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Tyler Sampson just had the week of his life. Which really isn't saying much, considering he's just 13 years old. But regardless, it was a big one. Red carpet appearances, rubbing elbows with ex-presidents – generally enjoying all the glitz and glam that accompanies a total Super Bowl experience. It was a ride on cloud nine, a dream come true for any young boy.
Which makes us all wonder how he's managed to come home more grounded and focused than ever.
When Tyler entered this world more than a decade ago, he was born without most of his right arm. Despite this disadvantage, he grew up alongside his twin brother, Sterling, playing, laughing and learning just like any other kid. His parents were determined to give him as normal a life as possible, never making excuses or treating him differently.
Then one day when Tyler was 4 years old, his mom took him to meet DeMarcus Ware, who was making an appearance at a local grocery store. Tyler asked the Cowboys defensive end, "Do you think I'd ever be able to play football?"
Ware told him he could do anything he wants.
And so began Tyler's quest to do exactly that. Anything he wants.
No matter how challenging.
Growing up, Tyler's parents always kept him in mainstream sports, where he had to learn lessons the hard way. His mom, Cindy, says, "The hardest thing to do was to do nothing at all."
The main lesson for Tyler was that he would likely have to work harder than most of his peers. And so far, he has been fine with that. Not that it's necessarily easy, but what he lacks in skill or ability, he makes up in determination and enthusiasm.
Tyler explained his journey in December as part of a video for the NFL's "Together We Make Football" contest.
"They think because I have one hand that I'm not going to be any good," he states in the short film. "When I first started playing sports, I didn't think I was going to be any good either. Then, once I actually got the hang of it, I got way better."
From the thousands of videos submitted, only 10 were chosen for the final round, and from those, fans voted for the top-5 entries that best represented the face of football in our nation. Those selected all received an ultimate experience at Super Bowl XLVIII.
When the final votes were tallied, Tyler was on his way to New York City.
Of course, the fun began before he even left. Perhaps the most memorable moment of his adventure actually came when he found out that he was headed to the big game … or make that how he found out.
The Griffin Middle School gymnasium in Frisco was filled to capacity, his family and friends on hand to cheer, as Tyler was brought to the middle of the gym floor. That's when Ware snuck up behind the slightly embarrassed kid, grabbed him in a full bear hug, and gave Tyler the good news.
"You're going to the Super Bowl!" DeMarcus told him. And in all his heart-breaking cuteness, you can hear Tyler's voice crack just a bit when he says, "Thank you so much."
The great thing about Tyler's story is simply what a humble kid he is. His trip to New Jersey and New York included the full VIP treatment. When his family stepped off the plane, they were greeted by Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. Later when they arrived at their hotel room, it was chock full of Cowboys and Super Bowl merchandise. The Sampson Family traveled in style thanks to Mercedes Benz, enjoyed pre-parties, after-parties and even on-field access following the game.
Tyler watched Seattle dismantle the Broncos in a suite where other guests included President Bill Clinton. Whoopi Goldberg was there as well, hugging Tyler and telling him his story made her cry. Tyler also got to meet Jason Garrett, the Cowboys head coach inviting the junior high student out to a practice next season.
But after it was all said and done, what was Tyler's take from his Super Bowl experience? Impressively, a stronger desire to share his story.
"It has pushed me to inspire people even more," he says. "I have new standards now, and much higher expectations for myself."
Tyler's mom sees the same thing in her son.
"If you can imagine driving up to the red carpet," says Cindy. "People are lined up and down the street for blocks, everyone cheering and waiting for hours just to get a chance to wave at someone. It was all so amazing." [embedded_ad]
Despite such a whirlwind escapade, Cindy says she still sees the same down-to-earth teenager.
"He's actually a very shy kid," says Cindy. "He doesn't really like the attention, but when we started meeting people and they told him what an inspiration he is, he accepted it. He embraced it. It's more of a drive to play harder and do better. He sort of found his purpose in life."
His ability – bravery you might say – to embrace this role is also one of the very reasons his video was selected as a finalist in the first place. NFL Films senior producer Digger O'Brien talked to Cindy about choosing her son's video for the final 10 and how Tyler impressed him with his willingness to "put himself out there," even at such a young age.
It's one thing to suit up in pads for a football game with a physical impediment. And yet another to step up to the plate holding a bat with just one hand. But very few teenagers have the gumption to tell the whole wide world as Tyler did in his video, "I don't want to be known as being good for missing an arm. I just want to be known for being good."
Shortly after the trip when we spoke to Tyler for this article, at the end of the conversation he asked if he could add something. Certainly.
"I just want to thank all the people who voted for me," says Tyler. "And one more thing: Can you also tell Jerry Jones to draft me one day?"