- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Coaches and players at Centennial High describe their team’s glue guy as a great free-throw shooter who everyone wishes would rub off on the rest of the guys, a smiling face in the locker room and a cheerleader on the bench.

So what that he’s only 4-foot-3, 64 pounds and 12 years old?

“He’s the glue,” Centennial coach Garrette Mantle told The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1njBgCj ). “He’s the light of the room.

“Always has been.”

Mantle would know. He and wife, Pam, welcomed their second son, Skyler, into the world 12 years ago this month, and life hasn’t been the same.

Skyler has Down syndrome.

Some might focus on what the chromosomal abnormality left him without, particularly since his dad comes from a family that includes his uncle, baseball great Mickey Mantle, and his dad, longtime prep coach Larry Mantle. But talk to Skyler’s family and friends at Centennial, and there’s no mention of what he lacks. Instead, they talk about all the things that he’s brought to their lives.

Happiness. Smiles. Joy. Laughs.


As Oklahoma high school basketball hits a crescendo - state tournaments for the smallest classes begin Thursday while the bigger classes play with state spots on the line - Centennial is again one of the top Class 3A teams. Whether it makes state for the sixth consecutive year remains to be seen. But it won’t be for lack of encouragement.

Skyler will make sure of that.

Garrette Mantle was coaching at Cameron University when Pam, a school counselor, got pregnant with their second child. She went through all the tests, and her obstetrician always said everything looked great.

But after an emergency C-section and some anxious hours, a doctor came to talk to Garrette.

“You have a beautiful Down syndrome boy,” the doctor said.

Garrette wasn’t sure he’d heard right.

“What?” he said.

“You’ve got a beautiful Down syndrome boy. He’s going to be healthy, but he has Down syndrome.”

Pam eventually asked her obstetrician why no one had ever said anything about it. The tests she’d had done during pregnancy surely showed markers for Down. She was told, “I just didn’t think with you two it would’ve made any difference anyway.”

True enough.

Still, in Garrette’s shock, he told the doctor the first thing that came to his mind.

“That means he’ll never be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys?”

The doctor nodded and smiled.

“That’s right.”

Skyler Mantle would never follow in Roger Staubach’s shoes, but the Mantles would soon learn just how capable their son was.

Skyler avoided many of the physical problems that typically accompany Down syndrome. Many are born with a hole in their heart. Skyler wasn’t.

Fine motor skills have never been a problem either. Now a fifth grader, Skyler can crush a golf ball and swish a free throw with ease.

“I wish he could teach us how to shoot free throws,” said his big brother, Matthew, a sophomore reserve on Centennial’s basketball team.

Everyone who knows Skyler suspects that being around sports all his life has helped him physically, mentally, socially and more. He’s grown up in the gym and on the golf course. He’s always watched football and baseball and any other sport that comes on TV.

But his point of reference is always his dad’s teams.

When he watches a Thunder game and sees Russell Westbrook introduced, for example, he gets mad. That’s because in Sky’s mind, the guy wearing No. 0 is Matthew Johnson, who played on his dad’s first team at Centennial.

He wore No. 0.

So, apologies to Russell, but for Skyler Mantle, anyone who wears No. 0 will always be Matthew Johnson.

“He loves these kids,” his dad said.

And they love him.

Des’mond Cooper grins wide when he hears Skyler’s name.

“Every time I see him, it’s like, ‘Big Des!’” Cooper said, still smiling.

He talked about his special handshake with Skyler. He laughed about how they started it as a joke - vigorously shaking hands up and down for a long time - but how it’s now become their thing.

Then Big Des grew serious.

“I admire Skyler,” he said.

The feeling is shared. Every Centennial player wants Skyler on the bench during games, on the court during warmups, and in the locker room before and after games.

Not that anyone could keep him away anyway - Skyler is a happy-go-lucky force of nature.

A couple weeks ago, Marlow came in for a girls-boys doubleheader. During the boys game, Skyler got the Marlow girls to sit in a line so he could run by and give them high fives.

He cheers for everyone. Doesn’t matter who Centennial is playing either. Could be a cross-town rival like John Marshall. Could be a far-flung opponent like Marlow.

But he saves most of his smiles and hugs, his shoulder pats and handshakes for Centennial. When the coaches get mad at the players, Skyler will go around the locker room and tap them on the shoulders. When players sub out and come to the bench angry, Skyler will meet them with a smile and a high five.

“Everything’s good,” his dad said. “There are no adversaries.”

He smiled.

“It changes the way you see the world.”

No one more than him.

Garrette Mantle has always been one of the good guys in coaching. Teaches the game. Demands high standards. As much as anything, though, he cares about kids.

But he believes he’s a better coach to other people’s kids because of his kid.

Raising Skyler has helped him be more mindful that every kid has gifts, but every kid doesn’t have every talent. So, do what you do best. Play to your strengths.

“If you’re better from 100 yards in than you are from 65,” he’ll tell kids, using a golf analogy, “then lay up.

“Do what you do that’s good.”

The results are obvious. After Scott Raper turned Centennial from new school to powerhouse program in six seasons, Mantle took over in 2013. The program has remained strong, reaching the state semis or better the past two seasons. The players deserve credit for that, but they are made better by Mantle.

And he is made better by Skyler.

“You knew it was going to be different,” Mantle said of life after Skyler was born, “but it’s a good different. It’s meant to be.

“He touches our lives, but he touches a lot of lives.”

Before Centennial’s district playoff win over Harding Fine Arts, the team circled in the locker room for a prayer. Players and coaches put their arms around the shoulders of the guys next to them. For Patrick Atkins, the team’s leading scorer, and Des’mond Cooper, that meant putting their arms down - way down - to reach Skyler’s shoulders.

The smile on Skyler’s face nearly reached from one side of the locker room to the other.

“My family right there,” Atkins said.

Skyler Mantle doesn’t have a jersey, but he is part of this team.

He is the glue.


Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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