The Iowa boy who was bullied, the NFL player and the tweet that made them both famous
Carl Tubbs of Des Moines took up Irish dancing after his sister became involved. After enduring bullying for being a boy who danced, he found a new friend and ally in Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins. Bryon Houlgrave, Des Moines Register
Summer nights had just given way to crisp fall evenings when then-12-year-old Carl Tubbs reached his breaking point.
He tried to go through the motions of his Wednesday routine: Take the bus home from Merrill Middle School, do a little homework and grab a snack before going to his Irish dance class.
But on this night, the words that the bullies had been relentlessly throwing at him for more than a year — that Irish dancing was for girls, that it was dumb and uncool — finally became too much. He unlaced his shoes, threw them in his bag and headed back out to the car.
"I don’t want to dance anymore," the seventh-grader declared to his dad.
Carl's story could have ended there, as many do for countless bullied kids who give up their passions in the name of peer pressure.
But what happened to Carl over the next year unfolds like a new-age fairy tale: His mother, Joanne Tubbs, distraught that the boy who loved the clicks and stomps of Irish dance was giving it up completely, found a video of an NFL player studying Irish dance.
She sent that player, Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins, a tweet asking for help turning around her son’s dark outlook. Collins responded with words of encouragement.
So did Riverdance, the pre-eminent touring show of professional Irish dancers, who asked Carl to hang out with them when they stopped in Boston.
The story of the Iowan and the NFL player spiraled, getting picked up by all the major networks. The Ravens invited Carl to a game where the family got the VIP treatment.
In the few quiet moments, away from all the glitz and cameras, Collins made sure to share the message that he'd taped in person: Don't let others take away something you love.
In the year and a half since this all happened, Carl, now 13, not only has strapped on his dancing shoes once again, but he has found himself.
He’s excelled at school, spending half his day taking high school classes at Central, and expanded his performance resume by taking on roles in local theater productions.
As another Super Bowl kicks off, Carl is paying forward the kindness he received from a football player to share the message that sometimes waiting for bullies to blow over doesn't work.
"I had been trying to make sure no one heard about this, just hoping it would get better for a year," he said. "But that doesn't work, it only fans the flames, because if no one does anything, why would they stop?"
Sitting in their living room a year removed from that Wednesday, the Tubbs can laugh about all this now.
Their favorite joke is that they understand why kids don't tell their mom and dad everything — some crazy parents might go and get the NFL involved.
They're deeply entrenched in the silver lining of it all, but, make no mistake, this was devastating back in the fall of 2017. And to truly understand the light they live in now, you have to go back to the darkness of then.
'I'm doing this'
Ravens gear and Riverdance paraphernalia mingle in the most odd-couple way in Carl's room. The football Collins gave him is preserved on his dresser and a signed poster of Riverdance's male dancers hangs on his wall.
"You're never going to be 100 percent ready," the poster reads, "but that's a good thing."
Carl's introduction to Irish dance was as a trailing sibling running around the dance studio room while his older sister Julia, now 17, practiced. His mother noticed that Carl seemed to be paying closer attention to the moves than the other brothers and suggested he join.
Carl wasn't sure at first, but a few years later, after his third-grade class learned a jig during a lesson on Irish culture, he changed his mind.
"He just sort of announced to us, 'I’m doing this,'" Tubbs said.
He was a natural, his dance teacher Kelly Schulte said. Coming from a musical family, and playing percussion and French horn himself, he picked up the rhythms easily and loved how the moves and the stomps intertwined with the beats.
Carl became so entranced with Irish dance that he daydreamed about it constantly, a little avatar performing jigs in his mind. At recess, he would find a corner to practice.
In elementary school, kids would either ignore him or maybe ask questions and dance alongside him.
But then he went to middle school.
"'Dance' and 'boy' — they didn't really draw that together in their mind and thought I was really weird for it," Carl said. "Then they started teasing me for it, like 'Dance is just for girls? Why are you doing this?'"
He stopped himself, leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh: "Middle-schoolers are just jerks."
For a lot of sixth grade, Carl was able to ignore the harsh words, but as soon as seventh grade started, things got a lot worse, he said.
