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‘A big man with a big heart’: How Dillan Gibbons is using NIL to help a close friend

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 3:39 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - On Sept. 2, 2017, nearly 80,000 fans poured into Notre Dame Stadium on a picturesque Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind. It was Dillan Gibbons’ first game for Notre Dame. At the time, he was a member of the scout team and did not see the field in the Fighting Irish’s season-opening win against Temple, but it was a day the young offensive lineman will cherish forever. Playing for Notre Dame was a dream come true for Gibbons, but what would ensue later that day would change his life.

Gibbons was one of the first players to exit the football facility after the game. He made his way toward the nearby area of the iconic Touchdown Jesus Mural, where players would often sign autographs for fans after games. When Gibbons arrived, about 40 kids approached him, hoping to receive a piece of memorabilia. Gibbons peered through the crowd and soon made eye contact with a boy sitting in a wheelchair, 14-year-old Timothy Donovan.

“Kids were tugging on me, just trying to get my attention, trying to get me to sign a helmet or a jersey, whatever it may be,” Gibbons said with a smile. “I made eye contact with Timothy, the only person that was actually looking at me in the eyes, so I walked over to Timothy. I ended up sitting next to him, taking a knee, had a conversation with him that probably lasted 30 or 40 minutes. It felt like it was only two or three minutes, but at the same time, it was just kind of one of those organic relationships that you read about in stories but never think is going to happen to you.”

Before Gibbons went home, he signed his pair of gloves for Timothy to keep. When Gibbons returned home that night, he lied down and reflected on his first game at Notre Dame Stadium. He thought about the electric atmosphere and all the hard work required over the years to reach that day. He also spent time thinking about the boy he befriended after the game.

Timothy was born with VACTERL, a disorder that abnormally affects many of the body’s systems, and he was not expected to survive. He was later diagnosed with Charcot Marie Tooth, an incurable disease that impacts the nerves in both his hands and feet. He’s also battled through thyroid cancer and has persevered through over 50 surgeries in his lifetime.

“Timothy’s the kind of kid where a lot of people – they’ll walk into his life and walk out in the same day,” Gibbons said. “A lot of people don’t give him the benefit of the doubt. They’ll give him a relationship for 24 hours and then never speak to him again. They’ll bring him to a football game or some other sporting event, and the next day, they just won’t follow up, so I didn’t want to treat him like that.

“I wanted to build a real relationship with him, get to know him, become updated by his mother, Paula, just on how he’s doing and all the things he has going on in his life…I wanted to do as much as I could for him as possible.”

Gibbons has remained close friends with Timothy since meeting him after his first game at Notre Dame. Timothy’s family resides in Dayton, Ohio, and they have been avid Notre Dame fans for years. His father is a Marine Corps veteran and was on active duty when Timothy was born. Gibbons’ family is from much farther away in Saint Petersburg, Fla., but his brother attended law school at Notre Dame and owns a house in South Bend. The families connected at Notre Dame games throughout Gibbons’ career and have developed a close friendship as well.

Gibbons became a regular contributor for Notre Dame during his junior season in 2019. He earned the first start of his career against Syracuse in 2020. Ironically, the first Notre Dame game that both Gibbons and Timothy ever attended was against Syracuse on Nov. 22, 2008. That game, where the Notre Dame student section infamously pelted its own players with snowballs in the first quarter, got both of them hooked on college football.

Unfortunately, due to Timothy’s worsening physical condition and the COVID-19 pandemic, he could not see Gibbons’ first start in person.

“It was an amazing day for me but would have been so much more special if Timothy could have been there,” Gibbons said. “It was only after that game that our mothers figured out our unique connection – the Syracuse snowball game in 2008.”

After the 2020 season ended, Timothy made the decision to have spine surgery in order to correct a severe curvature that was inhibiting his breathing ability. Now 18 years old, it was the first medical operation in his life that he had full autonomy in the decision. Although his parents and doctors worried that he would not survive the procedure, Timothy insisted on moving forward with it.

This past April, Timothy underwent the surgery. Prior to the operation, he had a 90-degree bend in his spine. Not only did he survive, but the surgery abated his difficulty breathing and reduced the curvature to 40 degrees. As a result, Timothy also grew four inches in height. Later that spring, he graduated from high school.

Around the same time, Gibbons began to brainstorm what was keeping him at Notre Dame for a fifth and potentially sixth year. (He has two years of eligibility remaining after redshirting in 2017 and with everyone being awarded a free year of eligibility in 2020.) After he met with Notre Dame coaches following the Irish’s spring game and was not guaranteed a starting spot, he began to explore graduate transfer options.

Gibbons decided on Florida State before even a single school began recruiting him. Traveling all the way up to Notre Dame for games over the past four years became very expensive for his family, so he wanted to be somewhere that was more accessible for them. His grandfather has also had multiple open-heart surgeries over the last four years. Playing closer to home for his last two seasons will allow his whole family to attend games very easily, including his grandfather.

Gibbons also grew up as a Seminoles fan, and at Florida State, he’ll pursue an MBA degree. In total, about 75 schools contacted him, but once Mike Norvell showed interest, Gibbons immediately informed the second-year head coach of his intentions to enroll over the summer.

Timothy soon reached out to congratulate Gibbons on his decision, adding that he is now a proud fan of both Notre Dame and Florida State.

Timothy and his family have never been to Tallahassee, but that will change this September with the Irish coincidentally opening their 2021 season at Florida State, combined with new opportunities for collegiate athletes like Gibbons to profit from their name, image and likeness.

Rather than capitalizing on this new freedom for his own personal benefit, Gibbons has been using his platform to continue helping Timothy and his family.

