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Marchbanks family watches Ridley play

NATCHEZ —Hayes Marchbanks and his younger brother, Crews, ended 2012 with a week of firsts.

The boys made their first trip to New England on the final weekend of the year, saw their first snow and celebrated touchdowns by throwing snowballs along with 60,000 New England Patriots’ fans at their first Patriots’ game.

The boys also witnessed their favorite football player rush for 74 yards and two touchdowns for the first time in his career in the Patriots’ 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins.

But the real special moments came outside the gates of Gillette Stadium, when the familiar face of their favorite football player morphed from Stevan Ridley into big brother.

The Marchbanks family, from left, Ryan, Crews, 5, Hayes, 8, and Amy join New England Patriots’ running back Stevan Ridley, center, on the field after the Patriots’ 28-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins Dec. 30. Ridley had the first two-touchdown game of his career and presented the footballs to Hayes and Crews after the game. (Submitted photo)

“He’s kind of like a brother,” 8-year-old Hayes said. “We just spend time with him.”

Ridley became a family friend of the Marchbanks clan when he was a teenager working for Ryan, the boys’ father. When Ryan and his wife, Amy, had their two boys, Ridley was around and created a special bond with Hayes and later Crews, he said. The boys now attend Ridley’s high school alma mater, Trinity Episcopal Day School in Natchez.

“I met Ryan, and I was working for him, but at the same time, I was there for both (boys) being born,” Ridley said. “Every time I go home, I go by and see Ryan and Amy. They are a part of the Trinity family, and the boys are almost like my little brothers.

“I always make it a point to stop past (Trinity when I come home), and it’s only right to make a turn before I go, and go to their house and go down and see the boys. I never had the opportunity to be a big brother, and this is the closest thing I have to it”

After Ridley’s first two-touchdown performance of his career, he came out of the locker room, onto the playing field where the family was waiting, with a surprise for the boys. He was toting two footballs and handed one to each of the Marchbanks children. But they weren’t just NFL footballs, they were the ones Ridley carried into the end zone that day, and he gave them to the boys as a gift.

“It was good for them,” Ridley said. “They had a great time. We had a snowstorm, and Hayes and Crews were having a ball outside. Then they got to go to the game, and the fans were pretty crazy. We have the best crowd up here. They pack out the stadium, and the boys got the full experience. And for me to be fortunate enough to touch the end zone twice, it felt only right to give each of them a touchdown ball.

“For both of them to be there when I went out and played my game the best way I know how, and me to get in the end zone twice was pretty special. They were pretty excited. It was an awesome feeling to put smiles on their faces. They look up to me, and it was only right I played for them.”

Both boys’ faces lit up when Ridley gave them his trophies, but it was Amy who could not handle the emotion.

“I was crying right on the field,” Amy said. “He came out, and Ryan said, ‘He’s got two footballs. He’s going to bring them to the boys.’

“And I said, ‘No he’s not.’ I was not expecting that.”

The boys also had the opportunity to meet several other Patriots, including former Ole Miss star Brandon Bolden, who spoke to both boys before and after the game, and Hayes’ second-favorite player Vince Wilfork.

Crews, 5, is not as big of a football fan as his older brother, but he and Ridley connect on another shared passion — fashion. Crews said he and Ridley always like the same type of shoes and clothes, and they like to talk fashion together.

Despite the NFL paycheck and a growing popularity that Ridley is gaining in New England, he remains tied to his roots, Amy said.

“When he gets a chance, he comes home,” she said. “I think he misses his mom cooking for him. He likes to go duck hunting and get on the four-wheeler. He never missed a beat, we saw the same Stevan. He’s the same guy as before.”

Ryan said Ridley can turn on his NFL persona when he wants, but when he’s around friends and family he remains the same as he was as a teenager working for him on his blueberry farm 10 years ago.

Amy said that ability to stay himself, despite all of his success, makes him a special member of their family, and the Natchez community.

“We are very proud,” she said. “Not of the football player, but of the person he’s become. We would be just as proud regardless.”

Ridley and the Patriots will take the field Sunday against the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional playoffs, and the Marchbanks family will be watching and cheering on their favorite player.

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