SEFFNER — Byron Cowart, Armwood High’s star football player, has every major college football program in America knocking at his door.
Rated the No. 1 college prospect in Florida, and according to Rivals.com, the overall top college prospect in the country, Cowart has achieved five-star status, the highest rating any high school athlete, in any sport, can receive.
And as he approaches his final year of high school, one would assume the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end is consumed with his rankings, his recruiting process, leading Armwood to another state title, or even his future as a professional athlete.
To the contrary, he’s not.
Cowart has spent this summer using his status as a means to spread awareness about Crohn’s disease, the inflammation of the digestive tract resulting in frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. His new best friend, 10-year-old Jeovani “JoJo” Ortiz, was diagnosed with Crohn’s in April.
“I think about how hard it is for him,” Cowart said. “Sometimes he can’t get out of the bed. Sometimes he’s going through a whole day hurting inside and then there are days I don’t want to go to practice and I’m in perfect shape. If he can do it and get up, why can’t I?”
Cowart met Ortiz at a graduation party hosted by Ortiz’s parents, Julio and Cheyenne, in late April. Cowart noticed Cheyenne helping Ortiz with a feeding tube plugged into his nose. Cowart asked questions. He wanted to know about Crohn’s. He wanted to help.
So when Cowart learned Ortiz played flag football at the quarterback position, Cowart immediately asked if they could train together.
“Who better to teach you quarterback than a defensive end,” Cowart said. “I’ll teach him what not to do.”
“He’s been teaching me a lot about football and how I should throw because I’m a really good quarterback on my team,” Jeovani Ortiz said.
Since their first meeting, Cowart and Ortiz have become close.
They train every weekend, and when they’re not, they play video games. On July 4, they stayed awake until the early morning lighting fireworks.
“After that first day, (Cowart) just got so attached that he made a promise to him like hey, ‘I don’t have a brother, you don’t have a brother and I’m you’re big brother now,’ ” Julio Ortiz said. “He told him, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about.’ ”
And whenever a microphone is put in front of Cowart, he mentions his friend Jeovani and his daily struggle with Crohn’s.
“It makes me feel special that people really do care about me and everyone that has Crohn’s disease,” Jeovani Ortiz said. “It’s hard to really live with because it stops you from doing lots of things.”
Because Ortiz is a Florida Gators fan, Cowart is planning to take him to Gainesville during his unofficial visit during the season. He’s hoping Ortiz can accompany him on other recruiting visits, as well.
“To have someone want to be involved in his life and have similar interests, I love it,” Cheyenne Ortiz said. “He is such a humble guy. The way he speaks to my son, he just wants him to be his best.”
Julio and Cheyenne Ortiz appreciate the attention Cowart has brought to their son’s disease. They want the public to know the truth about the severity of Crohn’s and how it affects their son. The rapid weight loss due to diarrhea, sometimes containing blood, left him with a skeleton frame. He requires a strict, expensive, gluten free diet and must take 22 pills each day.
The medication Ortiz takes makes him a high-risk candidate for lymphoma. He’s already tested positive for osteoporosis.
With the help of a friend’s mother, Cowart has set up a donation site for Ortiz through GoFundMe.com (gofundme.com/a4okkc#) titled ‘Hope, Love, Cure JoJo’. The goal is to raise $10,000 to help the family pay for Ortiz’s medical bills. Cowart is also assisting the family in organizing a team to sponsor Ortiz at the Take Steps, Be Heard For Crohn’s and Colitis Walk in Tampa in November.
“The biggest thing is giving him hope,” Cowart said.