Softball star turned amputee has winning attitude

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Eric Gabriel is spontaneous, but his attitude about life is more like spontaneous combustion. He is determined in a way that only Rocky Balboa could understand. In fact, Gabriel's favorite line is from the “Rocky” movies: “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep movin’ forward.” 

For years, while playing baseball and then semipro softball, “The Big E” was known for his headfirst slides despite the toll it took on his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body. As a result, he had to retire at age 36 and has needed 54 orthopedic operations.

In 2009, after multiple knee replacements, his doctor told him that the only way to save his right leg was to have a rod installed that would leave it permanently straightened. Gabriel felt he had no choice: He asked his doctor to amputate his leg above the knee.

Thus began what he calls his “second life.” In his first life, Gabriel said he “took things for granted.” But after he spent all that time “laying in a hospital bed wondering what I’m going to do the rest of my life,” he decided on a simple goal: “I’m going to show people with amputations and handicaps how they can live life.”

That life led to his decision to enroll as a doctoral learner at Grand Canyon University, and Gabriel is one of three online students who will be honored, along with a faculty member, at Online Student and Faculty Appreciation Night on Saturday at GCU. There will be a reception for online students at 5 p.m. in the Antelope Reception Center, and all online students and their families will be admitted free to the men’s basketball game against New Mexico State, which starts at 7 p.m. in GCU Arena. During the game, there will be a drawing to award a $10,000 scholarship to an online student.

Overcoming depression

Gabriel's first and most important step in his new life was meeting his wife, Melissa, during his four-month recuperation at Duke University Hospital, where she worked. They were married two years ago.

“If I knew I would have met a beautiful woman like you,” he told her in his typically deadpan humor, “I would have been chopping off limbs years ago.”

But, all kidding aside, the seriousness of the operation and challenges of his rehabilitation took a toll. Gabriel, 57, said he battled depression for a month after leaving the hospital and returning to his Wake Forest, N.C., home, memories of his athletic and active past still resonating.

While looking for things to do one weekend while Melissa was visiting her mother, he came upon the GCU website and promptly enrolled in the doctoral program. “Their reputation and the fact that they have people on campus, that was important to me,” he said. “I didn’t want a mail-order degree.”

When Melissa returned, Gabriel said the conversation went something like this:

“So how was your weekend?”

“Well, school starts next week and I’m getting ready for that.”

“Whaaaaaat? What do you mean, ‘School starts next week?’”

“I think she’s afraid to leave the house now,” he said, mischievously.

Another time he was battling boredom, he decided to go online to look for exercise equipment and came across rowing machines. Spontaneously (of course), he wanted to get one but couldn't afford the $1,500 price tag. A friend’s boss heard about it, gave him the money and said, “Go for your dreams.”

The first time he tried out his new toy he was “bored to tears on this thing” after five minutes, but he stuck with it and promptly signed up to compete in the Paralympic Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston. His reasoning: “I just chose to have my leg chopped off. You think I’m going to worry about losing a rowing race?”

When he got to Boston, he found himself next to military veterans less than half his age. “They’ve got their washboard abs and I’ve got my beer keg abs,” he said. But then his years of competitiveness took over, and Gabriel did so well — he finished second —  he was invited to work out at the Paralympic training facility in Oklahoma City.

Lifelong sports fan

Gabriel's passion for sports began while he was growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The walls of the New York Yankees fan’s office, which he calls “The Dugout,” are covered with collectible sports photos.

He spent much of his career overseeing the installation of emergency backup systems in Federal Aviation Administration facilities, but many of his other waking moments were spent playing serious softball.

Slow-pitch softball at that level is played by large men who can hit the ball prodigious distances. Gabriel said he was the smallest guy on his team, which is difficult to believe when you see old photos of him on his “Keep Movin’ Forward” website.

“It’s a hitters’ game,” he said. “Most of the runs are scored on home runs.”

Gabriel hit enough homers to win a few tournament Most Valuable Player awards and a room full of trophies, but he also kept the ball in the park enough to have to slide on fields that sometimes were like asphalt. He fondly tells the story of a hotel roommate who scraped so much skin off his hip, his bed sheet had adhered to his wound overnight.

“We left a lot of body parts on the field,” he said, "but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s nothing like it.”

His competitive spirit translated easily into his work in GCU’s doctor of education in organizational leadership program. “I’m competitive at school, just with myself,” he said. “It’s just that fire within me.”

When a video was made of Gabriel’s hospital stay at Duke, he thought it would be something that he and his wife might want to watch once in awhile. Instead, it became an important part of the hospital’s training program, and before long, Gabriel was being stopped by strangers in stores who would recognize him and say, “You’re that guy!”

One of Gabriel’s passions is to raise awareness about the idea that no one should be afraid to try to help people with physical limitations for fear of insulting them. He readily accepts and appreciates the help, but his sense of humor also helps him deal with it.

“I look on the bright side,” he said, again sounding mischievous. “I get to park in a handicapped space now. And I don’t have to dance at weddings.”

But he's still moving forward. When he returns from his GCU trip, Gabriel plans to resume his rowing training.

“Next time, I want to win,” he said.

Rocky would be proud. Come to think of it, Rocky would be in awe.

Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or [email protected].



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