WAYNE, Neb. | To Shannon Gibson's knowledge, her son had never learned how to hock a loogie until this spring.
Jess Gibson's newfound skill is easy to dismiss when his mother considers the overall impact that the Wayne State College baseball team has had on her son.
"Never did I think they'd take him completely in as a family," Gibson said. "It just gives you the goosebumps."
There Jess is, fist-bumping players in the dugout, taking part in group Snapchats, swapping music playlists and talking about girls.
It's been fun, Coach Alex Koch said, to watch a group of college guys gravitate toward a 16-year-old high school sophomore in a wheelchair.
"It's been great for our program," Koch said. "Our guys love seeing him every day. It's awesome to see them interact with Jess."
Born with cerebral palsy, Jess has been a huge sports fan his whole life. Shannon and husband, Brian, and other family members have pushed Jess in his wheelchair through marathons and other runs. The family attends nearly every Wayne High School athletic contest it can. Jess has spent years in the dugout with his two older sisters' softball teams, even calling pitches for his sisters when they pitched.
So when Jess heard an Omaha Children's Hospital employee mention Team Impact and give his mother a brochure during his annual checkup and exam in February, he wanted to know more.
Shannon Gibson had never heard of Team Impact, an organization that pairs children with disabilities or who face chronic or life-threatening illnesses with a college athletic team. On the way home to Wayne that evening, Jess insisted that his mother find out more about the organization.
When they got home, Gibson filled out an online application. Two days later, she received a phone call informing her that Jess had been accepted and that the Wayne State football and baseball teams both were interested in having him join their teams.
"I told him about it and he just screamed, he was so excited," Gibson said.
Partly because of his years of involvement with softball, Jess chose to join the Wildcat baseball team. As per Team Impact procedure, Koch and his team hosted Jess for a signing ceremony and press conference on March 27, introducing him as the program's newest player and presenting him with a black-and-gold Wildcat jersey sporting the number 3. Since then, Jess has become a fixture at practice and games.
Gibson said she wasn't sure what to expect from the relationship. She and Brian dropped Jess off at practice one day, and the players took over.
"It's amazing," Gibson said. "Someone will always see him when we pull up to that field. Someone is there to meet him."
It's allowed the Gibsons to just sit in the bleachers and watch the game while Jess sits in the dugout, offering pitching advice and high-fiving players as they come off the field. In turn, the players sit close to Jess to shield him from foul balls. Gibson looked down at the dugout during a recent game in time to see one of the players applying eye black stripes beneath Jess' eyes so he'd look like the rest of the players. It brought tears to her eyes.
"They don't have to take that role, but they do it," she said of the players.
It's been positive for Jess, his mother said, to hang out with the guys. For much of Jess' life, he's been around his sisters and their friends. Most of his caregivers have been women.
Now he's talking about sports and girls with a group of young guys. Learning about loogies wasn't something Gibson expected out of Jess' involvement with the team, but it's been fun to watch him interact with his new buddies and see him expand his horizons.
"He's very proud of being part of that team," Gibson said. "It's gotten him thinking and talking about going to college."
And Jess has helped the players realize that there are things more important than baseball or themselves, their coach said.
"A kid with that much heart, with that much passion, it's great to have him around," Koch said. "I think it's touched everybody."
Watching the way Jess has been impacted, his mother said, then watching the impact he's had on a group of young men has been an eye-opening experience.
"I always knew there was a reason he fought and made it through in this world, and I think we're starting to see it," she said.