It’s not only Fulham players rallying behind trolled disabled footballer Rice Porter.
The 13-year-old became an internet sensation when the stars of the championship team ran to celebrate with them after a 1-0 lead against Bristol City last Saturday.
But what happened after the game was perhaps even more exciting for the youngster, who made headlines after a TikTok video of him playing for his football team posted thousands of obscene messages online.
His mother Kelly has told how a gang of “serious looking” Fulham fans got off the train to find him on the way home after the match.
She says: “They were real hardcore fans who didn’t wear Fulham stuff.
“They were carrying their plastic pints, bantering in full flow. Suddenly, one of them tells everyone in the car that Rhys, ‘Is a legend’.
“He said the entire Hammersmith End of Fulham has got his back. Anyone who picks up Rhys in the street needs to watch out. He’s one of the boys, wheelchair or not.
“Then this guy said, ‘If your mom can’t take you to football, I’m going to come and pick you up.
At the family home in Hillingdon, Middlesex, Rhys breaks into a wide smile and exclaims: “It was fantastic!”
Kelly, 41, an HR worker at an aviation company, says: “It probably meant as much to him as any of the many messages of support he had because that’s what he strives to be.
“He wants to walk, he wants to go to the pub, he wants to go to football and he wants to do things he considers normal.
“That moment on the train shows his message spreading – ‘I’m in a wheelchair but there’s nothing different about me. I’m still a boy. I still love football, just my legs aren’t working’ Huh’.
“And that’s what he always tried to say – ‘Why can’t I join?’.”
Rhys, the only child, was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscle control and movement.
He was unable to walk and had an epileptic seizure at the age of seven, but the seizures seem to have stopped.
Rhys has always been a football fan, having previously supported dad Adam’s team Arsenal, before switching allegiance to Fulham six years ago.
But his dream has always been to play football like his friends.
Kelly says: “I remember when he was about three or four years old, he asked, ‘Can you buy me these shoes because all the football players play really well? If you buy me these shoes, maybe my feet will hurt. Will work’. Those things were heart-wrenching.
Rhys says: “I always wondered why I couldn’t play for a normal team. I always wanted to play for school and win a cup. When I was young, the coach used to say that I can’t play.
His dream of being a player came true in 2013 when he and 16-year-old Tom Manning joined the Feltham Bees, a football team for youth with disabilities.
Sometimes Rhys played outfield in his electric wheelchair but he liked the freedom to score goals on his hands and knees.
But a six-second video of him saving during a Surrey pan-disability tournament posted on TikTok in June became a torrent of cruel comments.
Adam, 43, who reduced his hours as a builder to Rhys’s caregiver, says: “Some of the hurtful comments were from children, but most of them were from adults and it blew my blood.” Boiled even more.”
Kelly says: “We knew it was adults with names like ‘Vegetable van der Sar’. Van der Sar is a player of our times, a kid wouldn’t use that name.
“Another said, ‘Read these comments before you come to the pub tonight, they’re really funny’.
“Someone else wrote, ‘Oh look at that, that’s Eriksson’, the day Christian Eriksson suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch while playing for Denmark at Euros.”
Adam says: “When he saw all this hate, Rhys jumped right into position, shouting down, ‘I don’t want to play football anymore. Why are people so cruel?’
“The one thing we’ve never done is to protect Rhys from the fact that life is harsh. If you tell him the truth he takes it on the chin, listens and then treats him the same way he’s dealing with it wants.”
So the family sat down together and read every crappy comment. They also found pictures of some people behind the abuses online.
Kelly says: “Initially we set out to eliminate negative comments with positive ones. I left emails to Fulham and other clubs.
“Arsenal commented, ‘Very good save, Rhys’. But behind the positives, there were comments like, ‘Why the hell is the club commenting on a kid who just jumped a centimeter?’ .
“I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing because it was making it more negative.”
‘I am me, just me’
Then, instead of censoring the perpetrators, TikTok removed Rhys’ video for “attracting too much hate”. Later it withdrew.
Rhys decided to fight against the haters with positivity. He raised nearly £20,000 for disability charity Scope by making 20 savings a day and encouraged friends to participate in Scope’s Make It Count challenge with their own fundraising activities.
Rhys also created her own campaign #BU, which stands for Be You, to encourage everyone to include disabled or differently abled people in their lives and activities.
Kelly says: “Being a teenager in a wheelchair he’s noticed that you’re not often invited to take a walk in the park with the rest of the class and do all the chores for boys his age.”
In his bedroom, surrounded by football memorabilia, Rhys designed a logo to go on the hoodies, which he sells to raise more money for Scope.
Their #BU logo shows stick people who are disabled, black, gay and white all high-fiving each other.
Rhys would like England and Arsenal star Bukayo Saka – who was the victim of trolls during Euros – to wear one. He says: “I want to try to make a difference for people with disabilities. You should have as many opportunities and opportunities as anyone else.
“You shouldn’t be isolated, compared, or bullied or victimized for who you are. I may not be perfect but I’m good enough. I am, just who I am.”
give it back
Help is needed now more than ever.
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PM Boris Johnson sent a handwritten letter telling Rice how sad he was to hear about the lewd comments.
The PM said: “Please don’t let this bother you and keep doing everything you love.”
Last week Rhys went to Wembley to play wheelchair football with the stars of the England cerebral palsy team, who have now invited him to the national training ground at St George’s Park.
And the Fulham players were so impressed with how Rhys beat the threats that they invited him to train with them last week.
‘Every boy’s dream’
Center back Tim Ream says: “People think players are role models and inspiration. What Rhys is doing is more inspiration than any of us can do. “
At the Moatspur Park training ground in Fulham, Rhys hands striker Bobby Reid a #BU hoodie.
The young man says: “I told Bobby ‘I’ll take the hoodie back if you don’t score against Bristol on Saturday’. When Mitrovic scored, I saw Bobby waving at me and all the players came , jumped over the barrier and gave me a big hug. It was wonderful.”
The game ended 1-1 but by then the video of the goal celebration had gone viral. In the early hours of the next morning, Rhys’ phone kept pinging non-stop.
Kelly says: “I woke up at night thinking, ‘What bloody hell is that?’.
“His phone was brimming with thousands of messages of support from around the world – even one from Peru. It’s been the week of his life, every boy’s dream.”
And the dream went ahead.
On Wednesday at their Craven Cottage ground – where Fulham beat Swansea 3-1 – Rhys was Listed as goalkeeper in match schedule Four Numbers.
Breaking that huge grin, he said: “Three bruises and I’m on!”