HERSHEY — Bryton Barr had never been more popular in his life.
Surrounded by grinning children and well-wishers seeking autographs and pictures after Saturday’s Big 33 Football Classic, the former Mechanicsburg linebacker did his best to meet every request in the wake of Pennsylvania’s 24-21 overtime loss to Ohio.
But when a blonde-haired little girl in a blue Pennsylvania cheerleader uniform yelled his name and ran toward him, everyone else around seemed to be an afterthought as Barr dropped to one knee to meet the girl, 9-year-old Katie Costello, with a hug.
The two were paired together through the Big 33’s Buddy Program, which unites Big 33 players, coaches and cheerleaders with a special-needs child. The buddies spend time together on and off the field during the week leading up to the game, and many keeps those bonds beyond that Saturday night.
For Barr and Costello, though, the embrace meant a little more.
For the last four years, the pair have shared that same moment after every Mechanicsburg football game. Katie, daughter of Mechanicsburg assistant coach Jeff Costello, would seek out Bryton, win or lose, and present that infectious smile that would sweeten the feel of a win or help soften the blow of a loss.
Having Katie there after Saturday’s loss, the last of his high school career, helped Barr put things into perspective.
“This is more than just a game, it really is,” Barr said. “To have her be my buddy, this whole experience has been the most humbling thing to this point in my life.”
Katie suffers from Williams Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes developmental delay. At the request of Barr, the Big 33 paired to two together for the Buddy Program so that he could end his last high school football game the same way he did every other one.
As rewarding as it was for Barr to have Katie there, it was a special moment for their families, who have seen the two grow together over the past four years.
“Early on Bryton got what it meant to care about others that were less fortunate,” said Terry Barr, Bryton’s father. “When he met Katie we had conversations that were generally, ‘Katie has latched on to you for a reason and you need to respect her and her family and love her because you mean more to her than you recognize.’”
It was clear from the expression on Katie’s face after Saturday’s game just how much Bryton means to Katie.
His response showed that the feeling is mutual.
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“It’s been unbelievable, it really has,” Jeff Costello said. “For a kid as a freshman in high school to notice someone like Katie and continue it on for four years, it means the world to my daughter. It’s been an unbelievable experience for her.”
Bryton isn’t one to shy away from his faith, and often times wears it on his sleeves.
He credits that faith for blessing him with the athletic ability that allowed him to play in the Big 33 game and play football next season at Towson University in Maryland.
Most importantly, though, he credits that faith for giving him Katie.
“The Lord has given me so much and I thank him every day for what he has given me,” he said. “I thank him for giving me Katie. This week has been something I’ll never forget.”
For his father, Bryton’s relationship with Katie is a point of pride.
“His relationship with her is just kind of a confirmation of what kind of man I wanted him to grow into,” Terry said. “It’s very humbling for me because I feel like he’s certainly outpaced me as a man. I tell both my sons that you can change the world by affecting the people that are immediately around you. I think Bryton takes that to heart.”
While Saturday might have been a culmination of four years of friendship, Bryton is determined to not let his college career affect his relationship with Katie.
Though she won’t be there waiting for him after every Towson game like she was for the 44 Bryton played in a Mechanicsburg uniform, Barr plans to make frequent trips back home and keep in touch with Katie after games.
And if she ever does make it down to Maryland, the postgame moment they share will be just as special as Saturday’s and every one before it.
Win or lose.
“For us, that’s all you want for your daughter that has special needs, you want her to feel as normal as it can be,” Jeff Costello said. “Every time he’s around, he makes her feel like she’s the most important thing in the world.”