Mississippi State running back Nick Gibson, left, considers Braden Herring, center, his No. 1 fan, and has introduced his friend to several of Bulldog football's familiar faces, including head coach Dan Mullen. Braden suffers from spina bifida and started watching Gibson play when he was in high school in Pinson, Alabama. Photo by: Courtesy photo
July 10, 2017 10:47:58 AM
Pinson Valley High School football practices used to have a regular spectator with a pretty good eye for talent. An honest eye, too, not one to favor his brother on the offensive line.
Braden Herring's eyes kept going back to Nick Gibson.
It was no secret to Braden's brother -- Brandon, tasked with blocking for the running back on his way to local stardom -- Gibson was his brother's favorite player. That being the case, Brandon asked Gibson to meet Braden one day after practice.
The two have been attached ever since.
Gibson, a redshirt sophomore from the Birmingham, Alabama, area, could be in the rotation for Mississippi State this fall, and if he is, Braden will have a front-row seat to it all. It's been the perfect friendship for both of them: Gibson has an unquestioned No. 1 fan in Braden, and Braden gets a football experience he almost certainly wouldn't get otherwise.
Braden was born with spina bifida, a condition in which a baby's spinal cord fails to fully develop, making organized football in its traditional form impossible. That's why Gibson plays for him.
"When I'm down there on the field, I'm always playing for people that can't play or people that want to play," Gibson said. "I try to play to excite them."
Part of the family
Gibson has never disappointed, on or off the field.
When Gibson tells Braden stories, almost all of them take place somewhere other than a football stadium. His favorite occurred in Braden's former elementary school.
Gibson and some Pinson Valley teammates were brought to the school to speak to some of the younger students; the teachers -- knowing of the relationship all too well, given Braden's affinity for wearing Gibson gear to school -- knew they couldn't let Gibson leave without a surprise visit to Braden.
"Seeing the smile on his face, man," Gibson said, "I just knew he really loved me."
Since then, Gibson has effectively become family. Braden had birthday cakes with Gibson's football likeness prominently displayed; when Gibson showed up at the party, the entire Herring family already knew his name.
Scrolling through hundreds of pictures alongside Braden's mother, Angela, over the summer produces an abundance of such memories: photo albums Gibson keeps to this day as prized possessions, Braden at Gibson's signing ceremony and countless meals with Gibson joining the Herring family. Even words of encouragement in the first two years of Gibson's MSU career, in which he tallied just nine carries.
"Sometimes I'll feel like I'm not good enough, then I'll get a call from his mom or (receive) a picture saying, 'Braden misses you, you did a phenomenal job in the spring game,'" Gibson said. "Whenever I'm with Braden I'm having fun."
The support inspires Gibson, so much so he keeps a picture of Braden in his locker.
Gibson has a plan to repay them for that support.
"I want to give back to spina bifida (charities). Braden really opened up my eyes on that," Gibson said. "Sometimes I just think back and analyze that not everybody is able to play this sport I love."
A special bond
In the meantime, Gibson has football -- and he shares as much with Braden as he possibly can.
In his senior year at Pinson Valley, Gibson had Braden on the field for the coin toss for the homecoming game -- and that was just the beginning. Gibson has brought Braden into the MSU program whenever possible, introducing him to coach Dan Mullen and former quarterback Dak Prescott. Braden and Angela Herring have become fixtures at every preseason fan day, every spring game and multiple regular season games.
"(Gibson's teammates) all came up to him, signed his hat and said, 'You're Nick's buddy from Birmingham,'" Angela recalled.
The two laugh at memories from high school and the tell in Gibson's game Braden identified: whenever Gibson would hit open field and reach full speed, his head would back slightly. Then Braden would call Gibson's shot for him: "Mama, Mama, that head's back, he's gone."
MSU coaches have since ironed that tendency out of Gibson, but he eagerly awaits his first MSU touchdown and finding Braden in the stands.
There's no doubt, when that time comes, Braden will be in attendance. Gibson had Braden as his official guest for the home game against Kentucky in 2015; Braden and Angela Herring were in the stadium last year against Samford when Gibson got his first four carries in Davis Wade Stadium.
Gibson knows when playing time picks up he'll probably hear from distant family members asking for tickets. He hopes he doesn't; those tickets are booked up.
"(Braden has) followed me throughout high school and now he's with me in college, and he's been with me these first two years of college when I wasn't playing much," Gibson said. "That's when you know you have a true fan."
The Maroon and White game in April was a bit of a coming out party for Gibson. If his understated career to date could has a definitive launch point, it could be that 17-carry, 108-yard day. After such a game, Gibson could have been anywhere wrapped up in any celebratory kind of activity.
He chose having dinner with Braden, Angela and his parents, reliving it all with Braden. He plans on doing the same in the fall.
"Whenever I'm on the field," Gibson said, "I try to impress Braden, give us something to talk about over dinner."
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