Rare Disease Champion Team: Get to know Florida State offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons
Florida State University
Junior OL No. 75 from St. Petersburg, Florida
Get To Know Dillan: After four years at Notre Dame, Dillan transferred to Florida State prior to the 2021 season. … Following a game his freshman season at Notre Dame in 2017, Dillan crossed paths with a then 14-year-old rare disease patient. Fate would turn this meeting into a profound and personal long-term friendship that serves as an inspiration for both Dillan and now 18-year-old Timothy Donovan. … Inspired by his fundraising efforts to bring Timothy and his family to Tallahassee for his first game suited up for Florida State, against his former team Notre Dame, Dillan started his own nonprofit, Big Man Big Heart, to expand his charitable efforts by using his platform to help others. … The native of Florida started every game at offensive guard for the Seminoles this season and, following the victory over North Carolina, Dillan was recognized as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Week.
INSIDE THE RARE JOURNEY
Four years later, Dillan Gibbons has the depth of understanding today to know what he was going through in 2017 as a freshman offensive lineman for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish extended well beyond football and it was having a major impact on his mental health.
Dillan was a 17-year-old freshman playing a position for the high-profile Fighting Irish that was full of grown men, most of whom were future NFL draft picks. He was away from his family in Florida for the first time. South Bend, Indiana felt like another world to him and navigating school and football in his all-important first year left him in a tough spot.
After the season opener that year, Dillan was very excited because for the first time in months he was going to see his parents. As he exited the locker room with a pair of gloves to give away to some fan, he saw his parents.
Dillan also saw then 14-year-old Timothy Donovan in his wheelchair. Timothy was born with VACTERL, a rare genetic disorder that impacts multiple parts of the body including the heart, eyes, spine, windpipe and limbs. No prenatal diagnostic tests identified his condition. Nobody knew the challenges Timothy would be faced with until he was born. His parents were told not to expect him to survive through the night.
Timothy did make it through that first night and followed up with multiple surgeries to give him a better chance at long-term survival.
That day Dillan was looking for somebody to make eye contact with so he could give his gloves away. There was Timothy staring right at him. Dillan felt an instant connection.
“Part of that day was my own mental state. I was struggling and dealing with my own problems. What I saw (in Timothy) was another person who was just as vulnerable as I was,” Dillan said. “I call it spiritual. I just humbled myself and bent down to have a conversation with that young man. Timothy opened right up to me and we talked for a good bit, I guess.”
Two young men separated by only three years, living very different lives, bonded over their vulnerability that day. It was the first spark.
“In that vulnerable moment Timothy helped me realize I might be tougher than I thought,” Dillan said. “I realized I thought I was going through a tough time and here was this neat person in a wheelchair dealing with this every single day.
“After that first conversation I had with Timothy I went to bed that night in such a better mental place. I realized I had so many people behind me and how lucky I was. He helped me so much. My next thought was what could I do for him.”
That fateful first chance meeting between the 300-plus pound offensive lineman and the rare disease patient in a wheelchair has blossomed into a profound and personal long-term friendship that serves as an inspiration for both Dillan, Timothy and their families.
IN DILLAN’S WORDS
“This young man inspired me to change my life. The experience of knowing him has given my life so much meaning and purpose and it gave me insight I didn’t have. I was able to see something bigger than myself. Timothy was that first spark that ignited this passion in me to help others that I can’t control.”