Troy Pride Jr. didn't have to take Lina Rafkah to the prom...
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound defensive back and wide receiver had plenty of reasons not to go. Before Lina approached him in the hallway at Greer Senior High School with an impromptu prom-posal, the two had never met.
Pride’s schedule was already plenty busy with school and track and field, and the prom was barely 24 hours away. Lina has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual and developmental disabilities, which Troy was relatively unfamiliar with.
He didn’t know where the prom was being held or what to wear.
But he did know his answer.
“I said, ‘Of course!’ ” Pride recalled. “For her to have enough feelings for me to even ask me and take the time to say, ‘Hey, will you take me to prom?’ I’ll do that. I’ll take her to prom and I’ll be the one to be there for her.”
Pride is a football standout in Greer, S.C., where he scored 16 offensive touchdowns, returned three kicks for scores and nabbed three interceptions in his senior season in 2015. On Feb. 3, he signed a national letter-of-intent to continue his athletic career at Notre Dame.
But he wasn’t first on Lina's wish list.
The prom was the Tim Tebow Foundation’s “Night to Shine,” an event held simultaneously in more than 200 host churches on Feb. 12 to celebrate people with special needs. The year prior, Tebow — a former quarterback at the University of Florida and in the NFL — made an appearance at the prom in Greer, S.C., though Lina was sick and couldn’t attend.
This time, the 16-year-old junior planned to make up for her previous absence.
“She kept saying, ‘My date is a nice, famous football player,’ and when you'd ask her who, she'd say, ‘Tim Tebow,’ ” said Hazar Rafkah, Lina’s sister. “We finally talked to her and let her know that there was a big chance that he wouldn't be there, since he'd come the year before. She just smiled and said she was OK with it, because her other date was also a famous football player.
“We were like, ‘OK Lina, sure,’ and just brushed it off. We had no idea she asked Troy, and I think even Lina didn't believe he was actually going to come.”
Meanwhile, in the Pride household, preparations were already being made.
“I, of course, started asking more questions than he started asking. He didn’t know a lot,” said Angela Pride, Troy’s mother. “I said, ‘Well, what color is her dress?’ He didn’t have any of that information, so he basically just wore some neutral colors and it worked itself out.”
The following night, after track practice, Angela Pride dropped her son off at the church where the event was being held. Troy sifted through the crowd, decked out in a black suit and Gucci shoes, searching for his date. At first, he couldn’t find her.
“One of the men who was part of security that night knew us, and he came up asking if I knew a ‘Troy Pride,’ ” Hazar Rafkah said. “I said no. He was like, ‘Well, he's saying he's Lina's date.’”
“Nope, Lina doesn't have a date,” Hazar replied. “Maybe you misunderstood the name?”
“No, he wants Lina Rafkah,” the security guard concluded. “You can tell he's not leaving until he sees her.”
Of course, Pride didn’t leave, and eventually the football star and his prom date were united on the dance floor. When Lina saw him, her eyes grew wide. She put her hands over her growing smile. She jumped up and down in her sparkling white dress and tiara and threw her arms around him, and he smiled and hugged her back.
They hugged and danced. And danced. And danced.
“Lina loves to dance, so of course the whole time she was at the front of the stage,” Hazar Rafkah said. “And poor Troy, he was a good sport, because for the hours that he attended, he was right up front with her and didn't stop dancing for anything.”
“We were doing the cupid shuffle, the Cha-Cha slide, all of it,” Pride added. “She was smiling the whole time. She was having fun. She was doing her thing. We were both dancing as hard as we could. I was sweating a little bit, but it was fun.”
Lina was Troy’s first prom date, and Troy was Lina’s. For those few hours, Tebow was a distant memory.
“Oh man, Lina had a blast,” Hazar Rafkah said. “That was a huge night for her, and for Troy to come, oh did she enjoy that. That'll be a night that we both will never forget.
“I’m proud of the man he is and thank God that he was her date.”
Pride didn’t know what to expect from his first prom, a selfless night with a relative stranger. But for an athlete who was used to shining on Friday nights, he did so in a different capacity.
“The way that she was happy, the way that I just tried to make her glow and make her smile the entire night, I know she’ll always remember that for her entire life,” Pride said. “That’s what it’s about — affecting other people’s lives. It’s about giving, even if I can’t receive anything. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to make her the happiest girl there.”
At the end of the night, Troy walked Lina out. They said their goodbyes, and when the prom ended, the interview began.
“I quizzed him. ‘What happened? What did she say?’ ” Angela Pride said with a laugh. “It was definitely heartwarming, as a mom. I know how much that must have meant. It was special for her. Me being a parent, knowing I raised a good kid, that does my heart good.”
The impromptu date was good for everyone — for Angela, for Troy, and especially, for Lina.
“Now she goes around telling us, ‘Troy Pride, that's my boy. He's a nice boy,’ ” Hazar Rafkah said. “I'm honestly thankful Lina asked him and he actually showed up. He's a popular senior kid who could be doing who knows what on a Friday night, but yet he came to her prom.”
Troy Pride Jr. didn’t have to come, but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“It just shows that not everything is about football,” he said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s a lot bigger than that. I really hope I made her night, and I felt like I did.”