This isn't really a story about gloves, but it has to start there with the pair of game-worn Nikes that Zach Miller used during a 26-21 victory over the Buccaneers in 2015.
They're the gloves Miller took toward the stands after the final gun, the ones the Bears tight end was holding as Eric Cremeens snapped a random picture that December afternoon.
It seemed to be a small moment after a trivial victory in Week 16 of a ho-hum season. Cremeens figured Miller was heading to the locker room, not directly toward Cremeens' young son, Ryan, and nephew, Isaac.
At the time, they were all strangers with no idea of what was ahead. Ryan Cremeens was a vibrant and sports-crazed 8-year-old who was in St. Petersburg, Fla., to visit his Uncle Pat and at Raymond James Stadium as part of a surprise Christmas present.
When Miller handed both his gloves up, Ryan grabbed the right one, which he and his dad later put into a shadowbox in their Richmond, Ky., home.
That was the introduction. So Ryan wrote a heartfelt thank-you note, a letter his parents sent to Halas Hall while also posting a copy to Miller's Facebook fan page. Instantly the connection deepened.
Ryan had met Zach and Zach had remembered Ryan. They exchanged messages periodically, enough so that six months later, in June 2016, the Cremeens family felt compelled to reach out.
They had horrifying news: Ryan had rhabdomyosarcoma. A soft-tissue tumor in his sinus was growing into his skull.
Miller was on Interstate 80, headed from Chicago to Nebraska, when he learned of Ryan's diagnosis. He immediately pulled off at Exit 284.
"World's Largest Truck Stop," Miller said. "Put the car in park. I vividly remember sitting there thinking about it all for a minute. I knew I had to call."
Eric and Angie Cremeens had no idea how to process the reality of their 8-year-old son dealing with cancer. They had no guidebook for quelling Ryan's fears or soothing his discomfort. At first, Eric had no interest in even confronting their new reality.
This had to just be a sinus infection. That odd weekend afternoon when Ryan's left eye had turned inward toward his nose, forcing him to watch a Cubs game with his head turned at an awkward angle? Maybe that was something an optometrist could remedy.
This wasn't supposed to be a vicious uppercut, a malignant tumor that ultimately would require Ryan to undergo a craniotomy, then 42 weeks of chemotherapy with seven weeks of radiation.
"My initial response was if I don't talk about this, it's not true," Eric said.
As strong as the pull of denial and self-pity was, Eric and Angie knew they couldn't stay in that rut, that Ryan's ebullience had to be their compass. As parents, they made a pact that whatever their journey they had to fill their lives with activity. They wanted Ryan to create a surplus of positive memories to outweigh the drain of his illness.
Ryan's bond with Miller, the Cremeenses knew, also could become a powerful pain reliever. On the night before Ryan's first surgery, that hunch was confirmed when the Bears tight end called.
Miller has lost count of his surgeries but knows he has had operations on both feet, both shoulders, his right knee and right thumb.
Ryan's fears about not waking up? Not to worry, Miller told him. Toughness is a state of mind.
"For Ryan, it was a complete 180," Eric said. "This huge tight end for the Chicago Bears who's a walking muscle is telling Ryan, 'Hey, look, you're tougher than I am.' Ryan wasn't afraid anymore."
Thus, Miller latched on tighter.
"I knew I had to be there for him," Miller said. "I had to be that constant throughout his journey."
Before Ryan's chemo treatments, Miller often made sure to carve out a few minutes for FaceTime.
That surgical disfigurement on the left side of Ryan's bald skull?
"Dude," Miller told him, "that's a sweet scar. No one is going to mess with you with that."
Last September, Miller invited Ryan to the Bears' Monday night game against the Eagles, introducing him to teammates before the game and encouraging him to run around Soldier Field.
"As a parent," Eric said, "all you want to do is protect your child and cheer them up. And when you're struggling to put that happy face on them, it's nice when you have someone else helping to do that."
"Zach," Ryan said, "taught me how to be brave."
The marvels of social media have amazed the Cremeenses. They originally started a Facebook page as a means of streamlining updates on Ryan's health for family and friends — TeamRyan — 86, a nod to Miller's jersey number.
But then Eric, who grew up in Joliet, began reaching out through Twitter to Ryan's favorite teams and athletes. Every reply of reassurance or thumbs-up emoji seemed to enliven Ryan. There was a bigger world of support to tap into.
On July 20, 2016, Cubs catcher Miguel Montero tweeted a picture of his daughter painting his face. "My Inspiration, My Life, My Everything!!!" Montero wrote. "What does inspire you?"
Eric replied with a picture of Ryan. And wouldn't you know it? Eventually, Montero invited Ryan, his parents and younger brother, Brady, to be his guests for two Cubs games.
As fate would have it, the Cremeenses' Sept. 18 visit to Wrigley Field put them just one row in back of another set of parents who could empathize with the shock and dejection and responsibilities of having a child with cancer.
