When Carter Gates was 7, he discovered a passion for football.

Not just football, but the Denver Broncos. Not just the Broncos, but defensive back Tony Carter.

"With his name being Carter and having that on the back of the jersey, he thought it was so cool," said Carter's mom, Kelly Gates.

What began with a coincidence of names quickly turned to devoted fandom, and then to something deeper after Carter Gates got sick last spring.

At first, Kelly and Monty Gates thought their son had a stomach bug he couldn't shake. The boy was lethargic and nauseous, would rally for a few days, then fall sick. On April 30, not long after his eighth birthday, blood tests confirmed acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer that most commonly strikes children.

The Gates were told to expect three-plus years of intense treatment by chemotherapy. The family began making regular trips from Colorado Springs to Children's Hospital Colorado in Denver, where Carter underwent up to five sessions a week.

"One of his favorite things to do when he went to chemo was wear his Tony Carter jersey," Kelly Gates said. "It made him feel strong and brave. I wanted to let Tony Carter know."

In July, she sent Tony Carter a Facebook message with a picture of her son wearing his No. 32 jersey while receiving chemotherapy. She wanted to thank the Broncos player for being a good role model and an inspiration. Without knowing it, he was helping her son get through chemo.

"I just wanted Tony to know, 'You made a difference,'" Kelly Gates said.

To the family's surprise, Tony Carter immediately responded with kind words and an invitation to a preseason practice.

When Kelly Gates shared the disappointing news that her son was too weak to attend, the football player adjusted course: How about a surprise visit at the hospital? On Aug. 30, Tony Carter came bearing gifts of Broncos gear - gloves, cleats, clothing, a signed game football - and spent several hours talking with Carter Gates as he received chemo.

"He just hung out with him. It was truly unbelievable," Kelly Gates said. "They chatted about everything from favorite books to football to who Carter was going to marry."

The two have kept in touch via phone calls and text messages. Each considers the other his hero.

"It's a feeling you can't really explain, to see a kid that's struggling with cancer. It makes my problems feel like not even problems," Tony Carter said. "I will always be around him and his family. That will never change."

Despite the ravages of the illness and the treatment, which involves frequent spinal taps, the boy's courage is an inspiration.

"Every time I see him, he's always smiling, happy. Even when he's not feeling his best, his spirit is great," Tony Carter said. "I'm just glad to be a part of it."

The fifth-year pro got the family tickets and field passes for an October game and visited with them before kickoff.

Prior to the Broncos' playoff victory last week, Carter Gates sent his hero a photo of himself wearing the gear Tony Carter had given him, with temporary team tattoos pasted to his bald head.

Below the picture he texted:

"Go Broncos! I'm ready to watch the game."

Tony Carter wrote back: "Sweet!!!!!!"


Denver sports columnist Paul Klee contributed to this story