Kid Captain may bring good luck to Hawkeyes in Outback Bowl

The day Gabe Graber was born, the Hawks stunned LSU with ‘The Catch’ at the last second to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Now, he’ll be the Kid Captain for the Hawkeyes’ Outback Bowl game against Mississippi State.


Kid Captain Gabe Graber takes a photo with his family and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz during Iowa Football Kid’s Day at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, August 11, 2018. The 2018 Kid Captains met the Iowa football team and participated in a behind-the-scenes tour of Kinnick Stadium. Gwen’s story will be featured during Iowa’s first home game on Saturday. (Katina Zentz/The Daily Iowan)

Sarah Watson, Politics Editor

Gabe Graber, 14, became a lifelong Hawkeye fan when he took his first breath in the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

It was Jan. 1, 2005, the same day the Hawkeyes stunned the LSU Tigers to win the Capital One Bowl as the clock expired, Gabe’s mother, Emily Graber, remembered.

“We always remember that because we were in the NICU, and we were watching the game,” she said. “Things were pretty calm for Gabe at the time, so it was a nice, exciting Hawkeye football moment that coincided with his birthday.”

Now, he’ll be Kid Captain for the Hawkeyes’ Outback bowl game Jan. 1 against Mississippi State.

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Around four months before Gabe was born in Iowa City, his mom found out her unborn child would need three heart surgeries before he turned 5.

Gabe has a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic right heart syndrome, meaning his right ventricle never fully developed. Emily and husband Darin began making weekly three-hour round trips between their home in Prairie City and the UI for appointments.

But the family breathed a sigh of relief when Gabe was born on Jan. 1, 2005.

Usually, to correct Gabe’s heart defect, the first heart surgery is completed right after birth, but Gabe’s stability meant he didn’t need it.

“At that time, that surgery was about a 50/50 chance,” Emily said. “Not needing that and getting to go home … was amazing.”

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Short recovery periods followed two surgeries for Gabe, one at 6 months old and another at 2½.

But seven days after his second surgery, as the toddler was recovering, he had a stroke that paralyzed his left side.

Following weekly physical- and occupational-therapy appointments, Gabe could walk two months after his stroke, and he now has regained most of his motor skills on his left side.

Physical therapy for a 2-year-old with a strong will like Gabe’s called for some creative tactics, Emily said.

“He was a big fan of Skittles at the time,” she said. “We’d say, ‘OK, you take 10 steps, then you can have a Skittle.’ ”

He grew into a voracious reader and a kind, strong kid, those who know him say. For the past two years, he’s managed the middle-school boys’ basketball team and enjoys challenging anyone to a game of PIG.

However, as a result of his stroke, Gabe began having seizures.

In March 2017, Gabe underwent a hemispherotomy, a surgery that disconnected the right half of his brain. Gabe returned home just nine days later without complications. Now, he’s 18 months seizure-free.

Before the last surgery, Emily said students and staff at Prairie City Monroe schools made a banner that read “Gabe’s our hero,” which was also the hashtag used to spread Gabe’s story on social media.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the support,” Emily said.

She nominated him twice to be Kid Captain without luck and didn’t think to nominate Gabe another year. But his sixth-grade teacher, Rhonda Buys, encouraged Emily to give it one more go.

“So, we did, and lo and behold, he got it,” Buys said.

She’d had Gabe as a student two years prior, and as she watched the 2017 class of Kid Captains walk on the field at Kinnick Stadium, she thought of Gabe, who at the time was having seizures and facing a major brain surgery.

The Grabers also developed a close relationship with Gabe’s cardiologist of the last 13 years, Ian Law, who described Gabe as incredibly observant, noting one occasion when Law brought in a medical student to Gabe’s appointment.

“We had a medical student probably about 6-6, tall guy, lanky,” Law said. “I’m asking Gabe all the questions — how’s he doing, how’s school going — and then at one point he says, ‘Hey, what’s up with Abe Lincoln in the background there?’

“He probably said this when he was 9 years old. So, he’s processing more than you realize, and very talkative, just gregarious when you have a conversation with him.”

Law said he thinks Gabe’s can-do attitude originated with his parents, who investigated and followed through with any opportunity or treatment that could improve Gabe’s health.

In 2006, approximately a year and a half after Gabe was born, Emily cofounded Help-a-Heart, a nonprofit that benefits children with congenital heart defects and their families.

“Some people have heart disease, and that becomes who they are, and they don’t participate in life because they feel they can’t,” Law said. “That’s not Gabe. If there’s something he’s going to do, he’s going to do it.”