BATESVILLE, Ark. – Gabriel Mangus did something recently that he never thought he would get a chance to do: Score a touchdown in a football game.
That dream might sound trivial to some 10-year olds and especially to a college football player. But because he was born with Spina Bifida, Gabriel is confined to a wheel chair. And getting the chance to not only be a player and honorary captain on the Southside Southerners' fifth grade team was exciting enough, but on September 24 coaches Josh Foster and Tyson Franks decided to put Gabriel in the ballgame with his team ahead of the Bald Knob Bulldogs 30-0.
Showing great sportsmanship, the Southside and Bald Knob players simulated a normal play, even the Bulldogs diving and missing would-be tackles as Gabriel glided through the defense on the way to a 25-yard touchdown.
Lyon College head football coach Kyle Phelps, his coaching staff and the players on the Scots' team decided to go one step further on Thursday afternoon as they made a special trip to Southside Middle School. They surprised Gabriel in front of all his classmates, congratulated him on his touchdown and honored him by giving him a football autographed by all the players on the team. The Scots also presented him with a team t-shirt and a sideline pass for Saturday's Parents' Day Weekend game against Southwestern Assemblies of God University at 4 p.m. at Pioneer Stadium.
Coach Phelps invited him to be an honorary captain for the game, and along with his brother Grayson, to take part in the coin flip prior to the contest by joining the captains at midfield, along with Scott Wood, who will flip the coin as part of being the gameday sponsor (The Wood Family Dealerships).
Gabriel's father Matt said his sons Gabriel and Grayson, age 14, were both born with Spina Bifida and it has been a challenge in their lives, to say the least. Gabriel is scheduled to have major surgery on Tuesday of next week and having the honor of scoring a touchdown in a football game and having the Lyon players visit him was genuinely uplifting.
"He's had a good outlook on life and his situation, for the most part," Matt Mangus said. "It's definitely hard for both of the boys, but they have a great attitude."
The idea for Gabriel to join the Southside Youth Football team and be an honorary captain this season was the idea of the players, most of which go to school at Southside Middle School. But it was his coaches' idea to put him in the ballgame.
"Myself and Coach Foster were talking near the end of the season. We had presented Gabe with a jersey and welcomed him to the team at the beginning of the season and we were talking at the end of the season and his mom had told us about his upcoming surgery," Franks explained. "We wanted to do something special for him to give him a positive mindset as he went into the surgery.
"We were playing Bald Knob and thought if we 'took care of business' early we could get him in the game. Once he took the field, you could just feel the crowd's excitement. The other kids on the team loved it.
"We had told the other players right before the game that if they take care of business Gabe is going to score the last touchdown for us. They had won a lot of games, but they have never started off a game the way we did in that game. That showed that they wanted to do it for him."
Franks said he and Foster had coached the same boys since they were in third grade and they had tried to teach them that the team is much more than just a team; it is a brotherhood and a family, both on and off the field.
"They really showed a lot of really good character and they'll never forget helping Gabe like they did," Franks added.
Gabriel said he had no idea what was about to happen until the coach came to him on the sideline.
"I was sitting on the sideline and coach said they were getting ready to go out on the field and he said, 'Are you ready to go with us,'" Gabriel recounted. "It was awesome. These guys are friends of mine and scoring that touchdown was just awesome." Gabriel put on his helmet and rolled through the middle of the Bald Knob defense behind his teammates for the score.
It was a day Gabriel and his teammates will never forget. And wishing him well and inviting him to the Scots' game against SAGU on Saturday and being an honorary captain will be icing on the cake.