It takes approximately 50 minutes to fly from Baltimore to Cleveland and, certainly, that tipped the scales when we set our eyes on a certain NFL player for the Browns. Yes, he’s drop dead gorgeous with dimples and a smile that could light up Times Square, but what really made our hearts skip a beat was his joyous love affair with a pup he’d adopted from the shelter.
We first saw images of Terrell Watson and Dexter on Instagram as they were coming home from the shelter – both smiling from ear to ear. After that, the posts became almost daily – Terrell & Dexter enjoying a swim, Terrell & Dexter napping on the couch together, Terrell & Dexter – playing ball in the park, Terrell & Dexter – pretty much joined at the hip and both of them loving every minute of it. For us, that was all she wrote. We started tweeting and messaging and, one day, an actual reply came back. “What’s this all about?” You would have thought we’d just won the lottery because from that minute on, we were downright giddy and planning a trip to Cleveland.
Although we aren’t able to do it often (budget woes) there are times when we’re willing to travel in order to shoot and welcome a new Softie on board. For reasons stated earlier – when that happens – the Softie in question has got to be INCREDIBLY special. Everything, and we do mean everything, about Terrell Watson fits that bill.
Although young in NFL years (he’s just starting his second season in the league) Terrell has already been confronted with a lifetime of obstacles (left on a doorstep at two weeks old, speech and learning disabilities, fighting his way out of Special Ed classes and finally landing a scholarship at a college no one’s ever heard of) and yet has consistently shown that no hurdle is too great for someone with perseverance and heart. Both of which Terrell Watson has in abundance.
These days the same passion that fueled Terrell to follow his dreams and prove the naysayers wrong is now being used to champion another underdog, the much maligned pit bull. All of it added up to the kind of role model we look for (and long for) so plans were made to meet him in Cleveland the day before he reported to training camp. (Chew on that for a minute – his last day of freedom and a chance to tie up loose ends, this Softie agrees to spend it hanging with strangers and loving on Dexter.)
Little did we know at the time that Cleveland would also prove to be a lure for another Softie on our hit list.
We were introduced to Chris Hughes when he graciously agreed to attend this year’s Pawject Runway back in May. In power lifting circles, Chris is quite well known, but his name is off the charts when it comes to animal rescue. He and his wife, Mariesa, are co-founders of The Mr. Mo Project, a rescue that takes in the old, the sick and the discarded – and ensures that their final years are filled with care and love.
Even before we knew Chris’ name, we knew about the pup that had launched them on the road to rescue – a beautiful, now senior girl named Gremlin. Rescued from a fighting ring in Virginia, she endured unimaginable horrors – broken legs, smashed vocal chords – and was scheduled to be euthanized at the conclusion of the court case. An angel, or in this case, two angels changed the course of Gremlin’s life and after weeks and months of the Hughes’ TLC, she became certified as a therapy dog. We had been following Gremlin for some time, but had no idea her Dad grew up in Cleveland and lives and breathes orange & brown so was willing to drive the 400+ miles from upstate New York in order to join us for the shoot.
So it was that on a hot August afternoon, we ended up in a meeting room at the Schofield Kimpton with two amazing Big Softies and the pups they love.
Terrell arrived first – in fact, we spotted him walking down the street, Dexter at his side and no leash in sight. It’s almost as if there’s an invisible bond that holds the two together because wherever Terrell is, Dexter’s at his side. (Except for that one little side trip into our laps for puppy kisses during the shoot.) Dexter is breathtakingly handsome – a big smiley pup with a nose shaped like a heart. Happy go-lucky and full of energy, unless he gets anywhere near his Dad’s lap – then he just melts into a puddle and refuses to move. That phenomenon caused us to bend our usual rules (pup’s face near your face, please) since even when chilling, there’s always a paw and a hand entwined. In fact, Terrell confessed that sometimes when he’s dog tired (no pun intended) and wants to catch a quick power nap, he’ll close the bedroom door since anytime he’s horizontal, Dexter wants to spoon.
None of us wanted the shoot to ever end so when it finally did, we asked if they’d hang for a few minutes to meet Chris & Gremlin. I think both Dexter and Dad were glad they did. At 6 ft 5 inches and ginormous pounds, Chris Hughes is not your usual Browns fan – he looks more like he should be on the D line than sitting in the stands and both guys had a lot to talk about their respective sports. They shared stories, gave head rubs to each others pups and revealed yet another thing they had in common – both hate to lose.
Perhaps that’s why Chris has been so successful at running a rescue that should be a losing proposition. After all, most rescues take in an animal until they can be adopted out, whereas The Mr. Mo Project takes in old, sick, abused and discarded pups and then guarantees them medical care and treatment for the rest of their lives. Currently, there are over 90 pups in the program so even if you’re not a math wizard, you can see how it becomes a running fundraising battle.
However, when you meet Gremlin – the “why do you do it” all becomes clear. Now approximately 12 years old, she’s lost her sight and her hearing, but is still 65 pounds or so of pure goodness. Even a strange hand petting her is welcome and you can see why in her younger, more active days, she would have wowed even the most ardent of pit bull detractors. Here is a dog who has never barked because her vocal chords were smashed with a baseball bat, who walks gingerly because her legs were deliberately broken and yet loves on everyone she meets – a gentle soul who just wants to be cuddled and held.
Fortunately, her Dad lifts competitively so holding Gremlin is a lot easier for him than for most. Although even the man who just qualified for the IPL Worlds competition in Vegas this fall had to take a break after standing for 200 some shots while holding Gremlin in his arms. (She, on the other hand, could have stayed in that position all day.)
On our first ever trip to Cleveland, we met two very different men and two very different pups. Yet, what was so striking was the realization, once again, the true strength of a man can, indeed, be judged by the size of his heart. In the course of just a handful of hours, we had witnessed two giants – their sports and their lives very different, but both tough as they come, both passionate about their responsibilities and both with soft sides that would be hard to miss.
Cleveland, you have every reason to be proud.