TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Thanks to a college football player's small gesture of kindness, it could be a long time before a mother will have to worry again about her autistic son eating lunch alone.
Tears streamed down the face of Leah Paske when she saw the photo of Florida State University wide receiver Travis Rudolph sharing a cafeteria table with her sixth-grader. Then she shared her gratitude on Facebook, and the story took off.
By Wednesday, Bo Paske had no shortage of lunch companions.
"Everyone was super welcoming him. He was at a table full of girls, which I thought was funny," Leah Paske said. "The feedback has been good."
Rudolph was among several FSU players visiting Montford Middle School in Tallahassee on Tuesday when he saw Bo sitting alone in the cafeteria. He grabbed a slice of pizza and asked if he could join him.
The child said, "Sure, why not," Rudolph recalled after practice that day.
"We just had a great conversation. He started off, telling me his name was Bo, telling me how much he loves Florida State. We went from there," said the West Palm Beach, Florida, native, now beginning his junior season.
"It was real easy ... you'd never think anything was wrong with him. He had a nice smile on his face. Just a really warm person."
Bo's mother had shared her anxieties in the Facebook post. Middle school can be tough. Would other kids be welcoming, or mean?
"Sometimes I'm grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him," she wrote.
"He doesn't seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn't seem to notice that he doesn't get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn't seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It's one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it's nobody."
The photo was taken by Mike Halligan, the middle school's resource officer and a friend of the family. Halligan said he texted it to Paske to ease her concerns about how her son was acclimating to a new school.
"I knew it was important for Leah to be comfortable and know that her son is doing OK and is not afraid," Halligan said.
Paske said their encounter has given autism awareness a huge boost.
"The picture speaks way more than a thousand words. You can see how far away the rest of the students are, but you can see how engaged Travis is with Bo. He's looking at him while he's eating," she said. "It's so telling. I can't get over how such a small moment can have a huge impact.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said he's proud of his player.
"You can make someone's day by being yourself and understanding the impact you have as an athlete," he said.
Rudolph said his phone hasn't stopped ringing.
"I just wanted to go say hi to the kid, because I saw him eating alone. I didn't even know anybody took a photo of it," Rudolph explained in an email. "I'm glad it can bring awareness to helping others."
Bo, too, is excited — about Rudolph signing his lunch box, as well as all the attention.
"It's been awesome. Everyone was so proud of me," he said.
Paske said they have been invited to dinner with the team and possibly a game. Florida State football spokesman Zach Stipe said logistics are being worked out.
Florida State is ranked fourth in The Associated Press Preseason Top 25, and opens the season on Monday against 11th-ranked Mississippi in Orlando.