In the scrub-brush desert town of Queen Creek, Ariz., high school bullies were throwing trash at sophomore Chy Johnson. Calling her "stupid." Pushing her in the halls.
Chy's brain works at only a third-grade level because of a genetic birth defect, but she knew enough to feel hate.
"She'd come home every night at the start of the school year crying and upset," says her mom, Liz Johnson. "That permanent smile she had, that gleam in her eye, that was all gone."
Her mom says she tried to talk to teachers and administrators and got nowhere. So she tried a whole new path -- the starting quarterback of the undefeated football team. After all, senior Carson Jones had once escorted Chy to the Special Olympics.
"Just keep your ear to the ground," Liz wrote to Carson on his Facebook page. "Maybe get me some names?"
But Carson Jones did something better than that. Instead of ratting other kids out, he decided to take one in -- Chy.
He started asking her to eat at the cool kids' lunch table with him and his teammates. "I just thought that if they saw her with us every day, maybe they'd start treating her better," Carson says. "Telling on kids would've just caused more problems."
It got better. Starting running back Tucker Workman made sure somebody was walking between classes with Chy. In classes, cornerback Colton Moore made sure she sat in the row right behind the team.
Just step back a second. In some schools, it's the football players doing the bullying. At Queen Creek, they're stopping it. And not with fists -- with straight-up love for a kid most teenage football players wouldn't even notice, much less hang out with.
"I think about how sweet these boys are to her," says volleyball player Shelly Larson, "and I want to cry. I can't even talk about it."
"I was parking my car yesterday, and I saw a couple of the guys talking to her and being nice," says offensive lineman Bryce Oakes. "I think it's making a difference around here."
And the best thing is? The football players didn't tell anybody.
"I didn't know about any of this until three weeks ago," says Carson's mom, Rondalee, who's raising four boys and a daughter by herself. "He finally showed me an article they wrote here locally. I said, 'Are you kidding me? Why didn't you tell me this?'"
All of a sudden, Chy started coming home as her bubbly self again. When her mom asked why she was so happy, she said, "I'm eating lunch with my boys!"
The boys take care of Chy, and she takes care of the boys. Carson, carrying a GPA of 4.4, got in a car accident last week; since then, Chy is always trying to carry his backpack. "I know his neck hurts," she says.
I get emailed stories like this a lot, but most of the time they don't pan out. They turn out to be half true, or true for the first week but not the second. But when I walked into the Queen Creek High School cafeteria Tuesday, unannounced, there was 4-foot-high Chy with 11 senior football players, eating her lunch around the most packed lunch table you've ever seen, grinning like it was Christmas morning. It was Carson's birthday, and she'd made him a four-page card. On one page she wrote, in big crayon letters, "LUCKY GIRL."
I asked Chy to show me where she used to eat lunch. She pointed to a room in the back, away from the rest of the kids, the special-ed lunchroom. Much more fun out here, she said.
"I thank Carson every chance I see him," says Chy's mom. "He's an amazing young man. He's going to go far in life."
Nobody knows how far Chy Johnson will go in life. The life expectancy of those afflicted with her disease, microcephaly, is only 25-30 years. But her sophomore year, so far, has been unforgettable.
She'll be in the first row Friday night, cheering 10-0 QC as it plays its first playoff game, against Agua Fria. Some people think it will be QC's sixth shutout of the season. Sometime during the game, Carson probably will ask Chy to do their huddle-up "Bulldogs on 3" cheer, with everybody's helmet up in the air. You won't be able to see Chy, but she'll be in there.
"Why do I do these interviews?" Chy asked her mom the other night.
"Because you're so dang cute," her mom answered.
I've seen this before with athletes. Josh Hamilton used to look out every day for a Down syndrome classmate at his Raleigh, N.C., high school. Joe Mauer ate lunch every day with a special-needs kid at his St. Paul, Minn., high school. In a great society, our most gifted take care of our least.
But what about next year, when Carson probably will be on his Mormon mission and all of Chy's boys will have graduated?
Not to worry. Carson has a little brother on the team, Curtis, who's in Chy's class.
"Mom," he announced at the dinner table the other night, "I got this."