He was a natural. Everybody said so.
If you’ve seen the picture of little Gabe on his 50cc dirt bike, in his racing uniform, smiling at the camera as if it were the most fun a boy could have sitting still, you’d have said so, too.
And so imagine him hurtling around the track, dirt flying, engine buzzing — a 7-year-old boy doing his darnedest to follow in the tire tracks of his hero, motorcycle racing legend Ryan Dungey.
“He loved dirt-biking, but it was more than that,” says Gabe’s mom, Andrea. “This was his life.”
It still is, in a heartbreaking yet uplifting way.
Gabe, now 9 and a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is in a wheelchair. He was successfully treated for medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the brain, but has posterior fossa syndrome (PFS), which can follow brain surgery and affect speech, language, motor skills and mood.
Some cases of PFS are mild and only temporary. Gabe’s is severe, so much so that when he arrived at St. Jude for treatment in April 2018, after surgery near his home in Illinois to remove the tumor, his mom says he couldn’t do anything more than open his eyes for a second.
“So pretty much his brain has to relearn how to do everything,” Andrea says. “That includes breathing, talking, walking.” She says there’s been “major progress,” but, “A lot of it hasn’t come back.”
It’s all especially hard for a boy whose life was dirt-biking, whose happiest moments were spent racing headlong and fearless into life. Because, Andrea says, “They’ve said he’ll never do it again.”
That’s the heartbreaking part.
But prepare to be uplifted.
The sport Gabe loves has rallied around him. And his hero has become his friend.
It began with a chance meeting with Dungey when the four-time Monster Energy AMA Supercross champion visited St. Jude in September 2018 for a tour and autograph signing. Gabe and his mom missed the signing, but caught up with Dungey just as he was getting ready to leave campus. In a meeting that barely happened, but seemed meant to be, the legend and the little boy bonded over a mutual love of motorcycle racing, giving new meaning to the phrase fast friends.
“It didn’t matter if he couldn’t really understand Gabriel,” Andrea says. “He’d still talk to him. He’d look at me to translate. He just kept on going. (Gabe’s) whole face lit up the whole time that he was with Ryan.”
Now they’re buddies. They reunited at a February race in Minneapolis, for the launch of a St. Jude-Supercross partnership in which more than 100 riders and industry influencers are raising funds and awareness for the hospital.
“He was in heaven,” Andrea says of Gabe’s VIP race experience. “We couldn’t get him off the track. He didn’t care who was out there riding — just hearing the bikes and seeing the bikes.
“His favorite thing was to smell the race fuel. He was like” — she breathes in, in imitation — “‘I love that smell.’”
When Dungey was interviewed on the NBC Sports network during race weekend, he talked about visiting St. Jude and meeting Gabe that first time.
“As we were all sitting there, super-inspired by him,” Dungey said, “it was like, ‘We’ve got to get this guy to a race.’”
Later in the interview, Dungey said something that showed how those Supercross courses have nothing on life for twists and turns, because now it’s the legend who looks up to the little boy.
“The guy’s my hero,” Dungey told the national TV audience, as Andrea bawled.
Boys and bikes
The dirt bike? Mom’s idea.
“Most moms are like, ‘Ewwww, I don’t think I should put my son on a bike,’ ” Andrea says. But, “My brother rode dirt bikes when I was little. And so he tested a bike out. And from day one it was, ‘I have to have one of these. I’m going to ride one of these.’”
Gabe — his mother calls him Gabriel, but he’s Gabe to the rest of the world — got his first dirt bike around Easter of 2016. He was 6. By 7, he was racing competitively.
“It was like he’d been doing it forever,” Andrea says. “That’s what everyone told me. He just looked so natural on it. He wasn’t needing to try or work super hard at it. It just came easy to him.”
And yes, Andrea was scared. She imagined the worst — or what seemed like the worst, in those pre-tumor days: A crash, a broken arm or leg. “You always hear those dirt bike stories,” she says.
He got his dirt bike up to 57 miles per hour on a straightaway. “I was shaking,” she says, but, “He loved it. There was no stopping him from doing it.”
Racing was everything to Gabe. He’d talk about ways to go faster. He’d watch YouTube videos of races, not for amusement but to study how better to negotiate turns. “Like, at 7 years old, 8 years old, you’re talking about this type of stuff?” says Andrea, who considered she might be raising a professional motorcycle rider.
Dungey can relate. Gabe’s story is his story.
“My parents got me and my brothers a dirt bike and we started sharing it,” he says. “Then, like Gabe, just starting ripping around. I think I was 5 years when I first got on a dirt bike. They’re a little tamer, a little slower, but to have that freedom is pretty, uh — I’m sure the parents stress out.”
For all the kids whose parents never let on that there were such things in the world as dirt bikes, let Dungey explain the appeal: “We played all the other sports, but the one thing that always stuck was the dirt bike. Because it was so unique. It’s something different. But also the thrill and the excitement and the learning. You can imagine, as a 5-year-old, riding a dirt bike. It’s pretty dang cool, you know?”
So fast — really fast — forward a few years, and Dungey, as part of his racing sponsorship with Target, visited Target House, the long-term lodging facility for St. Jude patients and families. He’d already wanted to give back in the fight against cancer, having lost his grandmother to the disease when he was a teenager.
Here he’d found it — a pediatric hospital dedicated to the research and treatment of cancer and other catastrophic diseases: a hospital that treated kids, and never sent the parents a bill.
Dungey has become a high-profile friend of St. Jude. His annual St. Jude Ride & 5K Run, in his home state of Minnesota, has raised more than $860,000 since 2012. He’s also made multiple hospital visits, which he shares with his 883,000 Instagram followers.
And, perhaps most meaningfully, he’s made a friend in Gabe.
“When I met him, obviously I didn’t know what he was like before,” Dungey says. “But his mom was showing me a picture of when he was riding. He’s smiling, he’s next to his dirt bike. All these pictures, and you’re just thinking of what this tumor has done, and what he’s dealing with.
“I say I can’t do much, but at the same time, for me it was one more reassurance that we’re doing the right thing. We’re helping the right place.”
For a mother and son whose world moved at dirt-bike speed, it must seem like life has slowed to a crawl, with no fixed course or finish line.
That’s the reality of posterior fossa syndrome. There’s no cure. There’s only therapy, rehabilitation, and hope.
Do you tantalize yourself with what progress your child might make in the months or years ahead? Or do you try to stay in the moment?
“Both,” Andrea says. “They told me, you know, what they think is going to happen — obviously not what I want for my child. But at the same point in time, I’m just happy to have him.
“I’m just happy that he’s here, and that he can still enjoy life. His personality is coming back. He’s laughing, he’s telling jokes, listening to his music that he likes.
“I think there will be progress. I think eventually one day he will get very, very sick and tired of that wheelchair. And he will just get out of it and walk.”
She even thinks he’ll ride a bike again someday. Maybe not race — the doctors say he’ll never have the balance for that. “But he’ll find a way to get back on the bike,” she says, “to enjoy it.”
That’s Andrea’s hope for her son. And it’s why Dungey’s friendship, and Supercross’s support, have been so crucial. It’s why Gabe’s VIP race experience in Minneapolis — with more to come, Dungey hopes — will last so much longer than a weekend.
Because hope needs motivation, to make it seem tangible, real, attainable.
Because hope, the engine of moving forward emotionally, needs fuel.