MINNEAPOLIS – Taquarius Wair wasn't wearing cleats or a uniform, but he received a warm welcome from a roaring crowd Sunday evening.
He smiled and waved in a personalized Vikings jersey, soaking in the moment that he defined as "surreal."
The Vikings hosted Taquarius and his family at U.S. Bank Stadium for the game against the Seahawks and featured him as the evening's Hometown Hero. During pre-game warmups, the special guest was greeted by wide receiver Adam Thielen, who had met Taquarius during the Vikings Organized Team Activities this spring.
"I didn't expect him to do that. That made my day," Taquarius said. "Along with the jersey with my name on it … it was a one-of-a-kind experience that I'll remember for a long time."
He also was honored to sound the Gjallarhorn prior to Sunday's kickoff.
"When the fans were cheering me on, it just felt good," he described of walking through a sea of Purple to the Gjallarhorn platform. "I loved the energy in the stadium. Everything was just perfect for me."
Below is Taquarius' story
Vikings hosted Taquarius Wair and his family at the preseason Seahawks game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Wair was honored as the Vikings Hometown Hero.
Shawnee Wair yelled in excitement as her 7-year-old son, Taquarius, scrambled into the end zone for a touchdown.
Her nerves quieted. The fear of him being hurt by the other players distanced itself, though she could still feel its shadow.
"He had eight people on his back – I've still got the pictures to prove it," Shawnee says now, laughing. "And he was still on his feet. They couldn't get him down. And even though they were 7 years old, it was just so amazing to see that, to see that he held his own. He was averaging three touchdowns per game at 7 years old. Like, they don't do it like that. But he did it."
Watching Taquarius – or TQ, as he's called by family and friends – making plays on the football field that day in 2008 proved to Shawnee what she had believed for the past two-plus years: her son was a fighter.
The large football helmet and bulky pads that dwarfed his small frame mostly hid the deep, disfiguring scars that covered much of TQ's body.
Surviving the fire
It seemed like just yesterday that Shawnee's cheering from the stands were frantic shouts as she searched for her children amid a fiery blaze.
Her voice grows emotional as she recalls the day 14 years ago that forever changed her family's life: March 22, 2005.
She can still feel the heat. She can smell the smoke and picture the snowy front yard. And she can still hear TQ's screams.
Things had previously been looking up for Shawnee and her four children. After persevering through difficult circumstances, she had settled her family into a Minneapolis home where they enjoyed safety, security and the luxury of a television and computer. But at 3 a.m. that morning, Shawnee woke up to suffocating smoke filling the house.
TQ, who was 4 at the time, and his sister, Shawneece, were upstairs in a bedroom. Their siblings, Richard and Ulani, slept on a living room couch on the main level.
Shawnee got TQ and Shawneece out of the house before running back in to save her other two children. What she did not realize, however, is that TQ and Shawneece followed her back inside.
"I remember my baby screaming," says Shawnee, who found TQ in a burning room.
Moving quickly, she brought him back out to the street, broke a window in her truck and put the three siblings inside before turning to go search for her daughter.
"My oldest son was looking at me like, 'Mom, look at Taquarius.'
"He had soot from the top of his head [to his toes]," Shawnee recalls. "I remember removing my hand from him, and his skin kind of peeled off."
In a panic, she ran back to the house and through the kitchen, where she met a wall of heat so intense that she felt and smelled her hair melting.
"It was just so angry," she says. "And it was spreading so fast.
"I remember the ambulance coming, and [the paramedics] were saying, 'He has to go. He has to go.' Using words like 'stat' and stuff," Shawnee recalls.
That's the last thing she remembers before waking up in the hospital.
She calls the rest of the experience a blur. She first realized that Shawneece had died in the fire; then, she was told that TQ might never wake up.
'But Taquarius fought'
TQ, who had been shirtless, suffered third-degree burns that covered more than 55 percent of his body. His chance of survival, doctors said, was 20 percent. The 4-year-old spent one month in a coma. He endured countless surgeries and procedures, including skin grafts and reconstruction. One hand was unsalvageable, his fingers reduced to stumps.
"But Taquarius fought. He fought, and he's still fighting," Shawnee proudly says. "He's never going to give up."
TQ wanted to play football at the age of 5 but still faced too many physical challenges, including the requirement of a trach tube to help him breathe. But when his mother allowed him to try the sport two years later, she recognized his true passion.
Through the years, TQ's burns and scars have presented unique and painful challenges. He's had to endure additional surgeries to remove built-up scar tissue and improve the range of motion in his arms. He is accustomed to being extra careful in the sun due to the sensitive nature of his skin.
It would have been easy for TQ to quit at any time throughout this journey, Shawnee points out.
"But he chooses to care. He makes a choice every day to care, to love himself, to try a little harder than he did the day before," Shawnee says. "He wants to take care of us; I know he does. But that's not why he's doing it – he's doing it because that's what he wants to do.
"He loves sports," she adds with a smile. "And it's any sports – football, baseball, even hockey. Put a ball in his hand, and he's gonna act a fool with it."
Shawnee calls football an "outlet" for her son.
"It's a way for him to release it, to leave it all on the field. And he does," she says. "Whether he's moving those chains all the way across the field, or if he's intercepting [a pass]. Because he does it all. I've seen him do it all, since he was 7.
"It's been amazing to watch him on the field – the energy he gives off is undeniable," she adds. "When he gets the ball, he knows what to do with it."
Shawnee is so grateful to Head Coach Charles Adams, who gave TQ a chance to play varsity football at Minneapolis North High School. The program's means may be modest – games are scheduled earlier because their field has no lights – but the team's talent and heart make up for a lack of resources.
During his time with the Polars, TQ never missed a workout or a practice. As a senior, he started every game and played on both sides of the ball. He finished the season with 50 tackles and five touchdowns.
The story everyone wants to tell
TQ's appearance has drawn stares for most of his life. He's grown used to the curious – and sometimes cruel – comments. But the talented athlete now garners attention for his stats rather than scars, and he's embraced the opportunity to share his life-changing story.
It's difficult for Shawnee to sit in a chair in the middle of a quiet studio, a mic clipped to her shirt and bright light creating only a silhouette of the interviewer behind the camera. It isn't easy for her to re-live the most terrifying time of her life, the day she lost her daughter.
But she understands the importance of doing so.
"If he could do it, I can do it. Because this is all him," Shawnee explains. "Taquarius began this process. Taquarius OK'd this. If he wasn't OK with it, I wouldn't [tell the story].
"Everybody wants you to believe that people are so bad. [But there are] great people out here," she continues. "And his story is so inspiring to other people that everybody wants to tell it. So, if he's willing to do it, then I'm willing to do it."
TQ graduated from Minneapolis North this spring and is starting his college career at Mesabi Range College in Northern Minnesota. It will be a change for him, to be sure, the transition from inner-city to the Iron Range. But TQ is just happy to be doing what he loves.
So, what's next? As TQ has been proving his entire life, he cannot be counted out.
"He wants to be a Viking," Shawnee says. "That's his dream. He wants to play for the Minnesota Vikings."
She adds with a smile: "We love the Vikings. We're a Vikings family."