"How does it feel to run?" Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis asked his new friend Jackson DeLude.
"Great!" Jackson said with an enormous smile as he answered Davis' question over Zoom. "When I get back to school I can keep up with my friends and participate in stuff."
How does it feel to run?
It's a simple question and answer for many of us. Running or walking is something many of us can do instantly, if we please. It's a gift that's easy to take for granted.
For eight-year-old Jackson DeLude, the ability to answer that question with sheer joy — a kid waking up to presents on Christmas morning type of joy — was something he had been hoping for, for a while. The Buffalo native grew up without his legs fully developed and needed prosthetics to be able to walk. Jackson had prosthetics, but was in need of running prosthetics or blades so he could live his eight-year-old life to the fullest.
Davis and Bills linebacker Matt Milano discovered Jackson's story and immediately wanted to help. If it wasn't for being in the right place at the right time, the two Bills players would have never been able to change someone's life for better.
The two spent part of their offseason months training out of a complex in Orlando, Fla., called Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates. For months, Davis and Milano trained next to people of all ages who were receiving new prosthetic limbs, learning how to use them and more.
"The place that we worked out at during quarantine back home in Orlando does prosthetic legs, so we kind of had that connection there," Milano explained. "And then somebody said, 'Hey, would you like to help this kid out, he's from Buffalo, and fly him down to Orlando to get him his new legs?' We said, 'Yeah, why not.' It was a great opportunity for him and during the holiday season, what's better than that for his Christmas present."
Without thinking twice Milano and Davis paid for Jackson to fly down to Florida, get fitted for and receive his running prosthetics and cap off with the epic trip with a visit to Disney. This willingness to open their hearts and give is partly because they both watched people of all types and ages train in their new prosthetics while they trained next to them for an NFL season.
"It just really opened my eyes to really realize how good we have life when it just comes to being healthy," Davis shared. "There's little kids in there with no arms, no legs. No one ever thinks about not having legs. People are in there just to learn how to walk again. Or how to use their other arm because they lost their dominant one, things like that. I just wanted to be able to help somebody who's in need in that field because I know I have the ability."
Before they knew it, Jackson was already in Florida receiving his new blades. Milano and Davis received a video of Jackson from Orlando when he was testing out the prosthetics by running around the facility and yelling, 'You want to see how fast I can run?'
"Now for the rest of his life growing up he's going to be able to do the things that he wasn't able to do before," Milano said. "I think that's pretty cool. We just saw a video of him running, and he had a huge smile on his face, jumping all over stuff. I'm happy for him more than the feeling it gave to us."
"I'm happy that he's able to be able to do that," Davis said. "He does everything. He's skateboarding, he's snowboarding and he's trying to do everything. So I'm glad that we're able to get him to the next step of being able to do that even more efficiently."
Davis also felt inclined to assist because of how many people helped his family when his mother, Alana, was raising him and his two siblings as a single parent. Now being in the NFL, Davis wants to return the favor as much as possible.
"There's always people that need help, and the simplest things in life can make someone's life so much better," Davis shared. "You never know what anybody's going through. If I can be that person that can help them to better days, I definitely want to do it because of the people that did it for me. They made my life so much better. They helped get me to this day today. These people are having bigger struggles than I did, and they're able to fight through it every single day. I want to be there for them and be able to help the best way I can."
"I think for us as just being an NFL player, kids look up to us," Milano said thinking back to when he was a kid. "I know when I was young I looked up to guys in the NFL that would always come back to my high school and talk to us when we were there. But I think it's just good giving back, good karma and putting good energy out into the world."
For the two, the act of helping Jackson get new running prosthetics has changed their outlook on life. After training next to people who were getting the gift of prosthetic limbs so they could live normally, Davis and Milano are remembering to stop taking the simple things for granted.
"I'm always thankful for what I have right now because that was my biggest thing I told my mom," Davis shared. "I said, 'I've seen all these people, different people every single day that are struggling with the simple things in life. And yet we sit here and complain about the simple things. Simple things like what we take for granted.' So I just try to be thankful for the things going on. Obviously no matter where you are in your life, there's going to be struggles here and there. I just try to take the simple things and think, sit back and enjoy what I have."
Davis and Milano haven't gotten to meet Jackson in-person yet due to COVID-19. But they did chat over Zoom after his trip to Disney. Jackson said Disney was the best place to test out his new blades.
We all have so many post-COVID plans. One of Davis and Milano's is to meet Jackson and see him in his new blades.
"We might have to race when I see you," Davis told Jackson over Zoom. "Since you have your new blades we might have to put them to the test."
"He might be faster than you, Gabe," Milano said with a laugh.
"Thank you so much to the both of you," Ashley, Jackson's mother, said chiming into the conversation. "Really there's nothing I can say to show you how much we appreciate you guys doing this. It means so much. You guys are amazing."
For Davis and Milano, it was an act of servant leadership. For Jackson, it was a life-changing trip. It's something the three will never forget and never take for granted.