Gaven Toney is no ordinary 12-year-old boy.
His determination to do the unthinkable sets him apart from others his age, especially when considering his circumstances. Born without fully developed arms and legs, he lets nothing get in the way of his dreams, one of which is to become a professional football player.
Toney took the first steps toward achieving that goal this year when he began playing for his seventh-grade team at Stetson Middle School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. After badgering his mom, Jeanelle, for years, he final got the opportunity to take the field with his classmates.
"He's always asked if he could play football for the longest time," Jeanelle said. "Unfortunately, me being mom, I was kind of nervous about him playing. I kept pushing it off and saying, 'Oh, let's wait and see if we can find a disabled league, see if we can find something in that aspect.'
"Finally, he got to middle school and in seventh grade he could try out for the football team. He kept saying, 'I'm gonna try out. I'm gonna try out.' I said, 'You know Gaven, you might not make the team.' That's the mother in me because I was nervous the whole time, but when we did all the paperwork they said he could play. At that point, I couldn't say no anymore."
Toney suited up as a defensive tackle after being cleared by his doctors, and according to his coach, Mitch Hoffman, there was never any doubt about his abilities. The seventh grader's determination, dedication and drive were all Hoffman needed to see before realizing he would be a perfect fit on the roster.
Gaven Toney is no ordinary seventh grader, especially considering his circumstances. But, nothing has stopped him from achieving his dreams ...
The final hurdle they needed to overcome was gaining clearance from the PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) to allow Toney to wear his buckets, which are designed to fit over his legs. Once they received the approval, it was time to get to work.
"Like every other seventh grader, they all want to be quarterbacks and running backs," Hoffman said. "Very few of them want to be Fletcher Cox. Very few of them want to be Jason Kelce. We say, 'Listen, the success of our team is built on the line. We need our best players to play the line. We need our strongest, we need our quickest, our toughest players to play on the offensive and defensive lines.'
"Gaven fit that mold. He's got that toughness you need in a defensive tackle. He's tough. He's quick. He can cause problems. He can shoot gaps. He can just really disrupt things right there around the quarterback-running back exchange and that's what we're looking for him to do."
Hoffman praised Toney's growth throughout the season. The defensive tackle continued to learn, improve and work hard on and off the field each day. According to Toney, his motivation to compete was formed by a specific player's arrival to Philadelphia, a person he had idolized for years, DeMarco Murray.
"He inspired me to come out and try," Gaven said. "Even though it's different sides of the ball and different positions, he just inspired me to try and well, I did it. Before he even came to Philadelphia I was a big fan. When he came here, it just really gave me the urge to play."
Shortly after the conclusion of his own season, Toney was able to do something he never imagined would be possible. He attended his first-ever NFL game on December 13 and watched the Eagles defeat the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field.
He and his family, including his mom and stepfather, Harrison Nash, met the team and coaches on the sideline prior to kickoff. Then, the following afternoon, Toney spent a few hours with Murray, the very person whose career pushed him to begin a football journey of his own. The two shopped for new gear at the Eagles Pro Shop, and it is a time neither will soon forget.
"He has a very electric personality. He lights up a room," Murray said. "You would never know he has no arms or legs because of the type of personality he has and the type of demeanor he has. He's always happy and never showing you that he's hurting or embarrassed about it. It makes you as a person admire him. I don't care what I'm going through. This guy is happy under all circumstances."
That impression is exactly what Gaven, and his family, wants people to take away from his story. He can and will continue to defy the odds. He's already said that next year he wants to be an even stronger, faster and more dominant force on the field.
Nothing can hold him back.
"There's more to him than what you see on the outside," his mom said. "He has a big heart. He's outgoing and he's fearless. Looks are always deceiving. When you first see him, don't think there's nothing he can do because he'll find a way to prove you wrong even if it was just for that one moment. He'll do it just to say, 'You were wrong. I can do this.' He's all about proving people wrong. He wants you to know that he can do more than what you think he can."