KENT, Ohio — Kalin Bennett may not be a game-changer at Kent State University. But Kent State could be a life-changer for Kalin Bennett. And if he has his way, he’ll change the lives of others, too.

Bennett is a 6-10, 300-pound basketball recruit from Little Rock, Ark., and he has autism. Once labeled a child who might never speak or walk, he is readying himself to break new ground. Earlier this month, Bennett became the first student-athlete with autism to sign a national letter of intent to play a team sport at the NCAA Division I level, according to the NCAA. He’ll enroll at Kent State next summer.

He is coming with more than basketball on his mind.

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“I want to make an impact not just on the court, but with kids that are struggling with the same things I am,” Bennett said. “I want to use this platform to inspire other kids with autism and non-autism. I want to let them know, hey, if I can do this, you can do it, too. A lot of times they feel alone and by themselves, and I felt that same way growing up.”

Recruited by several other colleges, he chose Kent State in large part because of its growing initiative with autism support on its campus.

“Going there and seeing that (support) opened some doors I haven’t really thought about in a while,” Bennett said of a recruiting visit in September during which he wowed Kent coaches and officials as much as they impressed him.

“He is really a phenomenal human being,” said Gina Campana, Kent State’s assistant director of the Autism Initiative for Research, Education and Outreach.

“A light emanates from this young man. We’re going to be lucky to get him at Kent State.”

Bennett has been supported closely for all of his life by an encouraging mother, Sonja Bennett, while attending Little Rock Christian, a small, close-knit school in his hometown. Moving 900 miles to live among 23,000 students in Kent is a collective leap of faith for Bennett, Kent State and the KSU basketball program.

Yet there is no trepidation from any of them for the journey ahead.

Kalin Bennett is especially eager

Bennett said he wants to be a prototype for others to see all the things he hopes to accomplish during his time at Kent, and beyond, with a dream of having his own charity.

“I want to be able to make a place where kids (with autism) can just come by, have fun, don’t feel no fear being around other people; be able to express themselves, be able to be who they are without worrying about what people think about them, or how they process stuff,” he said.

Keenly aware of his circumstances

Bennett recently turned 18 and comes by his size naturally. His father, Gerald, is 6-4 and his mother, Sonja, is 6-1. Kalin wears braces, has bright expressive eyes, a smooth face, megawatt smile and the unfiltered enthusiasm of youth. Despite his stature, including size 20 feet, Kalin Bennett looks closer to being 15 years old than 18.

His athleticism and engaging personality belie his early struggles. Bennett did not sit up until he was 2. He did not walk until he was 4. He did not talk until he was 7 and did not hold a conversation until he was 8. Then Bennett’s real journey began.

The challenge, over the next four years is for Kent to support Bennett’s academic and social acclimation. While his mother will move to Kent for emotional support, which is not uncommon among basketball recruits, Bennett must prove he can function on his own living in a dorm and going to classes while he also finds his place on a basketball team that is a perennial contender in the Mid-American Conference.

Having autism could make his adjustment problematic on a large college campus, so Bennett has taken an important step to alleviate that stress. He graduated from high school with good grades in the spring, and now attends Link Year Prep, a gap-year program in Branson, Mo., to prepare himself to be more independent in college.

In choosing Kent, Bennett found a university prepared to deal with the challenge of a student with autism, with multiple campus resources to help smooth their college transition. Kent’s variety of autism programs are nationally ranked by various organizations in several different areas. That, as much as basketball, is what lured Bennett to KSU.

Bennett is keenly aware of his circumstances. When he graduated from Little Rock Christian, a therapist who once believed he would never speak, never sit or never walk asked to film his graduation ceremony.

“Kalin told me, ‘Momma, I want to talk to her,'” Sonja Bennett recalled.

Kalin had read his medical file and knew what medical professionals had predicted for him.

“I don’t know if you have ever been around an autistic child, but they are brutally honest. They want to know,” Sonja Bennett said. “They are not being defiant. They are not trying to be nasty. But they can have hard questions that they want you to answer. I showed him his (medical) file. I wanted him to read this book of files so he would know how he needs to always keep fighting.

“So, when he read it, and then met the therapist, he said; ‘Are you the one who said I would never do this and never do that?’ She said, ‘Yes Kalin, I am.’ He said, ‘My question is, I hope you haven’t told anybody else that because you could ruin their lives.’ She sat right there and took it from Kalin. She did.”

Sonja Bennett, and her former husband, retired Dallas police officer Gerald Bennett, spent years trying to get Kalin correctly diagnosed, then learn how to navigate his way through the world. Once Kalin began walking and talking, it was discovered he was gifted in both music and math. He can play five instruments — bass guitar, lead guitar, keyboard, drums and percussion — and decipher problems easily. “He was in a struggle with a math teacher that wanted him to use a calculator,” Sonja Bennett said. “He said, ‘Why do I need to learn a calculator if I know the answer?'”

While math and music come easy to Bennett, there were other issues. When he was very young, he struggled understanding what was real and what was not.

“We couldn’t just let him watch anything on TV,” his mother said. “If Elmer Fudd would shoot somebody with a gun, Kalin would bust out crying. ‘Why did he kill him? Why did he kill him?’

“Of course, he has moments where he can’t understand how people can be mean. That is an ongoing thing. His heart is so big, how people can be so mean bothers him. There’s nothing I can do to take that away. I wish I could because I have the same questions myself.”

Finding the right fit for college and autism

Sonja Bennett and her son, who also has close ties to his father and two adult sisters (Jessica and Karenda), decided the year of prep school was needed before college.

“Kalin still has anxieties,” Sonja Bennett said. “The Link year was for me to see how he would do without me being there all the time. But it didn’t work.”

