Men’s Lacrosse Team’s Newest Recruit is Only 11, But Brings Huge Clubhouse Presence

Tuesday, October 2, 2018
Gabe Smith receiving a jersey after signing with the Hawks

For a while, he’s been a blue-chip prospect for the Rockhurst University men’s lacrosse team.

But on Friday, 11-year-old Gabe Smith made it official, signing his name to a letter and becoming part of the Hawks squad in a news conference that showcased the camaraderie he’s already built with his new team.

The partnership was made possible through Team IMPACT, an organization that pairs children with special needs to collegiate athletic teams, usually for a two-year commitment. Gabe, a sixth-grade student at Chinn Elementary School in the Park Hill School District, was diagnosed at birth with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that affects a wide range of developmental functions from cognitive challenges to ongoing physical complications. That means that Gabe has limitations in terms of physical activity, and is often different from his peers cognitively, as well.

“As a family with a child with special needs, it’s kind of hard to fit in anywhere,” said his mother, Kristi. “And ever since we’ve been a part of this team, we felt like we belong and that’s something that is incredibly rare.”

Those with Williams syndrome also tend to be more empathetic and excel in things like music and tasks associated with spoken language. Gabe’s dad, Phil, said it’s a bit like having a superpower.

“He will tell you the way you feel before you even know the way you feel,” he said.

Despite not knowing much about lacrosse before getting paired with the Hawks by Team IMPACT, Kristi said Gabe has found a second home on Bourke Field.

“Our hope was that we would be able to meet a group of guys who could encourage Gabe to be Gabe, and help him in the process of going to middle school and figuring out who he is as a person,” she said. “We’ve gotten than tenfold.”

Lacrosse being a spring sport, Gabe and his family have been attending practices and games with the team since last academic year — even making cross-state trips to away games in St. Louis. The bond the family and the squad have built in that time was clear at the signing ceremony. Gabe smiled wide as teammates cheered him on, inquired about his love for Michael Jackson, and asked him to perform his musical hero’s signature dance — the moonwalk — which he then obliged. He beamed as he was given his own personalized jersey. And he delivered many, many high fives.

Kevin Kelley, the head coach of the men’s lacrosse team, said just as the team has welcomed Gabe and his family with open arms, so too had the Smith family jumped at the chance to invite a few new members into their own ranks. He said he believes being around Gabe has taught the team members about how to relate to someone with a different life experience than their own.

“I think that they’ve gotten to know someone who has struggles, but who doesn’t let those slow him down,” he said. “They’re college athletes, but there’s so much more to this experience than playing sports. I want them to leave college as loving, caring people. I think them being able to interact with Gabe and seeing the way the family interacts with Gabe is invaluable.”

Gabe has become indispensable on the field, as well — Kelley said from grabbing some action photography to yelling for subs, he brings a unique energy to the field.

It was the second time a Rockhurst University athletics team has partnered with Team IMPACT to make a difference in a child’s life. In 2017, the Rockhurst baseball team signed Tyler Niemeyer, another 11-year-old, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.