Ken Gibson sits in a wheelchair on the sidelines during La Verne Damien football games, but the players in the game very much feel his presence on the field.
“He’s our heart,” strong safety Ryan Farrar said. “He’s always with us out there.”
Gibson can’t attend practices because he heads to a rehabilitation center each day after school for a two-hour workout, but he still manages to push his teammates to dig deep.
“Whenever we feel like quitting we think of Kenny,” receiver Alex Thompson said. “We think about how bad he wants to do it, but can’t.”
Gibson, a starting cornerback as a junior last season, was paralyzed when he broke his neck while making a tackle late last season. It limited his ability to contribute physically, but make no mistake, he is an important part of Damien’s team.
For every receiver he can no longer cover, he inspires a dozen deflected passes. For every blitz he can no longer make, he inspires 20 hustle plays. For every tackle he can no longer make, he rouses a whirlwind of intensity.
Coaches and teammates say he is among the biggest reasons Damien -- playing one of the most challenging nonleague schedules in the Southland -- has started 3-0 after a 42-35 victory Friday night against Hacienda Heights Los Altos.
The Spartans played the same five teams to start last season and were 0-5, but they have found inspiration this season in their injured teammate. They have managed to keep him a part of the close-knit group.
“Nobody here wants to make this a made-for-TV movie,” Coach Scott Morrison said. “Kenny is a member of this football team and a very important part of what we do. Dedicating the season to him would make him feel left out and that’s not what we want.”
There’s no way that could happen at Damien. Gibson is a favorite of the student body. When he entered the stadium Friday night midway through the first quarter, the crowd erupted in cheer and began chanting, “We love Kenny, We love Kenny.”
Two minutes later, Dominic Brown scored on a 42-yard run to give Damien a 21-7 lead.
“I’m the good-luck charm,” Gibson said. “My role basically is just to keep the team inspired. I’m here making sure my boys are doing their job and if they aren’t then I tell them.”
Immediately after the injury, the only movements Gibson could make were with his head and shoulders. With the help of an aggressive rehab plan at Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation, he’s able to lift his arms. He can’t control his fingers and hands, but simple things such as eating are becoming less of a burden.
“I still need help with spoons and forks and stuff like that,” he said. “But I can hold hamburgers and stuff.”
He has regained feeling in his legs, though he still can’t move them, but he’s encouraged by his progress. He said he can’t wait for the day when he is no longer a burden on his family and friends.
“It’s frustrating because I can’t do some of the things I used to do,” Gibson said. “The hardest part is having to rely on my family and see what my family goes through.”
Farrar, one of Gibson’s best friends since elementary school, spent much of the summer caring for his buddy. Farrar fed Gibson, turned him over in bed every two hours to prevent bed sores and made sure he took his vitamins. Farrar and Gibson scheduled their classes together so Farrar could wheel him around campus.
On weekends, Thompson visits Gibson and helps him do homework. Gibson can’t write, so he dictates to Thompson.
Family members must drive him to and from school and rehabilitation. He was late for Friday’s game, he said, because his brother got off work late.
Once he got there, however, he knew where to go. The crew that paints the field have drawn a large 45 -- Gibson’s jersey number -- between the 10- and 20-yard lines. Those little things make Gibson feel as if he’s part of the team even though he can’t play.
“I miss the intensity,” he said. “I miss being on the field.”
So he does what he can off the field. He cheers, loud enough, Morrison said, that an official once told him to keep it down. He sometimes accompanies the team to the locker room at halftime, and he gave a motivational speech during Damien’s season-opening victory over Charter Oak.
But most of all he is there, and that’s enough.
“I look over at him on almost every play,” Farrar said. “We play for him because he’s one of our brothers. He’s a fallen soldier. We’re here to pick him back up to show that 45 is still here.”
Before the injury, Gibson was one of the fastest players on the team. He was a sprinter for the Damien track team and ran a leg on the 400-meter relay team.
Gibson said he is using what he learned from football during his rehabilitation sessions.
“I like going to therapy,” he said. “I work hard there because I know it’s going to help me get back to how I used to be.”
Some of the players wear wristbands with No. 45 written on them. Everyone has a bracelet that has “Keep the Faith #45" written on it. But those are in tribute, not because they are dedicating the season to him.
“You dedicate a season to someone who has died,” Morrison said. “Kenny is very much alive and very much a part of this team. He is a teammate. I’m not suggesting that the way we’re handling this is the right way or the wrong way, it’s just the way we’ve decided to do it.”
And that, Gibson said, means the world.
“That’s very important to me,” he said. “Being part of this team is one of the most important things in my life.”