ST. LOUIS — It started with a celebrity sighting and a request for a photo. But what happened next is still kind of difficult for Tim Cruesoe to believe.
Cruesoe, a senior at Parkway North High School in suburban St. Louis, was at the Saint Louis Galleria with friends in late August when he recognized a famous face walking around the mall. Tavon Austin, a rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, was just doing some shopping when Cruesoe approached and requested to take a photo.
The high school senior, a cornerback and running back for the Parkway North Vikings, and the first-round draft pick struck up a conversation about football. They took a photo together. They even exchanged phone numbers so they could keep in touch.
“He said, ‘Take my number down. I don’t have anything to do, I don’t really know anybody.’ He told me to call him so he could come to one of my games,” Cruesoe said.
In the weeks since, Cruesoe and Austin have talked and texted, developing a friendship that includes the 17-year-old sending the NFL wideout his highlight clips and Austin offering whatever advice he can from his playing experience.
“You don’t want everybody to have your number, but I had trust in him because of how we met each other and how he approached me,” Austin said Wednesday. “It was definitely in a good manner. I trust him and he trusts me. We talk throughout the week.”
And then, finally, Austin made it to Parkway North’s playoff opener against visiting Parkway West on Friday night.
“He pretty much just asked me to come to one of their games,” Austin said of the first time he met Cruesoe. “We exchanged numbers. First couple times I was going to go but some things came up. I went to their first playoff game and they pulled the win off.”
Cruesoe wasn’t sure his new friend was going to show up Friday.
Parkway North coach Bob Bunton had been told Austin would be there. The long-time coach had heard that before but the wide receiver had yet to make his first appearance. This time, sure enough, there he was before the game.
“He showed up early and I asked him if he would say a few words to the kids,” Bunton said. “He was awesome. He was great. Very humble young man was Tavon. He didn’t talk about himself. He talked about playing together as a team and being happy for your teammates when they score and just enjoying the opportunity to play high school football. He was great. He really was.”
The moment was captured in a photograph. Austin shared it on his Instagram account and one of the Parkway North football coaches published it on the team’s Facebook page.
“It was motivating. Exciting,” Cruesoe said of the pregame pep talk. “He was emotional. You could tell he really meant what he was saying.”
Austin had talked to high school teams before back home in Baltimore, where he led his Dunbar High School teams to three consecutive state championships before continuing his career at West Virginia.
It really wasn’t that long ago that Austin, now at the ripe old age of 22, was a high school player. When he was growing up, he knew how much it would have meant for a pro athlete to take the time to talk to the next generation. He vowed then that if he was ever in a position to give back like that, he would.
“It felt good to go in there and let them know that you do care about those guys and like seeing them play,” he said. “And just because you’re on a different level doesn’t mean you are better than them.
“It felt good. The guys looked up to me.”
Austin then watched from the sideline as the North Vikings beat the rival Longhorns 28-3 to improve to 7-3 on the season and advance to the next round of playoffs.
Cruesoe was nervous, of course. Who wouldn’t be? He wanted to put on a good performance in front of his new friend. And the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder did his part in the blowout victory, recording three tackles and snagging one of his team’s six interceptions in a dominating defensive effort.
The fact that Cruesoe was even in uniform for the Vikings was a significant victory in itself. This is his first year playing football at Parkway North and, according to Bunton, he had to prove himself just to make it.
“Tim has been in trouble at our school in years past and has not been able to make the football team,” Bunton said. “He came to me last year, it was a year ago, and he said, ‘I want to play football my senior year.’ My exact words were ‘Get out of my face.’ He had been in a lot of trouble, he did not have the grades and he would not leave my room.”
The coach eventually asked Cruesoe to come back the next day. When he did, Bunton gave him a list of conditions that would have to be met before he could join the team: make a specified number of weight room workouts and have at least a 2.5 grade-point average — higher than the 2.0 normally required to play.
“He did everything,” Bunton said. “He did everything he was supposed to do in the off-season. His grades are good. He has been wonderful. He has had a real solid year for us. He was named third-team offensive athlete in the Suburban South (Conference). I couldn’t be more happy for a kid. He is a cool, cool story.”
Cruesoe, who began playing football when he was 6 and said he has loved the game ever since, used that passion as motivation to do what Bunton required. The coach didn’t think he could do it, but Cruesoe made Bunton eat his words.
“I had to get my grades up and just stay focused,” he said.
Now, because of his unusual and unlikely friendship with the Rams’ rookie wide receiver, the Parkway North senior is more motivated than ever. He’s working hard on and off the field to have a chance to continue his career.
“He’s made a big impact on my life,” Cruesoe said. “It’s inspiring.”
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.