Alex Ross doesn't quite have the strength to crack a smile just yet, but he was awfully close late Wednesday afternoon as he gave a thumbs up when Reggie Nelson and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars surprised him with a visit at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital.
Ross, 16 years old, suffered a gunshot wound to the head on Jan. 6 and spent 29 days in Shands Jacksonville Hospital fighting for his life. He was transferred two weeks ago to Brooks, where he is undergoing extensive rehabilitation.
Nelson and Jones-Drew had followed the story of Ross through the news and asked if they could visit him. The players met Ross in the rehabilitation room and came bearing gifts, an autographed helmet, a football and other items to display in his room.
"They reached out and wanted to visit," said Lisa Dillard, Alex's mother. "I am in awe that someone famous is following our story and they want to see my kid. It's overwhelming to me."
Ross has a tube in his throat and is unable to speak but he spent the majority of the time mouthing words or using sign language to communicate. An avid Florida Gators fan, Ross knew exactly who Nelson was when he approached him.
"It's good to see he's a Gators fan," Nelson said. "I'm glad we had the opportunity to come visit him and see his progress. It's an eye-opening experience. It means a lot when you have people standing by you. You have to get up with a smile every day. Smiling gets you through the day. It's nice to see he has a great support system around him with his mom, Lisa, and the rest of the family. That is very important."
Ross has been spending his days doing speech therapy and rehabilitation and went from walking five steps on Tuesday to 30 steps on Wednesday.
After his work was complete, Ross invited the players to his room where he was transported into bed and made himself comfortable. His room is adorned with Gators memorabilia including a blanket on the bed.
"To see him put a thumbs up is amazing," Jones-Drew said. "I have been following his story and he was almost not here. He's a great kid that is going to continue to fight. I'm honored that he would let us spend this time with him. He has definitely inspired me. What we are doing for him is very minor. We're going to see him again and keep up with his progress."
The players invited to Ross to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium when he leaves the hospital to meet other members of the team. Surrounded by family, Ross listened as the players talked about the upcoming draft and heard from family members about his love of sports. Several signatures on the many posters in the room referred to him as A-Rod for his prowess on the baseball field.
Friends and families are hosting three fundraisers this weekend to help with the mounting medical bills. David Bryant and his company, the Ice Man, are hosting 'Alex Ross Snow Day' on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at Macedonia Baptist Church at 8081 Lenox Avenue. The event is free and plans are to have snow slides and several other activities for children.
Let's Bowl for Alex will be held on Sunday at Cassat Batt Bowl from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. The Alex Ross Golf Tournament will be held on Sunday at Orange Park Golf & Country Club at 1:00 p.m.
"The support from the community has been overwhelming," Dillard said.
As the players left the room, they signed Ross' personal journal that also includes the signature of former Jaguar Richard Collier, who visited him while at Shands.
Nelson approached Ross for a final hug. Ross mouthed and signed words that Nelson will never forget; "I love you."
Updates on Alex's progress can be found at: http://www.alexrossupdates.com