pass to the players' hotel, where Ty shared a hot tub with Jake Delhomme and Edgerrin James.
Last season, Ty got a tour of the Seahawks' facility from kicker Josh Brown, who beat the Cowboys the next day as time expired. When Ty and Brown met up again hours later at Seattle's Metropolitan Grill, the kicker signed a football, GAME-WINNING 50-YARDER FOR MY BUDDY TY!
In October, in an Arizona hotel lobby, Ty told Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher all about his travels. Instead of looking for the nearest elevator, Urlacher listened for 10 minutes. As the Kesslers were heading out to the parking lot, a man stopped them and handed Bob his business card. It read, GEORGE MCCASKEY, director of TICKET OPERATIONS, CHICAGO BEARS. Three weeks after that, as a guest of the Bears, Ty had a front row seat at Soldier Field for a game against Miami. When Dolphins receiver Marty Booker caught a touchdown pass, he beelined for the boy in the BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC sweatshirt. "I froze," says Ty. Booker flipped him the football. The two have never met.
Like the President with his nuclear one, Ty always travels with his own football, which John Elway happily signed for him in Denver. And two Saturdays ago in San Francisco, Ty was summoned to a hotel conference room, where Brett Favre was waiting to meet him. "Amazing," says Ty.
This Christmas night, on his 16th birthday, the boy from Bethlehem won't be under a star. The star will be under him. Ty will step onto the field at Texas Stadium—his 32nd and final NFL venue—as the guest of Dallas owner Jerry Jones.
"For a long time," says Bob, "I worried that Tyler's only childhood memories would be of doctors and hospitals." Instead, Ty is thriving—his cancer is in remission, and 18 months ago he got a healthy new kidney. From his dad.
Ty is a mirror, reflecting the fundamental decency of people. "Everyone has been very kind," he wants me to tell you. "I don't know how to say thank you enough."
I hope you like your gift, America. You're getting a Ty for Christmas.
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