Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer 46d

Louisville's Jonathan Greenard shares unique bond with high school friend

The Hiram High School football team brought in a new student manager when Jonathan Greenard began his all-important junior season.

Eager to meet him, Greenard walked up to Ryan Tomberlin.

"What's your name?" Tomberlin asked.

"Jonathan."

"What's your last name?" Tomberlin asked.

"Greenard."

They made an instant connection: The tall, lanky player with big-time college football hopes, and the student manager with disabilities who forevermore called Jonathan Greenard his new best friend.

The two became lunch buddies during the school day. Tomberlin gave the football team a pep talk before every game. He filled water bottles and fetched towels. He encouraged players with positive words when a play did not go their way.

"He's like a brother," Greenard said in recent phone interview. "For my teammates as well. They all realized he's the same as us. We didn't look at him any differently."

Greenard, now a sophomore at Louisville, is in the middle of a breakout season as the No. 17 Cards prepare to take on No. 24 NC State on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). In his key role off the bench, Greenard ranks third in the ACC in both tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (five). His tackles for loss total ranks him No. 8 nationally.

Back in Hiram, Georgia, Tomberlin will watch at home with his mother, Stacey Tomberlin, whom Greenard has come to call "Mama Stacey." She paid extra for the full sports television package so they would never miss a Louisville game.

"Having a special needs kid, you try so hard for him to have as typical a life as everyone else and have the same opportunities, and Jonathan made him feel like he was just one of the team, and a very important part of the team," Stacey said through tears in a recent phone interview. "I can't even put it into words how special a young man he is."

Tomberlin, who will turn 23 in November, was born with autism and epilepsy, which precluded him from playing sports. But Tomberlin absolutely loved his Georgia Bulldogs and always wanted to be involved in football in some way. In 2013, Tomberlin enrolled at Hiram, the only school in the area that offered a vocational program for disabled students.

Tomberlin's teacher asked football coach Chris Brown whether Tomberlin could help. Brown said yes, so Stacey brought Tomberlin out to fall practice and the team rallied around him, thanks to Greenard. That season, Greenard had his best year on defense and developed into a bona fide pass-rusher thanks to his quick first step. Louisville and other programs showed an interest.

Then a month before his senior season, Greenard got a frantic phone call. Tomberlin had a seizure in his grandmother's pool on July 4 and nearly drowned. Greenard raced to the hospital, where he met up with Brown.

Tomberlin was in a coma.

"I did break down. I thought we were going to lose him at first," Greenard said. "But knowing Ryan and knowing the person he is and his mom, his upbringing, he's a strong kid. He's been through a lot. When I went to see him, I felt like it was to help him out a little bit more. He heard my voice, I prayed over him, talked to him and just loved him, and he bounced back."

That senior season, Greenard played offense, defense and punted, too, drawing more attention for his versatility and athleticism. Greenard chose Louisville over Kentucky, mostly because of the relationship he developed with then-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and coach Bobby Petrino.

Before he left for Louisville, he made sure to say bye to Tomberlin.

"Will you still be my friend? I don't want you to forget about me," Tomberlin said.

"I could never forget you, Ryan," Greenard said.

Every time Greenard comes home, one of his first stops is to see Tomberlin. After Louisville lost in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl to LSU last season, Greenard gave Tomberlin the gloves he wore in that game as a gift. Tomberlin wore them for a week straight. Greenard also gave him his Citrus Bowl hat.

Greenard had another gift for Tomberlin: a Louisville football filled with dozens of his teammates' signatures.

"He was a big help to me at football," Tomberlin said. "I love him a lot. I've known him since Hiram High School. He's my best friend."

"Jonathan doesn't understand how large of a thing he's doing," Stacey said. "To him, Ryan's just his brother. Doesn't everybody do this? No, they don't, Jon. They don't remember their special needs friend back in their little bitty hometown that has no friends but you."

There is no way Greenard would ever forget, because Tomberlin helps him, too. Knowing his friend can never play football, Greenard works that much harder.

"I don't take the game for granted because I know people like him wish they could be in my shoes," Greenard said. "I don't take a play off. I just make sure I do the right thing -- that way I don't let him down."

During this last offseason, Greenard broke down extra game tape, working on his first step and hands so he could be more explosive off the ball.

"When he redshirted with [the] scout team, he was always a pain in the butt over there because he did a great job rushing the passer, slipping blocks, making tackles," Petrino said. "You could tell there was something special about him."

Ryan and Stacey can testify to that.

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