In December 2017, Aiden Kozak was confined to a wheelchair. Having been recently diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), the active then 12-year-old was in the midst of a battle to walk again.
When he needed it most, his idols reached out to inspire him in his fight. Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady recorded messages to Aiden, who is from New York, and knowing his heroes were in his corner helped push him during a year in the hospital.
With help from crutches, Aiden was standing on the sidelines on Dec. 2, watching the Patriots warm up before their game against the Vikings. As Gronk jogged across the sidelines, Aiden yelled his name.
Gronk turned around and with his signature smile waved.
Watching as their son be overcome by emotions at seeing his idol in front of him, John and Christine Kozak said this goes beyond football.
"That's his hero. Gronkowski, Brady, I think just seeing his face right now, you saw his reaction," John said. "He broke down right away. It's more than just appreciation. It's deeper than that for him, for us, and that's speaking as a Jet fan myself."
"It's ironic. I opened up my Facebook page on the way here today in the car, and Gronk's face popped up. It was a year ago today," Christine said. "How wild is that? This is fate. A year ago today, he could not stand. He couldn't get dressed, couldn't get in the car."
With a bright sign reading "Thanks 4 believing #12 and #87. Walking again," Aiden showed his appreciation for his heroes. He said he watched the videos they sent him more than 100 times.
"I was really happy. I was very surprised," he said. "[It meant] a lot."
As a family, the trip to Foxborough was a celebration of just how far he has come.
"This means everything to us. He's battled what no person should ever have to go through, much less a 13-year-old. His inspiration is those players on the field right now, and it helped him get through his darkest hours," John said. "This is kind of us getting to the top of the mountain and appreciating how far he's come. He still has some work to do. He's not there yet, but this is going to give him the next push to get through his next phase of recovery."