In football, the 12th man refers to the team's supporters - insinuating that the fans have a role in encouraging or motivating their side to perform better or score goals. This year, at Gaither High School, their 12th man is Ryan Bowling.
On February 11, 2020, Ryan Bowling, an otherwise happy and healthy six-and-a-half-year-old at Mary Bryant Elementary, was diagnosed with a rare soft muscle tissue cancer rhabdomyosarcoma.
Around this time, the Gaither Football team was in the early stages of their off-season football workouts, which is not always the most exciting time for the team. The tasks to lift weights and the extra workouts often came with complaints by the entire team.
One of their coaches, Jason Silbert, had recently spoken to Ryan's mom and found out that Ryan would require 42 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. Noticing that was the same number of weeks before the State Title game, their goal for the season, the coach decided to get the team on board.
"If this 6-year-old could do 42 weeks of chemo and radiation, we could surely put in the 42 weeks of hard work to be better students, citizens, and state champs!" said Coach Silbert.
The team decided that every rep, every practice, and every game they would do it for Ryan.
Wrist bands and football helmet decals were made with the hashtag #DOIT4RYAN. The team sent inspiring videos to Ryan to keep fighting. The team even sent presents and a cake for his 7th birthday. They were "ALL IN."
That is when Jordan Oladokun, one of the standout players on the team, really formed a relationship with Ryan. He found out what Ryan's favorite number was and then changed his jersey number.
"This year, I'll be wearing number 12 for Ryan," Oladokun said via Instagram. "Ryan is currently battling cancer, and as a football team, we decided to play this year for Ryan. I wanted to represent Ryan myself because I love the way he continues to fight and stay strong at such a young age."
An athlete's number means a lot to them. It symbolizes their favorite number, their favorite athlete's number, a sibling, a friend, or a family member making this an incredible tribute to their newest member of the Gaither Cowboy team. Their "12th man."
They invited Ryan to do the coin toss at their biggest game of the year against their rival Armwood High. He was thrilled, and the team won the toss and the game.
The football team and the entire Hillsborough County Public School district wish Ryan all the best and are rooting for him every step of the way.