When Emily Graber was asked by Rhonda Buys to nominate her son Gabe to become a University of Iowa football Kid Captain, Emily was skeptical.
Not because she doesn’t want her son to have that honor and not because she didn’t like the program. She just knew it was really tough be selected.
“I nominated him 10 years ago when it first started. I nominated him in the first year and then another time a few years later,” Emily said. “So I told her that it was really hard, and I had done it before with no luck.”
Eventually, Buys’ request won out and Emily gave it one last shot. This time, Gabe was selected, and their family had a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Iowa’s annual Kids Day Aug. 11.
“I decided to do it, but I wasn’t going to tell him unless we got selected. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up,” Emily said. “There were 300 applicants, and he was one of 13 selected to be a Kid Captain.”
The Kid Captain program is a partnership that began in 2009 between UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital and the Iowa Hawkeyes to honor pediatric patients and celebrate their inspirational stories.
Now in its 10th year, the program is open to any current or former UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital patient 18 years of age or younger. Only parents or legal guardians may nominate their child.
That was the issue with Buys, who was Gabe Graber’s teacher last year at Prairie City Middle School. She tried to nominate Graber herself but that was against the rules.
“When I saw the university was accepting applications, I went to start the process, only to find out that I couldn’t because I wasn’t a parent,” Buys said. “So I reached out to Emily and said, ’I cannot nominate Gabe, but I really think you should consider this,’ and sent her the link. She said she had applied a long time ago and he hadn’t been picked, but that she would try again.”
Gabe Graber qualified to be a Kid Captain because he’s been a patient at the hospital since birth. He was born with Congenital Heart Disease with a double inlet left ventricle.
That last part means his right ventricle didn’t develop and doctors don’t expect it to ever develop. Then Emily and Darin Graber, Gabe’s father, were told to expect a series of three surgeries
Darin was familiar with the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital and wanted to move all care from their hospital in Des Moines to Iowa City, according to Emily.
“It was devastating news. We were concerned right away and it ruins the pregnancy because you are so worried about what is going to happen with all the surgeries and stuff,” Emily said.
Doctors expected Gabe to have a surgery at birth, another at six months and then a final one when around the age of 4.
“His symptoms included a low oxygen saturation,” Emily said. “If you or I went to down to a 90 we would be in the hospital. Gabe’s was at 70 when he was born. Babies don’t know any better so he was good at birth. We took him home until his surgery at six months. He was in the hospital for five days.
“He needed to be around 33 pounds before he could have the next one. We actually had that surgery when he was 2 1/2 because he was big baby.”
Unfortunately, that was not the end of Gabe’s inspirational story.
He suffered a stroke in 2007 at age 2 1/2 during recovery from the second surgery. A blood clot traveled to his brain and it paralyzed his right side. That happens once a year so it was very abnormal, according to Emily.
Fast forward to 2015 and another surgery came after Gabe started having surgeries in fourth grade. Seizures are a side effect of CHD. His last seizure came in March of 2017.
“Before the seizures, he had medication and we didn’t have to worry that much,” Emily said. “Once the seizures started to happen, that affected his daily life. That was a hard time for him and he became reserved. Since the surgery, he’s come out of his shell and is the junior high football and basketball manager. He’s much more outgoing now.”
Gabe is currently doing very well, according to Emily. He can’t open his left hand and may never be able to. Other than that, he lives a relatively normal life.
CHD affects one in every 100 births, which is fairly common. His particular defect is closer to one in 10,000 births and then to have the stroke happen on top of that, is even more rare.
“He’s our lottery winner,” Emily said.
The Graber family includes four other children. Garrett is the oldest and currently attends PCM High School. Gabe began his eighth grade year last week. Riley, Selah and Blakely round out the bunch..
The entire family enjoyed Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium on Aug. 11. All 13 Kid Captains were recognized that day, and they got a behind-the-scenes tour of Kinnick Stadium. Gabe was selected as Kid Captain for the bowl game.
“We are not sure how the bowl game works necessarily,” Emily said. “They are not paying our way to go or anything. I am not even sure if we did go if they would do anything for us there or not. Coach Ferentz told us that if they make the championship game, he’d be the Kid Captain for that game.”
