TAMPA - University of South Florida defensive end Ryne Giddins always dreamed about this moment, his senior night, a farewell to Raymond James Stadium, being surrounded by family and friends, one last salute to the football program he loves.
But in his dreams, his mother always was there at midfield, waiting to embrace her baby boy.
And now she’s gone.
“I never knew it would be cut short like this,” Giddins said. “I never expected someone so precious to be taken away. I know it’s a fact. I can’t say I’ve accepted it. But I know I have to push forward.” When Giddins and 16 senior teammates are honored before tonight’s game between the USF Bulls and SMU Mustangs, he’ll focus on the proper send-off. He’ll hold his head high, play hard and have no regrets.
It’s what Sabrina Giddins would’ve wanted.
To know her was to love her.
“You know that’s true,” USF senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “Miss Sabrina, she was real.”
She loved to swim. She spoke her mind — always.
“She didn’t like me at first,” said Trina White, mother of Giddins’ girlfriend. “She said, ‘Nobody can be that happy and friendly all the time.’ She thought something was up. I burst right through her bubble. Then we were good.”
She worked hard and didn’t complain. She was partial to dolphins and butterflies. And she loved her baby boy.
Twenty months ago, she gathered her husband and three children. This news had to be delivered in person. Even before she spoke, Giddins didn’t have a good feeling. He felt a lump in his throat, tears in his eyes. His mother had uterine cancer.
Giddins was a first-team prep All-American at Armwood High School, an athletic terror, charismatic and limitless in potential. The USC Trojans wanted him. So did the Florida Gators. Instead, he chose USF and many wondered why.
Staying home was meant to be.
For nearly 18 months, Giddins juggled his studies and football responsibilities while being there for his mother, taking her to treatments for chemotherapy or radiation, maybe just staying at the family’s Thonotosassa home for support. His junior season was ruined by a torn labrum, causing some to question his effort. They didn’t know he was hurt. He never said anything. But it couldn’t compare to his real pain.
“Sometimes, I didn’t feel like a real college student,” said Giddins, 23. “I had to grow up fast. I didn’t have time to goof around. I had things to take care of.”
“Ryne Giddins is a gladiator,” USF senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore said. “With all he went through, sometimes on the practice field, he was the one who kept us going. I can’t imagine it.”
When he knew the end was near at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Sept. 16, a few weeks after LifePath Hospice had been called in to make his mother comfortable, Giddins asked to shut down all the machines. He didn’t want that noise.
The room was then filled with peace. She raised her arms to the sky, almost as if pointing to something in the distance, then raised them again. Giddins was holding one of her hands and his girlfriend, Cierra Harris, was holding the other.
Sabrina Giddins was 58.
“I knew right then and there,” Giddins said. “She was with the Lord. She was in a better place. Nothing would ever hurt her again.”
Giddins spoke at the jam-packed funeral service, before openly weeping teammates, coaches and friends he hadn’t seen in years. He held it together as best he could. He had something to say.
“Seeing the way my mom fought was amazing and encouraging. I thought I knew how to fight and overcome, but after seeing what she did, it made me realize how to fight and overcome the worst times. She taught me how to be the man I am today.”
The next night, Giddins played against the Cincinnati Bearcats. USF, close to its first victory, was threatened in the final quarter. With Cincinnati facing fourth-and-1 from the USF 9-yard line, trying to make it a one-score game, Giddins lined up and suddenly heard a voice.
His mother’s voice.
It’s going to come right here, Ryne. The ball’s coming to you.
Bearcats running back Tion Green tried the left side — and Giddins was there to stuff him.
“She was right there with me,’’ Giddins said. “I’ve never had a feeling like that.’’
His name is Ryne Payne Giddins.
“RPG — I love my initials,’’ he said. “It’s like a missile. That’s how I think of myself on the field. Like a missile.”
Giddins has worked his way to 18.5 career sacks, fourth on USF’s all-time list, and he’s 10th in tackles for a loss. Still, he never made the All-American team. And he’ll go out with three consecutive losing seasons, no bowl appearances since his freshman year.
But Giddins made his mark in ways that can’t be quantified.
“More than anything, it was the way he dealt with adversity,” USF coach Willie Taggart said. “He fought through a storm. You think, ‘If Ryne can go through these things and keep fighting, why can’t we?’ ”
These days, Giddins carries around a small notebook. Occasionally, he will stop to read it.
It’s his mother’s diary.
August 7 — Problems are just milestones in life. They will make you mature, complete and not lacking anything. Problems will strengthen my faith in God, so I will continue to rejoice about my problems.
”When I read her words now, I realize that every day she got closer to passing away, she actually got stronger,” Giddins said. “She had this amazing faith.”
Giddins takes comfort in that. But he admits to some loneliness and depression. He still doesn’t think it’s fair.
When he was younger, Giddins would hop in his mother’s bed and tell her he was headed to the NFL. One day, he would buy her anything she wanted. He would make her problems disappear.
“Of course, I still want the NFL, but the only thing guaranteed is three more games at USF,” Giddins said. “You have to adjust and be aware of reality. If you don’t, it’s going to hit you in the face. So I look for the positives in each day.”
Giddins has happiness all around. He will graduate this summer. He made lifetime friends at USF. They marvel at his six-year relationship with Harris. Before every meal, they join hands and pray. Then they kiss.
“Ryne is loved by a lot of people, believe me,” said White, his girlfriend’s mother. “I don’t worry about Ryne. He calls me Mom. But Sabrina is still there for him. I believe God allows the parent to always be in the child’s presence. He’ll always have that strength. He’s going to be just fine.”
Giddins, No. 97, will march to midfield tonight, where his father, siblings and girlfriend will await. She was supposed to be there, on his level, the football field. He might search for her, looking up into the night. He might shed a tear.
He still hears her voice.
“It’s plain as day,” Giddins said. “I hear her saying those three words. ‘I love you.’ ”