Win, lose or draw, you could always count on Jake Lattimer being surrounded by young fans wanting for an autograph, a photo, a hug or just a high-five after a Salina Liberty home football game this season.

And whether he made a major contribution in the game or fell short of what he expected of himself, Lattimer usually came out of the postgame experience feeling much better than he had going in.

"I love kids," said Lattimer, a Fort Scott native, who played college football at Iowa State from 2009-11. "I'm elated any time kids come around after the game and want an autograph and tell me I did a good job, regardless if I did a good job or not.

"In their eyes, I'm awesome to them, and that makes me feel great."

One particular young fan — 8-year-old Easton Fyfe — has been an inspiration to Lattimer as well. The two have formed a mutual admiration society over the last couple of seasons.

Easton, who will be a third-grader at Bennington Grade School, suffers from a rare disease called Laryngomalacia (soft larynx) and is susceptible to respiratory diseases. His mother Samantha Fyfe said that colds, coughs and the flu can turn into croup for Easton, something children usually grow out of by 2 or 3 years of age.

Lattimer and Easton first met during the 2017 season.

"One of my friends invited me to a Liberty game," Samantha said. "Easton is really into super heroes. This was before Jake cut his hair; he had that long flowing hair.

"Easton had heard that Jake's nickname was Thor. He said, 'Mom, that's Thor! Mom, that's Thor!' "

Easton met 'Thor' on the field after the game and the two started talking with each other. Last season, Lattimer presented Thor's hammer to a young fan at the end of each home game.

Easton got the hammer on May 5, 2018. And this season on Super Hero Night, May 4, Lattimer entered the Tony's Pizza Events Center during player introductions as Thor, accompanied by Easton, who was dressed as Captain America.

"He loves Jake," Samantha said. "Almost every week, he was asking, 'Mom, is there a Liberty game we can go to, and go see my friend Jake?' It gives him something to look forward to.

"It helps him to get feeling better, knowing there's a game coming up. I'll say, 'OK, there's a game this Saturday, we've got to be feeling better,' and he'll relax."

Easton missed 15 days of school during the 2018-19 school year because of his illness and still must make a trip to the hospital on occasion to get a special breathing

treatment called a racemic epinephrine.

The obstacles Easton is facing on a daily basis puts everything in perspective for Lattimer.

"He's battled some illnesses, but he's a lot stronger young man than most people I've ever met in my life," Lattimer said. "He's been strong-hearted and strong-willed to battle what he's gone through.

"To have anybody look up to me is great, but someone that strong to look up to me and think I'm the strongest person or his favorite player, gives me more power and the will to give my best effort and do the right things."

When he is not playing football, Lattimer works as a traveling physical education teacher in the Manhattan-Ogden school district, working at Northview, Bergman and Lee elementary schools.

As a player who spent his college days trying to beat the team in Manhattan, living in the Little Apple has been interesting to say the least.

"I'm definitely not in Cyclone Country anymore. I'm surrounded by purple," Lattimer said. "There's challenges with that, but I'm a Kansas native, so I grew up cheering for the Jayhawks or the Wildcats or the Shockers."

And now, for the business at hand. Lattimer and the Liberty are one win away from the Champions Indoor Football championship. They left Salina on Thursday for Albuquerque, N.M., where they will face the Duke City Gladiators in a 7 p.m. title game on Saturday.

"Everybody is pretty excited, but everybody is also very focused," Lattimer said. "Practices have gone good, we're getting all the work in; everyone is upholding their responsibility and I think all of us are putting forth our best efforts to bringing home that championship trophy back to the community of Salina."

Although the Liberty are in the midst of their best season ever, Lattimer says the 2019 season hasn't been his best. Now 30 years old, he admits he's lost a step or two playing the defensive end position, but still relishes every opportunity sent his way.

"I'll be honest with you, I don't feel like I've done the best I possibly can," Lattimer said. "I don't think I've played to my full potential this year, but being 30 years old, this game takes a toll on your body athletically.

"I've been injured a few times this season. It's frustrating that I haven't been able to put up more statistical numbers that I assume I should, but it's always a joy to play. It's a blast and I still get excited."

That's what keeps him going.

"I have a great time out there regardless of what the stats are," he said. "The real stat that matters at the end of the day is the win or loss stat, and if we can get a W on the board, then that's all that really matters."

Lattimer isn't sure how long he'll continue to play.

"I'd love to be able to play until I'm 40, or more," he said with a laugh."Every athlete hates to give that up — the ability to play and compete, so we'll see.

"This could be my last season or I might have five more seasons left in me. I appreciate every snap I get out there. It's a true pleasure to do that and I'm thankful the Salina Liberty gives me the opportunity."

Lattimer, who will also be an assistant coach on the Wamego High School football staff this fall, said he still talks and messages through Easton's family members to see how he is doing. Easton has a signed poster and a "jersey or two" at home as well.

But the highlight above all highlights was the night Thor and Captain America were introduced as a team.

"He rocked that outfit and looked strong and awesome in it," Lattimer said. "On Super Hero Night, he wanted to run out with me and make it a tag-team Avengers look."

Mission accomplished.