With only one day until Senior Night, Gabe Carter didn’t know what he could wear.
In his four years as a manager for the Manhattan High boys’ basketball team, Gabe never had worried about needing to suit up for a game. His uniform usually consisted of a navy polo shirt, khakis and tennis shoes.
However, it was his Senior Night, and the team wanted him to walk onto the court with them.
The uniform wasn’t going to be a problem, as he could wear just an MHS pullover and gym shorts onto the floor.
But no basketball uniform is complete without the right set of basketball shoes — an attribute Gabe didn’t possess.
So even as Gabe sat watching film of Emporia with the rest of the team, another unfamiliar situation for the manager, he worried whether he could look the part of being on the team.
Suddenly, head coach Benji George paused the session and singled out Gabe.
“We couldn’t reward you for everything you’ve done,” George told Gabe. “We’re indebted to you deeply, and we mean that. These guys went and got you a little token of their appreciation.”
George motioned for senior forward Chandler Marks to go over to the middle cabinet on the far side of the film room. Once there, Marks pulled out a gift bag stuffed with black wrapping paper. He brought the bag over to Gabe as the rest of the team started to ooh and aah at the package.
Gabe pulled out a black box from the bag. Inside, he found a pair of crimson Nike Lebron Witness 4’s, just his size. The room filled with claps as Gabe began examining the shoes.
The shoes were the culmination of many years of servitude and a lifetime of being faced with tall odds, yet overcoming them all. They were Gabe Carter’s shoes, and he was going to wear them as part of one of the many teams that had welcomed him into their ranks no matter his differences.
Positive in the face of adversity
Gabe’s parents knew their son was a little different from other kids almost from the start.
Gabe struggled to communicate with them up to the age he started preschool. While he wasn’t nonverbal, Gabe only would repeat the words said to him instead of engaging in a discussion.
“You’d say ‘Hi Gabe, how are you?’ and he’d say, ‘Hi Gabe, how are you?’ He didn’t really process,” said Eric Carter, Gabe’s father.
“He didn’t understand really what it meant, he could just say it,” added Jennifer Carter, Gabe’s mother.
At 4 years old, Gabe was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS, which is a highly functioning form of autism. The autism also caused an eye condition called nystagmus, which caused his eyes to bounce uncontrollably, making it difficult for him to focus.
Eric and Jennifer started Gabe on speech and physical therapy, hoping to alleviate some of the social blocks that stood in his path. While his eye focus began to improve, the PDD-NOS provided new problem areas as Gabe started elementary school.
While other boys his age were interested in the usual suspects like cars and toys, Gabe’s PDD-NOS caused him to obsess over random things. He would develop intense interests in items such as hotels, elevators and cash registers.
“When you’re a little boy and those are the things you’re super interested in, those don’t really translate to your peers very well,” Eric said.
Jennifer and Eric worried that Gabe’s differences would ostracize him from his peers. However, when they would watch Gabe interact with other students from afar, they never noticed him being treated any differently than anyone else.
“I think our biggest concern was how others would treat him,” Jennifer said. “I know when we were in school many years ago, kids wouldn’t have treated him well, sadly. But he’s always been accepted.”
Perhaps Gabe’s acceptance started with the quality his parents have always admired from the time he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS. Despite the circumstances surrounding him, Gabe always has been “relentlessly optimistic” in the words of his father.
While there were occasional phases of tantrums when he was younger, Jennifer has a hard time remembering if there ever was a time where Gabe wasn’t smiling or laughing. He’s always been that way, even going as far as to comfort Jennifer when his senior year at Manhattan was canceled due to the coronavirus.
“He’s just the most positive and joyful,” Jennifer said. “Always smiling, happy go-lucky. He’s always been like that.”
The love of sport
When he turned 8 or 9 years old — Eric doesn’t remember which — Gabe found sports as his new obsession.
He started with basketball, then grew to love baseball and football. He began collecting baseball cards, amassing hundreds in his room. He has a signed card from his favorite player, former Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Bob Randall, who lives down the street from him.
He enjoyed dressing up in different uniforms, always believing he could be the next professional athlete to come out of Manhattan.
His parents enrolled him in youth basketball and baseball. Gabe always enjoyed playing, but because of his conditions, sports were often a struggle.
After some discussion, Eric and Jennifer allowed him to try out for the seventh-grade basketball team at Susan B. Anthony Middle School, despite concerns that it might be too much for him to handle.
Gabe didn’t make the team’s roster heading into the season.
However, just because he couldn’t play didn’t mean Gabe couldn’t be part of the team. He was invited on board as a manager, where he could help out the coaching staff during practices and games.
