COLUMBIA — A jumble of eight letters and a date line the left edge of Kyle Gibson's baseball cap in careful penmanship.
The letters - WWNFYTML - stand for "We will never forget you, Todd Michael Lewis." The date, 10-24-06, signifies when Lewis, a close friend of Gibson's since they were in fourth grade, died of lymphatic cancer and pneumonia.
Two complete games, one shutout
“No one ever thought he would lose the fight,” Gibson says of his friend who lettered in four sports and maintained a cumulative 3.48 GPA his senior year, despite undergoing high-dose chemotherapy treatment.
Gibson, a pitcher for Missouri and a projected first-round pick in this year’s Major League Baseball draft, has a heart of service, as his mother, Sharon Gibson, calls it.
Kyle Gibson's relationship with Lewis exemplifies this.
Since learning of Lewis' death, Gibson has written the letters and date on his cap. He receives equipment through the Missouri baseball team every season and writes everything anew each year. He plans to continue doing so, no matter what level of baseball he is playing.
When Gibson learned of Lewis’ diagnosis, he raised money for Lewis. Gibson, who drew attention from major league scouts while in high school in Indiana, asked them for autographed memorabilia. (One item was an autographed baseball by major league superstar Alex Rodriguez.) Gibson gave everything to a fundraiser at his high school.
These donations and donations from the community helped raise around $9,000 in a silent auction. Gibson also helped the senior class collect another $3,000. All of the proceeds went to Lewis’ medical bills and eventually helped found the Todd Lewis Gift of Life Scholarship Fund with the Hancock County Community Foundation in their hometown of Greenfield, Ind.
Todd Lewis’s mother, Mary Lewis, remains grateful for the donations.
“Without Kyle’s help, meeting the financial challenges would’ve been difficult,” she says in a phone interview. “He’s the most caring, charming young man with the highest moral character of anyone we know.”
She pauses for a few moments.
“I’m just trying to think of more adjectives to describe him.”
Over Christmas break in 2007, Gibson visited the Lewis family in their home. After a lengthy conversation, he gave the family his glove from his freshman year at MU as a keepsake.
“Tears came to our eyes,” Mary Lewis says.
Gibson still visits the Lewis family and keeps in touch with them via telephone calls when he can’t see them in person.
“He’s been comforting to us,” Mary Lewis says. “He’s always asking, ‘Can I do anything for you?’”
Because of his baseball career, Gibson received opportunities to serve others. His father, Harold Gibson, began the Greenfield Bandits in 1996 with the help of his brother and a friend. They started the team because of the intense parents at Little League games in the town.
That single team has since grown into nine, collectively known as the Greenfield Bandits Baseball Club. Harold Gibson and a few others pooled their money to buy 20 acres of land, where they built four baseball fields and an indoor hitting facility. Kyle Gibson does a lot of service work here.
"He learned so much from others there when he was young," Harold Gibson says. "Now he has the opportunity to give back. I think he has as much fun as the boys do."
Over Christmas breaks, he helps at the FEWSIC Baseball Camp hosted in the Bandits’ indoor facility. The founder of the camp, Jake Fox, who plays in the Chicago Cubs organization, and Jeff Kunkel, who plays in the Detroit Tigers organization, along with Fox’s brother Zach Fox, lead the camp with Kyle Gibson, who works in the pitching portion of camp. Proceeds from the camp go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“I love working with kids,” says Gibson, who wishes he had a younger brother to teach baseball to but has an older sister.
As part of the Missouri baseball team, Gibson also participates in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri and visits with children in the hospital. His most touching experience came when he and teammate Greg Folgia visited with a 12-year old boy undergoing surgery on his lymph nodes.
“We talked for about 45 minutes,” Folgia said. “It had a huge impact on me seeing someone going from surgery to coming out to see us that weekend. I couldn’t imagine what it was like.”
Gibson doesn’t think helping others is anything out of the ordinary.
“We are put here for a purpose,” he says. “I just want to help people.”
If he didn’t have baseball, Gibson says he would be a golfer. No one will confuse him with Tiger Woods, but then again, he doesn't hit too many triple bogeys. Gibson usually shoots between an 85 or 90 and his schedule allows him to play one or two games a week.
While Gibson's heart of service and compassion lend him the image of a perfect child, his parents can recall the two times he has misbehaved.
One happened while Gibson was in seventh grade. A bully had been shooting their classmates with a squirt water bottle, which upset Gibson. He asked the teacher if he could get a drink of water.
“He got a cup from the office and filled it up with water and poured it on the kid’s head,” Sharon Gibson says. “In his mind, he was standing up for his friends and giving the kid back what he deserved.”
Kyle Gibson escaped punishment, and the bully stopped shooting others with the water gun.
Was Gibson responsible for that?
“I don’t know,” he says, laughing.
The other incident came when Gibson, then 10, was playing in the first inning of a doubleheader. He was walking back to the dugout after making an out and his father, who was coaching, gave his son some advice for the next time he came up. Kyle Gibson returned to the bench and muttered “Shut up” under his breath.
Harold Gibson asked for another parent to take his spot in the coaches’ box, took his son to the parking lot for a lengthy discussion about respecting his parents, and benched his son for the remainder of the day.
“Telling my dad to shut up was up there in stupid things to do,” Kyle Gibson says, laughing when reminded of the story. “There was a steep learning curve with that.”
The learning curve for the Lewis family to recognize the power of Gibson's heart of service wasn't as long. When he presented his glove, Kyle Lewis, Todd Lewis' brother, came across the room, gave Gibson a hug, and said, "Thank you. You don't know what this means to me."
The Lewis family keeps the glove in Todd Lewis’ room alongside Lewis' baseball glove, a football, soccer ball and basketball all signed by his teammates from his senior season.