LOS ANGELES Jarrius Robertson was the smallest guy in the Microsoft Theater on Wednesday night.
But somehow, he managed to stand tall in a room filled with giants.
Taller than 6-foot-1 wrestler John Cena, who presented him the award.
Taller — just barely — than the trophy itself.
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And just as tall as 6-foot-5 Peyton Manning, a fellow New Orleans native who was stellar as host of the 25th annual ESPY awards. Manning, in his first time as host, even ribbed the Atlanta Falcons in his monologue, something that will always go over well in his hometown.
But this night — well, actually, the entire day — belonged to Lil’ JJ, the 15-year-old Saints superfan who was given the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.
Long before he even took the stage, he was a hit among the celebrities who walked the red carpet of the event that is a who’s who in the world of sports.
“The kid is infectious,” WWE wrestler The Miz said. “He’s captivating, charismatic. To see him go through what he’s been through and still have a smile on his face, he should be the poster child for all kids like that. When you see him running up and down on this red carpet, you wouldn’t believe he has been through a million surgeries.”
What Robertson has been through started at birth. He was born with a liver disease and had his first transplant when he was 1. He spent the next year of his young life in a coma, not expected to live. But he kept fighting. He has kept an upbeat personality throughout his ordeal and had what his family hopes was his last surgery in April, when he received another liver.
Now he has a platform to help others get organs they need.
His slogan — “It takes lives to save lives” — was sewn into the inside of the suit he wore on the red carpet.
“It’s been fun,” he said, moments after making an appearance on “SportsCenter” with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.
Robertson joined a long line of standout Jimmy V recipients like Stuart Scott and Craig Sager. He quoted the “never give up” part of Jimmy Valvano’s famous ESPY speech.
“These words by Jimmy V I have been living for my entire life,” Robertson said.
Mariastella Serrano, who has been Robertson’s doctor, said ESPN couldn’t have found a better recipient of the award.
“I see a lot of patients, but he is extraordinary,” Serrano said. “He has a strength and stamina that you don’t see. He has embraced that concept of trying to help other people and trying to make awareness for organ donations, which will eventually help thousands of patients.”
Several members of the New Orleans Saints defense, spending time in California to train and bond, stopped by to support Robinson.
“He’s meant everything,” safety Kenny Vacarro said. “He’s our energy. He’s like a little brother to us. What he’s been through inspires us, but not just our team but everyone around the world.”
Patricia Hoyal, Jarrius’ mom, isn’t surprised. She’s seen that infectious personality for some time now.
“We knew he’d be big, but not this big,” she said. “Since he was young, he always wanted to be an entertainer. This personality didn’t just happen. He’s been like this his whole life.”
Robertson’s big day was capped off with the award, but it was made even more special a few hours earlier.
Saints owner Tom Benson, who celebrated his 90th birthday Wednesday, pledged $25,000 to help with Robertson’s medical expenses. The NFL matched the pledge, giving Robertson $50,000. (Robertson has a GoFundMe page that has $250,000 as the goal.)
He thanked Mr. Benson and the Who Dat Nation.
Now that Jarrius has his liver, the goal is for others to get their organs too. The family has a meeting set up when they return home with the Department of Motor Vehicles to hopefully have Robertson’s pictures in all DMV facilities to encourage organ donation.
“We want to make him the face of organ donations,” said Jordy Robertson, Jarrius’ dad.
On Wednesday night, Robertson’s face became even more popular as he appeared on television screens all across the world. It’s a long way from 15 years ago, when doctors weren’t sure he’d make it to his second birthday.
“I never ever imagined that my son would change the world,” Jordy Robertson said. “If not change the world, he’s putting a dent in it and bringing awareness. It’s a great thing, but there is still a lot more to do.”