I never met 9-year-old Ryan Battistoni, but I would guess that his heroes have always been cowboys.
Ryan loved to watch bull riding and his hero was Rob Smets, a bullfighter who is one of the biggest stars of the Professional Bull Riders circuit. Smets' flair in the rodeo arena sparked a light in Ryan's eyes and inspired him to dream about rodeo the same way other kids dream about football or baseball.
Ryan aspired to be just like Smets and wanted nothing more than to attend a PBR event featuring his hero. But Ryan had a brain tumor and was often too sick to go to events such as the PBR.
Telecasts of the Built Ford Tough Cup, however, brought Smets into the young boy's house each week and allowed the PBR bullfighter to make an impression that lasted a lifetime.
Ryan was captivated by the way Smets took a knee on a dusty arena floor and smacked a 1,500-pound bull across the nose to pull its attention from a fallen cowboy.
In the boy's eyes, Smets was larger than life. Ryan sat down and wrote a letter to his hero, including a poem he had written himself and a promise that when he got to heaven, he was going to be the bullfighter's guardian angel.
Until Smets received that letter, fighting bulls and protecting cowboys was how the cowboy made his living. He never gave much thought to the lives he touched on the other side of the small screen.
But all that changed after reading Ryan's words. The boy's admiration was humbling -- especially when Smets learned Ryan was dying.
Smets' efforts to get the boy tickets to a PBR event and arrange a meeting were in vain. By the time he made contact, just days later, he learned that Ryan was dead.
But before Ryan left this world he managed to do something very few sports fans will ever accomplish -- he opened his hero's eyes to the real world.
Smets was floored to learn he was Ryan's hero. Ryan's mom told him her son had undergone 21 different surgeries, but his love for rodeo never faded.
When cancer treatments caused his hair to fall out, Ryan stuffed paper in his cowboy hat to make it fit better. When the cards were on the table, Ryan's thoughts were not on his own well-being but on that of the man he called his hero.
"His strength and bravery were things to be admired," Smets said. "I'm not sure that I deserve a guardian angel, but I am glad to have Ryan as mine."
Smets has since embroidered Ryan's name on all of his jerseys, and has dedicated himself to making sure he always sets a good example for children who look up to him. That's something more sports figures should try to do.
Ryan Battistoni never got the chance to step into a rodeo arena, but there is no doubt he would have made a great bullfighter. It makes me wonder why all of my heroes are not cowboys.
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