All Kid Captains received a commemorative jersey, special recognition from UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital and the Iowa Hawkeyes, a football and several trading cards with their personal information on it.
Emily said the experience on Kids Day started in Iowa’s locker room where all the Kid Captains were joined by one parent and all of Iowa’s senior football players. The rest of the family goes to the field and waits for the big entrance.
The Kid Captains then enter the field with the seniors.
“As the seniors walked in with the kids, they had short videos of each Kid Captain, too,” Emily said. “We got a tour of the visiting locker room, the famous pink locker room, too.”
Emily added there will be a video posted on the hospital web site each week of each kid captain.
“We were interviewed by them and they tell our story that way. They have one of those each week for each game,” Emily said. “We also all get recognized at the Homecoming game.”
The application process opened in the middle of February and are due by the middle of March. Emily said the application had about 10 questions to answer.
“The selection committee is everyone from marketing to athletics to the hospital to the nurses. They have a lot of people who decide it,” Emily said. “We felt incredibly honored to be chosen. Three hundred people tried to get picked and we were one of 13. We are definitely grateful.”
Emily said they were told they were selected at the end of May, but were told by all parties involved not to tell anyone until they released the information to the press at the end of July.
“Darin’s college roommates’ daughter got picked to be the Iowa/Iowa State game captain,” Emily said. “So that’s really cool. We didn’t know it because you can’t tell anyone. We found out when they released the poster that had all 13 Kid Captains listed with photos.”
The Graber family was grateful to be selected, but none of it would have been possible had Mrs. Buys not talked Emily into applying for a third time.
“I wouldn’t have applied if it wasn’t for her. She told me she thought Gabe would love this and that his story would be cool to share,” Emily said. “She is the one who encouraged us and was there at Kids Day, too.”
Buys is a social studies teacher who had Gabe in class last year. She thought about Gabe when attending a Kids Day from a previous season. She knew Gabe’s story would be inspiring to a lot of people.
“I thought Gabe would make a great Kid Captain because he had faced more challenges than his peers and he was an Iowa fan,” Buys said. “I have been fortunate in my position to witness young people overcome incredible feats and often times those students have become my heroes.
“They’ve fought battles many of us can only imagine, demonstrating a level of strength and determination their classmates and many adults lack. With his catching smile and infectious laugh, Gabe is one of my heroes and one of my favorite human beings.”
Looking back at the first few times she applied for the Kid Captain honor, Emily is happy Gabe wasn’t selected then. She feels he’ll remember this experience much more as a teenager.
“I am so glad he didn’t get picked when I first tried because he’s so much older now and will definitely remember what is going on,” Emily Graber said. “It would have been cool when he was 3 or 4 but this has been an unforgettable experience for our family.”
Gabe enjoyed his experience, but he didn’t enjoy having to get up early on Kids Day after sleeping until 10 a.m. throughout the summer.
“It’s been a fun experience, and it was really fun but I had to get up early,” Gabe said. “The lunch was great. We got to eat in the press box.”
Emily and Darin are lifelong Hawkeye fans. Gabe was born at 5 a.m. on January 1. Several hours later, they watched Drew Tate hit Warren Holloway for the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the Capital One bowl.
The couple went to an Iowa basketball game the night before and Emily went into labor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I was having contractions at the game, but we finished the game and then went across the street to the hospital,” Emily said. “I had him early on Jan. 1. He went to the NICU and we were in my room. The Capital One bowl was on the TV. LSU had just scored that late TD to go ahead, and Darin said he was leaving and going to sit with Gabe. I had to talk him into staying for the ending.
“One of his friends even texted him to tell him that it wasn’t too late to change Gabe’s name to Tate or Drew or something involving the game. We stayed with Gabe Benjamin.”
The Graber family, minus Gabe’s young sisters, plan to attend three games at Kinnick Stadium this fall. They’ll be at the UNI game on Sept. 15, the Maryland Homecoming game on Oct. 20 and the Nebraska game on Black Friday.
Before that, Gabe and his family had an experience they’ll never forget.
“The marketing people have been great, but the Kid Captain program is what it is because of Kirk Ferentz and the football players,” Emily said.