On July 1, Gibbons created a GoFundMe so he could raise money to bring Timothy and his parents to Doak Campbell Stadium for the FSU-Notre Dame game. The donations will be used for the family’s game tickets, transportation, housing and meals. Any excess funds raised will go directly to the Donovan family to help alleviate the costs of Timothy’s recent spinal surgery and any future medical bills.

“I always knew Dillan cared about Timothy,” Paula Donovan said. “I guess I didn’t realize the extent of how much love he has for him. When I hear him do interviews and talk about Timothy, there’s been times I’m just in tears.

“What touched my heart is that Dillan saw more in Timothy than just his disability or a wheelchair. He got to know him for who he is.”

Even before the new NIL law went into effect on July 1, Gibbons had spent much of the last two years pondering how he could use NIL to help Timothy. A Management Consulting major at Notre Dame, he used his business-oriented mind to begin mapping out a plan. NCAA rules prohibited Gibbons from raising any money until a few weeks ago, but he said this idea has been in the works for over a year.

Gibbons also worried about the potential of alienating teammates or being a locker room distraction if he were to accrue any sizable profits from his name, image and likeness. Allocating any money he made towards Timothy was his way of avoiding that potential problem.

“It’d be hard to have negative feelings toward somebody with a charitable donation,” Gibbons said. “It’d be hard to be like ‘Oh man, I wish I raised that much money,’ so I think this gives an outlet to college football players, in this time where some people are going to be separated from their teammates, to be able to make a radical, good change in the world by using your platform, by using your name, image and likeness, not necessarily for personal gain or personal financial reasons.”

Gibbons’ magnanimous personality traces back well before he met Timothy. In his elementary school days, he would bring a medical kit to the first day of class each year so his teachers could be prepared in case any student got hurt.

“I want to take care of as many people as possible,” Gibbons said. “I’m just a big man with a big heart. I’m trying to help out Timothy as much as I possibly can, and moving forward I’d like to help out more individuals like Timothy or just kids in the area. Just trying to inspire the masses through storytelling and through relationships I build.”

The GoFundMe has been a massive success since being launched. Gibbons’ initial goal was to raise a few thousand dollars to pay for the family’s trip to Tallahassee, but after 24 hours, he had raised more than $32,000, in large part because of a generous $15,000 donation from Super Coffee. Gibbons recalls taking a quick break in the middle of his long drive home to Saint Petersburg from South Bend when Super Coffee made its donation.

“I actually had to pull over because I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t really think or even drive,” Gibbons said. “I’ve never had experience with that like in that nature my whole life…I probably would have had a serious accident if I heard that news while I was driving, so I’m glad I did pull over.”

Gibbons has continued to promote the GoFundMe on his social media pages and donations have poured in from people and businesses throughout both the Notre Dame and Florida State communities. As of this writing, he has raised over $49,000.

Paula has also read plenty of the uplifting comments donors have left on social media and the GoFundMe page.

“As his mom, it’s overwhelming,” Paula said. “To know that people care about him that way and the response from everyone…and just how excited and how supportive they’ve been is just – it really is overwhelming.

“We really appreciate everything that everybody has been doing because they don’t have to do that,” Paula said. “People don’t know Timothy. They know his story, but it really means a lot to us that everybody has been so supportive and want him (in Tallahassee).”

Gibbons hopes that Timothy’s experience on the day of the Notre Dame-Florida State can be similar to an official recruiting visit. He hopes Timothy can get on the field at Doak Campbell Stadium for the coin toss or at some other point during the game to help spread his story to even more people. With that game slated to air on ABC at 7:30 p.m., it will be an opportunity for Timothy’s story to be told to a national audience.

“I just think that from all the struggles he’s been through in his life and the everyday challenges he goes through, I want him to know that it was worth it,” Gibbons said. “Again, I’m just trying to give him the biggest day in the sun that he’s ever had. I want him to be recognized and I want him to have all of that come to fruition.”

Timothy has already spent plenty of time watching YouTube videos of the game day atmosphere at Doak Campbell Stadium in preparation for his visit. Despite being a Notre Dame fan, his allegiance will lie with Florida State on the night of Sept. 5.

“I would like to thank my good friend Dillan for setting this fundraiser up,” Timothy said in a video posted on Gibbons’ Twitter page. “Next, I would like to thank everyone who has donated. I really appreciate the love and support. I’m so excited and looking forward to cheering for my friend Dillan in Florida.”

Recently, Gibbons has been in contact with GoFundMe’s Chief Marketing Officer, Musa Tariq, and his team. GoFundMe has appointed three different people who are working with Gibbons directly to market his campaign. They have since raised the fundraising goal to $75,000.

Gibbons does not necessarily see that number as the end goal. He hopes to continue to raise as much money as possible for the Donovan family in order to ease the financial burden of Timothy’s medical expenses. Gibbons says he hopes everyone has an experience with someone who can have the type of impact Timothy has had on him. He added that he’s learned plenty from his friendship with Timothy over the last several years. As an example, he mentioned that he’s had three different reconstructive foot surgeries in his life that have prevented him from walking for six months each time.

“Those were some of the most challenging days of my life,” Gibbons said. “You had to really kind of step back and evaluate what’s going on in your life. At the time, you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m going through this,’ but when you put it in perspective it doesn’t mean anything. The struggles I went through then aren’t even a day in the life of Timothy. For example, Timothy is never going to wear a pair of shoes. Imagine never being able to put a pair of shoes on your feet. It’s something we take for granted every single day of our lives…Me and Timothy have had two radically different paths in our lives but we’re very like-minded individuals. The way I see it, I believe that if Timothy was in my shoes, he’d be working this hard for me.”

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