Laurie and John Rizzo never had forgotten how their son Anthony — 18 years old when he received his 2008 diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma — had benefited from outside encouragement. Laurie never had forgotten how wide-eyed Anthony had been when, after his first chemotherapy treatment, he had gone to Fenway Park and been introduced to budding Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, himself a cancer survivor.
Lester told Rizzo to acknowledge his fears but understand his strength. Lester coached Rizzo to see his recovery as a competition.
"That was everything to us," Laurie said. "At that time, Anthony meeting a big-league ballplayer was incredible."
To this day, Laurie stays in touch with Angie Cremeens, compelled to pay it forward.
"This is a tough journey," Laurie said. "I always say, 'This has to be one second at a time.' That's my big thing. Otherwise it's all so overwhelming.
"And you can't know what's coming next. If you think too much, that's when it really gets you."
Anthony's brief exchanges with Ryan at the ballpark and over social media, Laurie knows, provided the Cremeenses with what Lester had given the Rizzos: an example of strength and a sense of hope.
Furthermore, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation stepped in to pay a huge portion of the Cremeenses' out-of-pocket medical expenses.
Over the last 14 months, the avenues of outreach the Cremeens family found through social media helped Ryan compartmentalize his cancer recovery within an ongoing sports fantasy camp.
Cubs games. Bears games. New friendships with University of Kentucky football players.
Nick Faldo invited Ryan to be a guest at the Memorial in Ohio, where he also happened to meet Jack Nicklaus and Jordan Spieth.
At Kentucky's spring football game, Ryan led the Wildcats out of the tunnel with a Usain Bolt-like sprint. Later, he reconnected on the sidelines with former Kentucky great and current Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan. And as wide-eyed as Ryan was trying on Trevathan's massive diamond ring from Super Bowl 50, Trevathan came away even more impressed by the kid's spirit.
"It caught me off guard," Trevathan said. "I'm not normally a smiley guy. But I couldn't stop smiling with his attitude about everything and how naturally happy he was."
Added Angie: "He's the strongest kid I know. He is humble. And everybody he meets, he touches them just with his presence."
On Wednesday, Ryan's reunion with Miller at Bears training camp in Bourbonnais was filled with a 9-year-old's giddiness. In March, Ryan completed his final chemo treatment, marking the milestone with a triumphant march down a hallway at the Kentucky Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Clinic. Wearing his Zach Miller jersey plus a gold cape, gold sunglasses and a gold trucker's hat to represent the color for pediatric cancer, Ryan asked for "Eye of the Tiger" to be played as he rang the hospital's chemo bell.
His cancer is in remission.
After so many interactions with Miller during which he had been brittle or worn down, Ryan wanted his Bears hero to see he was full of life again.
Wearing his navy No. 86 jersey with shoulder pads underneath, Ryan couldn't wait to show Miller his hair had grown back and that he had asked his dad to shave a hard part into it — to look just like the tight end's.
Ryan couldn't wait to tell Miller he is now readying for his first season of organized football, how he had spent parts of that morning running ladders and plowing into tackling dummies in the Mini-Monster Zone at training camp.
After practice, Miller kept Ryan at his hip as he worked down a long procession of autograph seekers.
"I've seen him through all he went through," Miller said. "And he was never, ever down. In your mind, you're saying, 'At that age, there's no way he should have to go through this.' And yet he just crushed it."
Miller also wants it known the inspiration was often a two-way street, that ultimately he needed his own reassurance while rallying back from the season-ending foot fracture he suffered in November.
"Rehab sucks," Miller said. "It's boring, you're sore, it's repetitive. And then you think of Ryan and all he has dealt with — way worse than anything I could imagine. I have a little foot injury.
"He was there for me too."
No, this was never really a story about those Nike gloves. But of course it was. The Cremeenses know that now, that something compelled Ryan to stay after that Bears victory in Tampa two seasons ago.
It could have been any Bear who came to the stands with a souvenir, but it wasn't any Bear. It was the face of perseverance, the tight end who has missed 67 games over the last six seasons and once went 1,429 days between regular-season appearances.
Don't even try to convince Eric and Angie Cremeens that Miller's entry into Ryan's life was a chance occurrence.
"There were thousands of people at that game," Eric said. "Ryan didn't have a sign. He wasn't yelling for Zach. He was just waiting for players to come off the field. All of a sudden Zach makes a beeline for him. That wasn't an accident."
Miller too believes fate magnetized him to that section of Raymond James Stadium.
"No doubt in my mind," he said. "We were put in that moment there to connect. That was heaven sent, man."
To this day, Miller deeply admires what he calls Ryan's "feel-good attitude." And he has been both overwhelmed and delighted that his own benevolence has influenced Ryan to provide an uplift to others, compelling him to deliver care packages and encouragement to patients at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital.
Eric and Angie have seen the growth in their son these last 15 months. They have seen Ryan's compassion grow and a newfound confidence emerge.
"He has become a much more self-assured child after facing this," Eric said. "He has taken more from his diagnosis than it has taken from him."
Ryan's strength will continue to build. Miller's influence, they know, will be everlasting.
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