Before the doctors and specialists, before the years filled with hospital visits, before the chemotherapy and the bone marrow transplant and the stroke -- before all of that, there was the first hint of an illness. And fittingly for Adam Hubbs, the symptoms surfaced in sports.
Adam used to regularly beat out ground balls. Now he was getting thrown out at first base. And he used to be the first one to finish every drill at pee wee football practice. Now he was one of the stragglers.
He was just so tired. Something wasn't right.
Adam eventually found out that something was a rare, genetic microbacteria infection that caused his body to stop making white blood cells to fight off infections. For a 13-year-old aspiring athlete, the news was discouraging.
"It was tough, just knowing that I'm not the same as my friends, that I'm always going to be different," said Adam, now 16. "That was the hardest part."
And that was just the start of Adam's battle.
Around the same time, a dual-threat quarterback named Tim Tebow was rewriting the record books and staking a claim to the national championship trophy with the Florida Gators. He also was developing a devoted follower in Millstadt, Ill.
"When Adam played sports, he was a very hard worker and always played hard," said Peggy Hubbs, Adam's mother. "But there was never any celebration or what he thought was showboating. He just tried to win. And I think what he really liked about Tim was that he approached it the same way."
Tebow's path led him to multiple national championships, a Heisman Trophy and an eventual first-round selection in the 2010 NFL draft. But as Tebow piled up accolades, Adam was facing more setbacks.
When Adam needed a bone marrow transplant in 2010, no living donors were found to be a perfect match. He had to wait for blood from an umbilical cord to be shipped in, and the delay was substantial. He had to wear a mask everywhere to avoid potentially deadly germs. Then came the chemotherapy.
Adam missed his friends and his pet corgi, Dash. And he missed playing sports. And that wasn't even the worst of it.
This January, Adam suffered a stroke, which completely paralyzed the left side of his body.
"The stroke was devastating," Peggy said. "With everything else, we knew he could work through it. We knew he would get back to his old self, and we would get the old Adam back. But with this ..."
With time and hard work, Adam has begun to recover some of the usage he lost from his stroke. Doctors believe he'll get most of it back. But for the time being, and maybe forever, Adam's involvement in football has been relegated to watching Tebow.
"It's just frustrating when you can't do those easy things like move your hand where you want it to go or move your fingers to pick something up," Adam said. "I can't play contact sports anymore. I miss football the most."
Eventually, the paths of these two athletes would intersect, as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and ESPN's My Wish series. An ESPN camera crew, disguised to Adam as a group filming a documentary for the hospital, watched as Tebow called and invited Adam to spend a day with him in Florida.
"I didn't really believe it was him," Adam said. "He said, 'This is Tim Tebow,' and I said, 'Are you sure?'"
The Hubbs family arrived in mid-June to the boardwalk at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex, and Tebow rode up on a surrey bike to take Adam for a ride. They talked about football, and Adam poked fun at the quarterback for crying on national television after losing in the championship game.
They played video games, and things even got a little competitive. "Tim wanted to win, Adam wanted to win and they both played hard," Peggy said. "There was none of this 'letting you win' stuff. And I think that's what Adam wanted."
Adam and Tebow spent the day together, comparing cellphone pictures of their dogs and playing catch. Adam threw the ball with his right hand to Tebow, who handed it back.
"It was amazing because it was just like two guys just hanging out for the day, and that's exactly what Adam wanted," Peggy said. "He didn't want tickets to a Broncos game or to go in the locker room or whatever. He just wanted to hang out and spend some time with Tim and talk to him just as a football player. And that's exactly what he got. It was perfect."
Adam hopes Tebow's strong finish last season will lock up the starting job for this season, and he even predicts a major leap for the 4-12 Broncos -- provided they put the ball in the hands of No. 15.
"I think they'll go to the playoffs, but I don't know if they're good enough to win the Super Bowl," Adam said.
As for Adam's future, he knows he probably won't get back to being a contact-relishing running back. But maybe if he has a great junior year and really hits the weights, he could make a team as, say, a senior kicker. But whether or not he makes it back to the playing field, Adam has a long road ahead.
"You just never give up, no matter how hard it is," he said. "Even on your bad days, you fight through it."
For more on the stories behind SportsCenter's My Wish series, be sure to check out: