Just before we published our “Best of 2019” issue of PressBox, I decided to read the cover story Bill Ordine had written for us.
Bill is a tremendous writer who I had total faith would do justice to Mo Gaba’s “Sportsperson of the Year” story, but as I had gotten to know Mo a little bit during the year (and had pushed — along with Stan Charles — to honor him on our cover), I was just itching to see how it turned out and couldn’t possibly wait for the issue to publish before knowing what was said.
Stan and I wanted to honor Mo because we didn’t think it was outlandish to suggest that no one in the Baltimore sports community had a more genuine impact on people than Mo Gaba. He transcended rooting interests. He transcended sports fandom. He transcended any dissenting opinion that could possibly exist in our entire region.
Yet while reading the story, I was still somehow taken aback by one particular quote. If I’m being perfectly honest, I thought the way Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta described his first interaction with Mo to be excessive, maybe even borderline outrageous.
“I reached down and I introduced myself to Mo. The first thing he did was say, ‘Oh, hi Mr. DeCosta.’ And then he grabbed my hands with his hands, which is a very powerful thing,” DeCosta said. “I can’t explain it, but there was a bond, I could feel the energy. I’m not the most spiritual person, but this was a very dynamic and powerful moment where I could feel a bond with Mo. And I just couldn’t fathom the poise he shows. His personality, his enthusiasm given all of his health issues and all he’s been through was astounding.”
I absolutely adored Mo, but the suggestion that simply holding his hand somehow made DeCosta find God (not actually what he said, but work with me) just felt like it was too much. I appreciated the sentiment, but I was largely dismissive.
Roughly 30 hours later, Mo Gaba took my hand for the first time. And I’ve never been more wrong about anything in my entire life. Eric DeCosta understood the meaning of Mo Gaba taking your hand even better than he understands how to pry away valuable veterans for minimal draft capital.
I wish there were words that could allow me to explain the feeling. Mo greeted me warmly, offering me a big hug. He then held my hand and didn’t let go for some 10-15 minutes.
I don’t know what it might have been like to meet a true American hero like Congressman John Lewis or Dr. Martin Luther King. I couldn’t fathom how a human would feel in the company of someone who truly changed the world like Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa. I’ve met and conversed with so many sports icons, from Ray Lewis and Cal Ripken Jr. to Wayne Gretzky and Michael Phelps and even the great Muhammad Ali to name a few.
But I am not embellishing at all when I tell you that no interaction with a sports icon, no backstage hang with a musician, no single moment in my entire life (save the birth of my children) impacted me in manner as profound as having Mo Gaba hold my hand. In one moment, the tired middle schooler whose body had been ravaged by lifelong cancer battles became a towering statesman. His strength overtook me. I felt a titanic presence.
This young man was truly the greatest of us. Our lives were better because we knew we had anything at all in common with this perfect human. Declaring yourself an Orioles fan or a Ravens fan meant so much more because you knew Mo Gaba was an Orioles fan or a Ravens fan. His presence lifted our entire community. His impossible spirit was so genuine that no matter how bad you might be told his health was, you honest to God convinced yourself that he couldn’t possibly succumb.
As a child, I had “heroes.” I worshipped my favorite athletes. As adults, we tend to realize that these people are amazing athletes (and sometimes truly wonderful people), but we tend to do a better job of recognizing that those things don’t necessarily make them “heroes.” The last true sporting hero of my youth was probably Juan Dixon. I was 18 when his truly remarkable life story was punctuated with the only national championship in Maryland basketball history.
I waited nearly two decades to experience that child-like embrace of a “hero” again in my life. I appreciated those who served, those who fought for what’s right, those who simply did the right thing in everyday circumstances. But Mo Gaba allowed me to feel what it’s like to have a hero again. He allowed me to believe that a person can have superhuman strength and otherworldly resolve. His existence made all of our lives better.
It is so unfathomably cruel that his life was cut short at such a tender age (14). My heart is further broken knowing how those closest to him — his mother Sonsy and the rest of his family, Lynn Leitch, Jeremy Conn, Priestly, Trey Mancini, Eric Arditti and so many more — have lost such a significant part of their day-to-day lives.
But I am so grateful. I am so grateful for every moment this hero spent with us. I am so grateful for how much he taught us. I am grateful to have breathed even the slightest same air as true royalty, and I will never forget it.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Glenn Clark