Autism touches both teams and coaches to give special meaning to Kent State vs. Towson game on Monday
Towson coach Pat Skerry is the parent of an autistic child; Kent State coach Rob Senderoff is the coach of an autistic player
The most uplifting story college basketball will have to offer Monday -- maybe even all of American sport will have to offer Monday -- will take place in Towson, Maryland.
Kent State vs. Towson: What seems like an ordinary mid-major game is also an example of powerful inspiration and the site of the unprecedented. There is meaning and intention behind this otherwise nondescript game between a team from the MAC and one from the Colonial. The backdrop: Towson coach Pat Skerry has teamed up for the past five years with Tom Herrion (assistant at South Florida) . And that will be happening again, sport-wide, later this season in the first weekend of February.
For Skerry, Monday's game is so special and meaningful because his 10-year-old son, Owen, is autistic. Owen will be on hand to watch Kent State's Kalin Bennett, a freshman who is believed to be the first known autistic scholarship player in Division I men's basketball. (Michigan State walk-on Anthony Ianni earned headlines earlier this decade when he played both as a junior and senior as a Spartan.)
"Sports is about overcoming odds and persevering," Skerry told CBS Sports. "This embodies a whole lot of that."
Bennett begat buzz, praise and cheers after he stepped on the court and scored in Kent State's Wednesday opener against D-III Hiram College.
"When we signed him, I had no idea it would be this impactful for this many people," Kent State coach Rob Senderoff told CBS Sports.
The 6-foot-10, 305-pound center exudes positive energy. He's a teddy bear-type -- who is no charity case. Coaches do not hand out D-I scholarships out of the kindness of their hearts. They're trying to recruit the best players who give them the best chance to win consistently year after year. That's exactly what Senderoff did with Bennett.
"I have 13 scholarships, I don't hit 100%, nobody does, but you're giving out scholarships to guys you think have potential as a basketball player and have character, ability academically," Senderoff said. "Kalin fit the bill on all of them."
Monday's game came together after Bennett committed to Kent State in November 2018. A month later Senderoff, knowing about Skerry's story and his push for autism awareness every season, thought it only right to try and schedule a home-and-home. Terms were settled in a matter of days. Towson hosts this season, then Kent State will welcome in the Tigers in Ohio next year.
"I have a lot more respect that he took a guy for what he thought was a good fit for his basketball team," Skerry said. "He wasn't discouraged or turned off by anything else. Ultimately, we hope it's not an awareness game but rather an acceptance game."
Kent State assistant Matt Sligh was the first to see Bennett in 2018, when he was playing a post-grad year. Senderoff saw him soon thereafter. They didn't realize Bennett was autistic early on, and when that became known, it didn't dissuade them from continuing to recruit him to their program. He was a promising prospect -- his size! -- regardless of his condition.
"The things I liked about him: no matter when I watched him, he was alway enthusiastic and a really good teammate," Senderoff said. "He's huge, an enormous kid. Three, he can score with decent touch, decent hands and decent feet to where you look at him and say he has potential to maybe develop into a good frontcourt player. In the MAC if you're getting guys with size they're either ultra skinny or they're unskilled or they're a little bit overweight or undersized. So Kalin is a big kid."
In fact, Bennett initially committed to Little Rock, then opted out of that following a coaching change there. When Kent State got involved during Bennett's post-grad/prep year, no other school was recruiting him.
There's no assurance or guarantee Bennett will play Monday. He's still just a freshman, and a freshman who needs to work on his conditioning all the more (though he has lost 20-or-so pounds in the past five months) and is 11th or 12th on Kent State's depth chart now, Senderoff said.
But he could have a chance.
"Towson is big and physical, so he may play," Senderoff said.
A chance is all he needs. Bennett didn't speak until he was 7 years old and his mother was told early on that her son might not be able to graduate from high school.
"The fact this kid worked hard enough to get to this point, to me, it really is inspiring for a lot of people," Senderoff said. "He's very verbal and very outgoing. You would never guess this kid did not speak until he was 7 years old, when you interact with him. He's got an incredibly engaging personality. It's probably his best attribute as a young man."
The big-and-physical style is why Bennett became a Kent State player to begin with. Senderoff favors the old-school, pound-it-inside post players. He always like to have at least one of them on his roster.
Bennett's already made great progress after needing shoulder surgery earlier this year. He was cleared for contact in September and is gaining confidence and acumen for Division I-level speed by the day.
"He is aware that he's touched a lot of people and I think there's a level of pride in that," Senderoff said.
Senderoff, still taken aback by the reverberation this story has caused, has received emails from parents from inside and outside the United States.
Skerry met Bennett on Sunday in Maryland. He came away immediately impressed. After Monday's game, Kalin and Owen will have a chance to meet each other. Both coaches are looking forward to the moment.
"I doubt my son's going to play Division I," Skerry said. "It's amazing to me that, you talk about sports and perseverance, very few people play Division I basketball anyhow -- and he's got a scholarship. In a lot of ways it's unthinkable but I'm super proud of the kid. We're going to try to kick their tail tomorrow night, but after that I'm rooting for Kent State and for him."
For more information about autism and to donate toward autism research, go to Autism Speaks.
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