Every year, Kalin and his family celebrate his birthday — and the many obstacles he has overcome the previous year — in a big way. They begin singing “Happy Birthday” at 11:59 p.m. the night before. But on Bennett’s 18th birthday in June, with only the Link Year Prep team and no family around, LYP coach Adam Donyes could tell Bennett was shutting down, and called his mother back in Arkansas.

“Kalin shut down pretty bad to the point they had to take him to the hospital,” Sonja Bennett said. “Coach called me about 11 that night and said ‘I think you ought to come.'”

As it happened, Sonja was in a hospital in Little Rock, dealing with complications from having just one functional lung. She checked out of the hospital and drove 175 miles to be with Kalin.

“He lay on top of me and said, ‘Momma, I can’t do this without you,'” Sonja Bennet said.

Sonja Bennett, who is a phlebotomist, found work in Branson, Mo., and moved there to be near Kalin.

Donyes said Sonja Bennett is giving her son room to grow.

“She’s done a phenomenal job of not sticking her fingers in everything,” the coach said. “She doesn’t let him make excuses. She doesn’t let him settle. He lives on campus with his teammates. He’s functioning. He’s on it.”

Kalin wants the arrangement to continue in Kent next year. Sonja plans to find another job and move again.

“I talked to (Kent State) coach (Rob Senderoff), and I was like, unless my mom comes, I ain’t comin’,” Kalin Bennett said. “The separation anxiety really doesn’t upset me no more. But at the same time, I still like that support. Even when I have the best day of my life, I still want to make sure I see my mom’s face.”

At Kent, Kalin Bennett will have more than just his mom’s support, and he said that’s why he chose the school among several others that recruited him. He easily identified during the recruiting process schools that would not be able to support him, including those that offered only tutors. Kalin did his homework on Kent State.

“He brought me all the paperwork. We read it,” Sonja Bennett said. “And when we went there, before we even talked to the coaches, we sat down with Gina (Campana, the autism outreach coordinator). Kalin asked her all the tough questions.”

Kent has several campus resources for students with autism to help smooth the college transition: Partnering for Achievement and Learning Success, College Success for students with Asperger’s or Autism, the Office of Student Accessibility Services, TRIO Student Support Services and several other programs. Traditional students who wish to be involved are often paired with a student with autism. One of the sororities on campus has direct involvement with the KSU’s autism initiatives.

“I remember Kalin’s eyes lit up when I mentioned the student organizations,” said Campana, “because that would be his chance to get involved.”

According to Campana, there are 30 registered students with autism at Kent, “but we believe there are up to 500 students, including grad students,” who have some form of autism and use the services provided by the university, she said. Among them is Campana’s son, who will graduate from Kent next spring and has a job waiting for him in Columbus, she said.

The meeting with Campana in September went so well, Kalin Bennett was ready to commit to Kent State before meeting with the coaches.

“He wanted to come to Kent,” Senderoff said. “Listen, not everyone would recruit him. That’s understandable. But this is a fit for everybody.”

Can a student with autism play major-college sports?

It’s a feel-good story so far, but the major test is yet to come, and Bennett will not be the only one taking it. Can a basketball player with autism actually play a meaningful role on a Division I basketball team? Can Senderoff adapt to coaching him? Can his teammates adapt to playing with him? Anthony Ianni has autism and joined Michigan State’s basketball team as a walk-on in 2009, but only played 49 minutes in three seasons. Kent State recruited Bennett with considerably more action in mind than that.

Senderoff and assistant Matt Sligh identified Bennett on the AAU basketball summer circuit. He fit the profile of many KSU post players over the last 20 years of success: big, physical and imposing. Senderoff, in his eighth year as Kent’s coach, said he and his staff met early in the summer to discuss the pros and cons of recruiting Bennett as an athlete with autism.

“Matt felt very strongly that Kalin would do well at Kent,” Senderoff said. “You have to make adjustments and adaptations for some kids… so that’s what we’ll do.”

Bennett is far from a finished product. Donyes at Link Year Prep, and his AAU coach, Kevin Howard, both emphasized conditioning and stamina will be critical for Bennett’s success at Kent. He hopes to play at 270 pounds, about 30 pounds less than his listed weight.

“Keep the weight off him and he’ll be OK,” Howard said. “He’s got everything else you would want, including a lot of intangibles. Kalin strives for perfection.”

Bennett has flashed potential already this season at Link Year Prep, including 17 points in 12 minutes recently against junior college competition.

“The biggest thing he does naturally, without having to be coached, is rebound,” Donyes said. “I don’t have to tell him to rebound. He’s a monster rebounder.”

Still, how does Kalin handle in-game coaching? How does he handle making a play after the play breaks down or is well defended? How does he handle the nuances of basketball?

Link Year Prep’s Dannie Smith is Bennett’s closest teammate. He said there are many things Bennett grasps immediately. But during games, there can be hiccups. “Some stuff he gets really fast, and some stuff he has to process,” Smith said. “The big thing is, when he does have a question, he keeps asking it, instead of moving on to the next play.”

Another challenge will be how Bennett fits in with his teammates. Will they be protective and work with him, or will they tease him? Senderoff said, unlike prep school, he will have some older more mature players around who already understand the ‘we’ over ‘me’ and will be able to ease Bennett’s adjustment.

The bottom line, after a year of prep school and starting to learn to be independent, Donyes said patience will be the big key at Kent State, particularly at the outset.

“Once Kalin gets his bearings, he will be phenomenal for them,” Donyes said.

And when this four-year chapter ends for Bennett, who already eyes possible degrees in math or sports administration, he knows what the next step will be, to grow the world’s awareness of people with autism.

“We’re all human. We all feel love. We all feel compassion. This is just another step forward with it,” Bennett said.

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