He withdrew into himself. In class, he would work extremely slowly, taking extra long to write a sentence or finish a problem just so he didn't have to socialize.
Then came that Wednesday.
Carl laced up his dancing shoes, but the excitement, the joy, had evaporated. Not only was he a boy doing something many boys didn't, but he had started dancing later than most of the other kids, so he was older.
"I realized, wait, I look like a dork doing this. Why am doing this?" he said. "Like, I'm in the same class as that fifth-grader and I'm a seventh-grader; that doesn't really connect. And then I'm a boy, and this is not what I am supposed to do.”
The easiest way to make the pain go away, he decided, was to quit.
That infamous tweet
Tubbs understands in hindsight that her son was retreating. At the time, however, it was all so gradual that she didn't perceive any problems.
Then she got a text from her husband saying Carl wasn't going to dance class. A longtime middle-school teacher, her alarm bell went off: Why would a kid who had just placed at an important competition in Kansas City walk off the stage?
That weekend, she and Carl chatted about what had happened at school. She posed a hypothetical situation: Imagine you are going to this year’s recital, but you're in the audience and everyone else is on stage. How does that make you feel?
"Not good," Carl replied.
So Tubbs talked with Carl's school, which put together a response plan, but it didn't pull him out of his darkness. She needed to see her boy smile.
Schulte, Carl's dance teacher, suggested Tubbs google "Alex Collins." A video popped up of this gigantic running back lined up among teenage girls learning to Irish dance.
Turns out Collins had started taking Irish dancing lessons to "fine tune his footwork, timing and stamina," he told ESPN in 2017.
Tubbs took to Twitter and typed out a note to Collins: "Any advice for a 12yr old boy getting bullied for taking Irish dance lessons? Maybe a shout out to dancer Carl from you would help."
A few days later, when she checked her notifications, her jaw dropped. Collins had responded.
"Never stop doing the things you love because someone else doesnt agree. Chase your dreams Carl and don't let them stop you from being great!"
She ran to the next room and showed Carl. See all these little hearts, she told him, "it's like thousands of hugs from around the country."
Carl cried as hard as he had when he decided to quit dancing. But this time they were happy tears.
'We had our kid back'
Like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill, the story grew and changed over the next few days.
Carl read replies from strangers all over the world offering encouragement. The bullying subsided. (In fact, when he received a state physics award at the end of seventh grade, he was asked to Irish dance and the school cheered as he jumped and stomped.)
And Riverdance called to say their dancers had experienced the same thing, and it had happened in seventh grade for almost all of them.
One dancer, who would go on to win the Irish dancing world championships six times, told Carl that classmates used to wait outside his studio and throw rocks at him as he walked home.
Now he is a Riverdance captain and was one of the teachers at the weeklong camp in Boston that Carl attended last summer.
Tubbs needed to thank Collins for unleashing all this goodness that had rushed back into their lives. She decided "to cheer him on in the way he had done for them" and bought tickets to the Ravens' next game in Minnesota.
She dashed off a tweet letting Collins know. Collins' agent saw the message and organized field passes, a post-game meet-up and a couple of signed balls.
What neither Tubbs nor Carl knew is that Collins had recently faced his share of disappointment.
He had been cut by the Seattle Seahawks just before the regular season started. He was signed to the Ravens practice squad and had only recently been promoted to the playing roster.
I "just spoke from the heart to let him know that you may face some adversity in life, but never let that stop you from doing what you want to do," Collins told ESPN. "You fight through it. And you keep pushing hard."
In the wake of all this attention, Tubbs realized how much of her son had been missing. When he smiled, he was really smiling, she said. When he laughed, he was really laughing.
"We had our kid back," Tubbs said.
But she is acutely aware that it doesn't go that way for every bullied child, which is why she is pleased that Carl chooses to keep telling this story. People need an example that bullying doesn't have to steal away your passion, she said.
"Life gets better," is a favorite phrase of Carl's. Sometimes he will throw in "especially after middle school."
All you just have to do is take it one step — or one jig — at a time.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She watches the Super Bowl for the commercials. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.