“I remember telling him there are lots of parts to a sports team,” Jennifer said. “It’s not just the star player. You have to have all the people behind the scenes. It takes everybody to make a good team. I said find what you love about it and jump in that way.”
Along with being able to be part of a sport, the team also gave Gabe a group of boys his age he could be around.
For much of his life to that point, Gabe had struggled to make consistent friendships. During his seventh-grade year, he started managing the Susan B. Anthony football, boys’ basketball and track and field teams, which gave him a stable of friends he could spend time with.
“There were a couple people I could hang out with, but not like today where I have a lot of people I could hang out with,” Gabe said of his life before becoming a manager. “It was only like two or three people back then.”
Those teams introduced him to the likes of Tyce Hoover, Peyton Weixelman and Mitch Munsen, all of whom would go on to play on the MHS varsity boys’ basketball team. It also introduced him to the world of managing, which he grew to love almost instantly.
Gabe decided to continue managing when he arrived at Manhattan High. One coach referred him to the next, and soon enough, he worked as a manager for the football, boys’ basketball and baseball teams.
Overcoming the odds
While he was ingraining himself in the teams he managed, Gabe had another goal in school: to become an entirely independent learner.
Throughout his schooling career, Gabe had been on an individualized education program. While he took standardized classes, Gabe would receive extra help and time with his school work.
Yet slowly but surely, Gabe was able to set aside his program. By his senior year, he no longer needed the extra help and was able to discard the program for good.
He finished his high school career without any extra help and was accepted to Missouri Western for his collegiate education.
“His case workers were really impressed by that,” Eric said. “That’s not typical. To me, seeing the progress from where he was at when we got started and thinking of all the speech therapy, the physical therapy and services he went through to now. ... he’s learned how to cope and adapt and much of that has to do with his attitude.”
While he was setting himself apart in school, Gabe also was proving to be invaluable to the teams he managed, both on and off the field.
His teammates quickly found out his obsessive nature with sports when he was younger had turned him into a sports savant, capable of reciting various sports trivia, from the umpires who worked the 1965 World Series to facts about past basketball tournaments.
“We were at a pregame (baseball) dinner and were Googling stuff,” Hoover said. “We were doing March Madness for basketball, asking him the Final Four from 1963 and he told us where it was at and the teams and all that stuff. It was cool.”
Carter also ensured the teams he managed ran smoothly. When he managed the football team, he was the one who fixed any busted helmets or any broken water bottles. In basketball, he ensured the team’s gear was ready to travel for road trips and was responsible for the clock during practice. In baseball, he once helped the Indians record an out on a technicality coaches rarely see.
“I think (head) Coach (Don) Hess was saying it was the first time it happened in his career and one of the opposing team’s players was coming up to bat and (Gabe) said, ‘Coach, that’s an illegal bat. That’s 0.3 ounces heavier than it’s allowed to be because it’s a such-and-such bat and it’s got this,’” Eric said.
“And Coach is like, ‘How did you know that?’ But that’s the kind of stuff Gabriel knows.”
Every instance endeared Gabe to his teammates more and more. It’s why when Marks came to George with the idea of buying Gabe a new pair of shoes for senior night, it wasn’t a surprise.
The boys’ basketball team was coming off a loss at Topeka High late in its season, the second game of what would end up being a three-game skid. George has a tradition of taking his team for pizza in Topeka following their games there, and it was there that Marks approached him.
“We’re eating in the middle of CiCi’s and Chandler comes up and says, ‘Hey Coach, I need to talk to you about something,’” George said. “So I’m immediately thinking it’s something with the team or that we lost or whatever, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘We were thinking since Gabe has done so much and there’s 12 upperclassmen, if we each put in $10, that would be enough to get him a pair of shoes.’”
George signed off on the idea.
The next day, Marks and a few teammates bought the shoes they would give to Gabe a couple days later. So on Feb. 25, when Manhattan took the floor against Emporia, Gabe was there, looking no different than any of the other players on the squad.
He received the loudest cheers that night as his name was called and he walked to center court with his mother and father. He heard those same cheers a few weeks later when the team traveled to Wichita for the state quarterfinals.
It was a culmination of everything Gabe gave to the people he worked with and befriended. Like the shoes, they were the result of never allowing anything to get in the way of what he wanted.
“He was the glue to everything,” Hoover said. “He’s always putting others first and really being there. Even though he can’t compete with us, he loves being part of it all. He’s a really special kid and I’m glad I got to share some experiences with him.”