BROWNSBURG — Several minutes before Thursday’s regular-season finale against Zionsville, Brownsburg East seventh-grade basketball coach Mike McGoun brought student manager Walker Fruits into the locker room.
Laid out on a bench was a white home uniform. No. 41.
“His jaw dropped,” McGoun said.
Walker, 14, is a special needs student at Brownsburg East. Four years ago, at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Walker underwent brain surgery to stem the epileptic seizures — often as many as 10 or 15 every morning — he’d suffered since he was 10 months old. The number of seizures would intensify as he transitioned from sleep to awake or vice versa.
“Surgery was a life-changing decision,” said his father, Tad Fruits. “The medicines were not helping. It took about a year-and-half of testing to see if he’d be a good candidate.”
He was. The surgery worked. Within a year, Walker gained physical strength and confidence. He began attending school full-time for the first time in his life.
“When he was little he didn’t like recess,” said his mother, Amanda Fruits. “He didn’t like rooms with a lot of noise. It didn’t feel right. But once everything slowed down in his brain, it put him in a good place.”
Still, something was missing — sports. For the past two years, Walker participated in Brownsburg’s Challenger Program, a division of Little League to allow boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to play baseball.
“There were so many kids like him who just wanted to play,” Amanda Fruits said. “The Challenger Program was great for him.”
When Walker arrived at Brownsburg East, McGoun quickly learned of his love of sports. McGoun, who works in the special education department at the middle school, had daily interactions with Walker. They’d talk about the Colts and Pacers.
McGoun noticed something else, too. When they’d visit the gym, Walker loved to shoot hoops.
“He’d shoot for two hours straight if he could,” McGoun said. “And he makes more than he misses. He has a good shot.”
So McGoun, who also coaches football at Brownsburg East, had a thought at the beginning of the year: Why not bring Walker, an eighth grader, out to help as a student manager for the football team?
His parents, Tad and Amanda, were all for it, though they didn’t know exactly what to expect. Middle school can be a cruel age. How would the kids take to the idea?
As it turned it out, Walker was immediately welcomed.
“He’s a person you want be around,” said Ty Mathews, who plays on the football and basketball teams at Brownsburg East. “He’s funny. He’s athletic. When we’re doing our warmups in basketball and he makes it, it gets everybody hyped.”
At the beginning of the school year, McGoun told the players to wave and say ‘Hi’ to Walker when they saw him in the hallways. The kids took it from there.
“They go out of their way to give him a high-five,” McGoun said. “A high-five makes his day.”
Walker’s confidence grew as he made friends and became part of the team. McGoun asked him to be the student manager for the seventh-grade basketball team.
“That social component is doing something important for him,” Tad Fruits said. “It’s the sweetest thing to see how the kids interact with him. It’s a way for Walker to socialize and get physically active.”
And then came Thursday’s game. McGoun talked it over with the Zionsville coaches. McGoun just wanted Walker to be able to get in the court in the final minute if possible. The Zionsville coaches insisted that he should shoot and – hopefully – make a basket.
McGoun didn’t tell Walker any of this, however.
“He deserved to go in the game,” said seventh-grader Pierce Thomas. “He’s the secret ingredient to our team.”
With a Brownsburg East comfortably ahead and less than 2 minutes remaining, McGoun kneeled in front of Walker, who was sitting on the bench with his warmups on over his uniform.
“You’re going to play,” McGoun told him.
A timeout was called with 1:06 left in the game. Walker peeled of warmup and his teammates began chanting, “Walker, Walker, Walker!” around him. He tucked in his jersey. The Brownsburg East cheerleaders then started in. “Here we go, Walker, here we go!”
Walker took a spot on the right block. Teammate Malachi Archey passed it to him. Walker, with the cheerleaders still chanting his name, took one dribble and shot. Off the glass, off the rim and in.
One try was all it took. Walker raised his hands over his head in celebration. The players — from both Zionsville and Brownsburg — cheered.
“It’s up there with the best sports moments I’ve ever seen,” said Mathews, his teammate. “For how much time he’s spent with us in football and basketball, it was amazing that he was able to do that. He was so happy. His smile was a mile wide.”