|Rochelle Thomas / Special to NFL.com|
|Bears draft pick J.T. Thomas escorted Joslyn Levell, a 14-year-old with spina bifida, to her school dance Friday.|
Joslyn Levell couldn't wait to get to school Monday. The eighth-grader became the most talked-about kid at Suncrest Middle School in Morgantown, W.Va., after scoring a date with Chicago Bears rookie J.T. Thomas for her end-of-school-year formal dance Friday.
"I'm not used to the attention, but I like it," Levell said. "It's been amazing. I can't wait to hear what everybody has to say."
In one of the true feel-good stories of this uncharted offseason, Thomas, a player most NFL fans have never heard of unless they followed West Virginia University, showed how being genuine and decent can change somebody's life.
Levell has spina bifida, a condition in which the spine doesn't properly develop. She is confined to a wheelchair most of the time. Thomas is a hulking 240-pound linebacker with a soft heart and a shot to join the Bears' vaunted defense after being drafted in the sixth round last month. It was Chicago's final pick.
Their union, as awkward as it might seem -- he's 22, she's 14; he lives in West Virginia, she ironically grew up in Chicago and moved to Morgantown two years ago -- seemingly was destined.
|Rochelle Thomas / Special to NFL.com|
|Joslyn Levell is confined to a wheelchair because of her spinal condition, but that didn't stop her from enjoying a dance.|
Thomas' 7-year-old brother, Jared, has autism and rides the same bus as Levell. Knowing Levell was a Bears fan, bus driver Jake Tennant planned to introduce Jared's older brother to her. Nearly three weeks ago, J.T. was invited on the bus while kids were being dropped off at home.
What timing. As J.T. met a Bears fan in his hometown, Joslyn explained to him that she'd had a rough week because all of the boys she asked to the dance declined. Thomas melted.
"I hugged her and signed a few things and we talked for awhile and she cried a bit," Thomas recounted. "I gave her a hug and told her everything would work itself out."
Thomas' stepmother, Rochelle, contacted the school and Joslyn's parents to make sure it would be OK for J.T. to escort Joslyn to the dance. Once they received the all-clear, J.T. made the call.
"I was nervous that by the time I reached out, she might have had a date and would have to turn me down," he said.
Joslyn gladly accepted the invitation.
"After so many people turned me down, this was so big especially, because he asked me instead of me asking him," she said.
Levell said she knew that Thomas played for the Mountaineers, which is a much bigger deal in Morgantown than being drafted by the Bears. When she told her friends about the development, some doubted her. Let 'em doubt. She knew the deal.
She also knew she had to look good. So she spent hours finding the right dress for what she later would say was the best night of her life.
Thomas, meanwhile, knew what he was doing was nice, but he also knew it was the right thing. He has an affinity toward those who can't do the things he's able to do -- like run, lift weights, dance or behave the way society always wants. His brother is his constant example.
For years, Thomas has been involved in autism awareness functions and received honors for his leadership. In fact, one day after taking Levell to her dance, he attended a gala involving the local children's hospital, invited because of his efforts to help give all kids a chance at a better life.
Thomas was the unintended star of the event at the childrenâs hospital because his evening with Joslyn the night before had been front-page news.
"J.T. did this on his own accord; this wasn't a publicity stunt," said Thomas' agent, Michael Giorgio of National Sports Management. "He didn't do this to score points with anybody or with the Bears or to get any attention. This is just who he is. He's got a big heart."
Thomas didn't spare any expense to make sure Levell had a special time. He rented a black Chrysler and arrived with a bouquet of roses and a corsage. When he showed up at the school, he humbly escorted her through a pubescent crowd of onlookers who found out that she was telling the truth about her coming to the dance with the big football player.
"This was Joslyn's night," Thomas said. "It wasn't about me."
She introduced Thomas to all of her friends and took particular joy in taking him to all the boys who opted not to be in his place.
"The first thing one of the boys who was mean to me came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry I didn't believe you,' " Thomas said. "It was soooo exciting. I'm just so excited to go to school and see what everyone has to say."
Levell took Thomas on the dance floor, and they boogied a few times before things wound down -- at least for Thomas. After the dance was over, Levell went to an after-party. Thomas headed home.
Their families have stayed in touch and spoken several times this weekend; Thomas' stepmother sending pictures via email, Levell's mom thanking her for helping broker such a special weekend.
John Levell, Joslyn's grandfather, wrote an email to Rochelle thanking her for helping to make the connection.
"Speaking of words, whoever said a picture is worth a thousand of them wasn't entirely accurate as the smile on Joslyn's face in the pictures of her and J.T at the dance seem worth at least a million!," John wrote. "One very impressive young man you have on your hands there I must say too!! Can't wait to see him smash a couple Packers!!!"
The best part about this whole story is that J.T. and Joslyn know they will be forever intertwined. They want that. She will follow his career, and he will follow her progress.
"She's not just my friend for that one night," Thomas said.
If Thomas makes it with the Bears, he said he'll do everything he can to get Levell and her family tickets to a game. It's a goal. That might mean more to Levell than the dance. Despite having grown up in Chicago near Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Cubs, she has never seen the Bears in person.
"Honestly, I would love that," she said.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.