NEW PALESTINE — The game of one-on-one wasn’t being played to determine who the best ballplayer was; that was obvious.
Instead, it was a chance for an unlikely pair of students to enjoy a fun time together before the school year comes to an end.
A top athlete at New Palestine High School, senior Garrett Kuhn said he will miss his regular hoops sessions with special education student Nathan Renbarger.
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The two had gym class together and became fast friends after teacher Kyle Ralph asked Kuhn, a standout player on the state championship football team, to shoot some hoops with a student who needed a friend.
Kuhn immediately agreed. After all, he knows what it’s like to need support. Kuhn’s mother died unexpectedly when he was in eighth grade, leaving him without a special guiding influence in his life. It’s the kind of traumatic event that can throw a student off course, but Kuhn, surrounded by friends and loved ones, was determined to become the man his mother raised him to be.
On Friday, he’ll graduate with a 3.2 GPA and plans to go to college.
And he’ll spend the ceremony with his new buddy at his side. Organizers made special arrangements for the pair to sit together. Renbarger has emotional issues, and they hope he will be less distracted with Kuhn to keep him company.
That one-time basketball game between the two turned into a weekly match-up for Kuhn and Renbarger, whose bond has warmed the hearts of those who know them.
“It’s one of the few times during the day that you’ll see Garrett really smile,” school guidance counselor Kristen Gauly said.
Kuhn was raised by his stepfather, John Gunn, and big sister, Jordan Kuhn, after his mother, Pam Gunn, died from a brain aneurysm.
Garrett deals with the loss on a daily basis and said it’s especially hard around special times like graduation, when many of his peers will have both parents there celebrating their child’s accomplishments.
“It was really rough on us,” Garrett said. “But it pulled us together.”
His sister, a junior at Purdue University, was in high school at the time of her mom’s death. She often thinks about how far both she and her little brother have come since the summer of 2010 when they lost their mom.
“I’ve watched him go from this scrawny middle school kid, trying to figure life out, to now this buff, intelligent, driven, young man that I could not be more proud of,” she said.
Kuhn said his sister is both his top critic and biggest supporter — a typical older sibling.
“She keeps me in check to make sure I don’t cross too many lines,” he said.
Principal Keith Fessler said it’s been amazing watching Kuhn find his way and overcome something as devastating as losing a parent at such a young age.
“In Garrett’s case, he had a heck of a support system, and Jordan was a huge part of that,” Fessler said.
Being an active member in 4-H and playing sports helped Kuhn focus and caused his high school years to fly by, he said.
While he plans to give up the 4-H hobbies after this summer, there is a chance he will try to play football in college.
Garrett plans to attend the University of Iowa, where he wants to take classes in medicine to become a physician’s assistant.
It’s the kind of giving spirit those who knew his mother say she embodied as well.
And Kuhn is happy to follow her example.
“Helping people, it just gives you a little bit of gratification,” Kuhn said.
He and his sister, whom Kuhn said is his best friend, are trying their best to be the people their mother would have been proud to see grow up, Kuhn said.
“Whether she was here or not, I’d like to think we’d still be the same person,” Garrett said. “Things would be different, yes, but, we’d still be the same kids that we are.”
Jordan Kuhn is certain of that and of the bright future that awaits her little brother.
“Big things are ahead for him,” she said. “I’m so honored to not only call him my brother but my very best friend.”