In the summer of 2017, Gabe Hernandez climbed into my car singing “Isn’t She Lovely?”. It was typical Gabe. You can’t talk to him with the radio on because he will immediately harmonize or beatbox to every song. And he’s heard almost none of them before. “Man, I just found this singer who is just so incredible. I’ve spent hours looking him up on YouTube... Have you ever heard of Stevie Wonder?”
Obviously, I had, so I gave him a look, one which he did not understand. Then I remembered that for Gabe, this question was not ridiculous at all. He really had never heard of Stevie Wonder.
Gabe likes to describe himself as a bit of an airhead, but that isn’t really accurate. To the casual viewer, it may even look like he has his head in the clouds. But Stevie Wonder is just one of many timeless artists that he had hardly been exposed to before college. And music, which he is truly passionate about, is just one area where he doesn’t share our common experience.
For Gabe, the last four years have been an endless stream of new experiences, even with the things that mainstream culture finds most familiar. Before arriving in Palo Alto, California in the fall of 2014, Gabe had spent most of his childhood in Wylie, a small North Texas town outside of Dallas. Most of what he knew came from the local Pentecostal church, where his parents are pastors. He'd spend every day there, fasting and praying, and "not 'contaminating' myself with anything that wasn't getting me closer to God". And so the only music he really ever heard were Spanish hymns and the occasional contemporary church song in English.
Gabe is incredibly passionate, and he will pursue his goals without end. This is perhaps the defining trait that would propel him to the national spotlight in Ultimate in the coming years. But in Wylie, Texas, this passion almost lead him down a much different path. Gabe devoted more and more of his energies to church, and his own parents would soon become concerned that he was "too religious".
"I considered dropping out of high school because none of what I was learning was furthering me on my 'calling' of being a pastor... I even filled out an application for this missionary school in Mexico without telling my parents".
As we all know, this is not the path he would ultimately choose. Gabe didn't drop out, and soon, he'd be rebelling in a totally new way: by listening to pop on the car radio.
The change took root his junior year in high school. Gabe's passion for his church had already led to questions about the disagreements between different Christian movements. His English teacher, Amy May, challenged all of her students to broaden their horizons and question the assumptions they had about life in their small, conservative Texas town. This excited Gabe, and, just as would be the case later at Stanford, Gabe's excitement for discovering new things excited everyone around him. He started learning more about his peers, what they enjoyed, what they believed, and what they valued. Energized by his awakening, his classmates began a running list of new things for him to research, dubbed "Gabe's Google List". And that's how he discovered Taylor Swift.
But this transformative English class did more than just expose him to new music. It pushed him to reconsider his prior stance on education and college. This was the spark that ignited a passion for educating, one that still burns deeply within him. Once at Stanford, Gabe started tutoring and coaching middle schoolers in nearby Redwood City. After two years, he took on a larger role, one closer to that of an assistant teacher, in an English as a Second Language (ESL) algebra classroom in a Redwood City high school.
Gabe was the only student from his class to go outside of Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana for college. He is the first in his family to go to college, and he will be the first to tell you how proud he is that his younger sister now goes to college too. He arrived at Stanford through a cascade of luck. He first heard of the school by chance, applied on a whim, and only learned of its prestige through all the congratulations he received once he was admitted.
I met Gabe at tryouts his freshman year. He had never played ultimate before, but it was clear that he was athletic and played hard. While we were excited about his potential, he never stopped singing on the line, and we worried that he would skip out on frisbee in favor of a cappella. Thankfully, he chose to do both, and I've learned to never miss a game or concert. (You might have seen him play ultimate, but have you heard him sing?
While he did not play in the game to go that year, he was an immediate contributor. He did all the things you'd expect from a leader. Gabe heard of the previous team record for consecutive days throwing and surpassed it. He ran the most track workouts with some of the fastest times. He encouraged everyone to grow, from the newest players all the way to those of us who had been playing for nearly a decade. The more his passion grew, the more our own passion grew.
It's easy to get lost in the middle of the term. It's easy to feel beaten down and washed out amongst all the problem sets and projects and exams. It's easy to overlook the growth around you and focus on your own performance, especially when it isn't going as well as you'd like. That was my mindset going into Huck Finn during Gabe's first year on the team. On Saturday, we lost two games on universe point, and I threw the decisive turnover in each.
Morale was low Sunday morning, as we fought through the wind and the cold far from home. Gabe had missed Saturday for an a cappella trip, and he arrived during our second game on Sunday. He didn't read the looks on our faces, nor did he take any cues that he should be disappointed or sad. That boy from Wylie, TX came to the fields to discover what this sport could be. That was the first time that I really noticed him in a game. He wasn't the great difference maker in the way he is today, but the whole team rediscovered some of that lost excitement.Since then, I've had the unique privilege to call him my captain, watch from afar as he helped the team return to Nationals, and even coach him for his senior year.
In that time, I've seen his passion resonate throughout the team, building on itself repeatedly. I see his spark in many of our younger players, and I know it will endure well after he leaves Stanford.
Now, Gabe will be graduating in less than a month. He is excited that his parents, sister, and Mrs. May will be there as he takes the next step in pursuit of his new "calling". He'll be joining the Urban Teachers program, where he will receive a Master's in Education from Johns Hopkins University. He says he knew this was the next step for him once he saw one of its locations: Dallas, Texas. "It struck a chord because it's where I'm from. It's the community I grew up with. Something that my parents ingrained in me ever since they became pastors was 'everything we have is to give to others'. "I want to go and give back to that community that raised me."
Again Gabe's passion is evident, as he unleashes a string of endless anecdotes and ambitions, all pointing him in this direction. Eventually, he slows down, and sums it up thusly:
"I guess I just want to inspire others to be inspired."
When you watch Gabe on the ultimate field, it doesn't look like he is playing for himself. He doesn't even look like he is playing for just his parents, his family, or his team. He is playing to spread his passion, to ignite the passion of all of us. He is playing for you, and all the people you might play for too.
This is just what he does. It is all about ultimate, and yet it has nothing to do with ultimate. In the summer of 2017, Gabe climbed into my car and asked if I had heard of Stevie Wonder. I thought to myself, “ya, blind guy who sings ‘Superstition’”. If anyone else had asked me, that would have been it. But that very day, I too spent hours looking up Stevie Wonder songs. And for me, that experience is what I think of every time I hear the name Gabe Hernandez. Despite his current accolades, and what I know he has yet to achieve, I don’t think that will ever change.