Lesson 1: Confound their expectations
In the spring of 2015, Jeremy Conn is co-hosting a sports talk radio show in Baltimore. One afternoon the show gets a call from “Mo in Glen Burnie.” Conn doesn’t think much of it; there are lots of calls and lots of callers. He says “What’s up dude” in a sort of flat monotone, mostly because he expects the caller to do what most every caller does: complain about something the Orioles or Ravens did. He expects to hear a gruff voice because, well, this guy’s name is Mo from Glen Burnie and that sounds like someone who probably lays brick.
But the voice is not gruff. “Hey! Hey! What’s going on, guys!” Mo from Glen Burnie shouts. He sounds like Elmo from “Sesame Street,” a high-pitched, peppy lilt slathered in bubbles. His voice is cute, like a child’s, which makes sense because it turns out that Mo from Glen Burnie doesn’t lay brick and is, in fact, 9 years old and calling into the radio station while his mother is at work.
Conn smiles through the entire call. A few days later, Mo calls again. He likes talking about Manny Machado and is invested in the station’s daily prediction contest, “Pick-2-Click,” in which callers guess which Oriole will hit a home run that night.
Mo starts calling every few days. Other callers are crotchety or grim, making the same points and delivering the same gripes. Mo tries to be creative and have some memorable flair. Sometimes Mo asks for a drum roll before his pick; other times, he uses an exaggerated accent, like when he picks Trey Mancini to hit a home run and it sounds like a cartoon character calling out orders in a pizzeria. Once, Mo comes on the line and there is an audible flushing in the background. “Sorry,” he says on live radio, “that’s just the toilet in the bathroom.”
Mo becomes a staple of the show. And one day, Conn and his then-co-host, Scott Garceau, are sitting around before they go on air talking about how different Mo is than what they anticipated on that first afternoon. The station’s promotions manager happens to overhear their conversation. “Are you guys talking about Mo Gaba?” he asks. Conn shrugs. “I guess so,” he says. “I don’t know his last name. Why?”
“Oh, Mo is amazing,” the promotions manager replies. “Everyone knows Mo. He’s famous.”
Lesson 2: Just find a way
Mossila “Mo” Gaba is born in Baltimore in 2006. He is an adorable infant, with a playful giggle and dimples that can hold quarters. When his mother, Sonsy, plays music, he wiggles his arms and legs, and laughs. Sonsy calls Mo “Love Bug.” She takes photos of him on her phone all the time.
One day when Mo is about 9 months old, Sonsy notices something odd about one of her photos. You know how a person’s eyes can look red in a picture? Mo’s look white. Sonsy stares at the photo with a strange feeling. She takes Mo to the doctor.
After some tests, the doctors tell Sonsy that Mo has a tumor in his retina. They need to be aggressive. Sonsy and Mo spend nearly a year in Houston while Mo undergoes proton therapy, which isn’t available in Baltimore. Mo endures the treatments and they are effective against the tumor, at least in the short term. But he loses his sight. He is just a baby, but he is blind.
Sonsy loves sports — Orioles, Ravens, Wizards to the end — and as Mo grows older, he follows suit. He wants to know everything about the teams and the players, wants to be a real fan. But he cannot watch the games on television, and football on the radio can be confusing. So he and Sonsy work out a system: On Ravens game days, Mo snuggles close to Sonsy on the couch, and she narrates the game into his ear.
“He’s breaking through!” she’ll say, and Mo shoots his arms up in the air and pumps his fist. If Sonsy forgets to describe what happens and just yells at the TV when the Ravens make a bad play, Mo does not hesitate. “Come on!” he’ll shout angrily, even if he has no idea what Baltimore did wrong.
It isn’t perfect, but it is a prototype for Mo to use in the future. Years later, when a friend visits and sees Mo playing video games, he is confused. Mo is sitting on his bed, facing away from the TV screen yet somehow beating a complex, multi-level game like Streets of Rage.
“Mo, how are you doing that?” the friend asks, and Mo explains his process: He finds videos on YouTube of people beating the various levels. He listens to the person’s commentary as they play, as well as the sounds of what is happening in the game as each obstacle is encountered. Then, Mo turns on his own game and guides his avatar — using only the sounds he hears and the memory of what the YouTube person said — all the way through to the end of the level.
The friend just stares.
“Let’s play!” Mo says.
Lesson 3: Your dignity is all you’ve got
Mo’s positivity is relentless, and he refuses to miss out on anything. He goes to field day at his school with his sunglasses on. He dresses up for Halloween as a vampire and carries his little white cane with him. He wears a kid-sized suit and sings in the school choir. He always directs Sonsy to put up Christmas decorations early. When Sonsy asks him if he’s frustrated by the Ravens’ struggles, he says things like “That’s OK, Mom — we’re rebuilding.”
He grows closer with Conn and Garceau. He writes a letter, in Braille, to the radio station, inviting them to come visit his school (this is how Sonsy finally learns Mo has been calling while she’s at work). During their visit, Mo holds Conn’s hand in the beginning but then grabs the microphone and takes over during the presentation to the whole school. His classmates cheer wildly.
On the radio show, Mo calls in regularly and chastises other callers he feels are too hard on the local teams’ players. He banters with Conn and Garceau and is very much one of the guys, but he has a line he won’t cross: Unlike most boys his age, he doesn’t like off-color humor. Character counts, he tells the radio hosts.
For example, in 2018, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is asked by a reporter about his passing struggles during the preseason. Jackson says, among other things, “My balls was just horrible,” and this instantly becomes a soundboard staple for radio shows everywhere. Jokes abound.
Mo is not amused. He makes it clear he believes Conn and Garceau should avoid such low-hanging fruit. “That’s inappropriate,” Mo chastises the pair, sounding like an exasperated father (who has maybe inhaled some helium). “This is radio,” he says, “not TV.”
Lesson 4: Speak your mind
After his first call in 2015, Mo’s celebrity grows. He appears on a billboard for a local radio station, advertising a radiothon for the children’s hospital. People recognize his voice. A waitress at Pizza Hut writes a note on Mo and Sonsy’s bill, telling them their meal is on the house. Mo sometimes calls into national sports radio shows and dabbles with some music stations too, but local sports talk remains his base. Members of the Orioles and Ravens hear him on their drives home from work.
This isn’t just likes on Mo’s Facebook page (though he’s got thousands of those too). It’s something deeper, something more magnetic about the indomitable spirit of optimism that draws people to Mo. If this boy can find the light — this boy whose own body has turned against him — how can any of us ever look away?
In 2017, the Orioles invite him to be part of a kids’ day they are organizing during their winter FanFest. They want Mo to interview two players, Adam Jones and Manny Machado, onstage. Under most circumstances, an 11-year-old fan spending time with two of his favorite players would result in a lot of fawning, a lot of awestruck wonder.
But Mo is real. So while he is his typically chipper and upbeat self, he also doesn’t hold back. He is still disappointed that Machado was banned for four games for fighting with an opposing player during the previous season, so at one point during the panel, when asked what he hopes to see from Machado in the coming season, Mo turns toward the Orioles star. “I want to see you hit more home runs,” he says, “and not get suspended.” Machado hangs his head. The crowd howls.
Lesson 5: Everyone gets nervous sometimes
One Wednesday in April 2019, Mo gets called into the office at his middle school. He is not sure why.
When he gets there, he is told to sit in a chair. He sits, his Batman winter hat pushed back on his head. There is a phone in front of him. He hears several voices — it is a group of hosts on a local radio station. The hosts tell him they have someone who wants to talk with him.
“Hi, Mo!” Ravens coach John Harbaugh cries through the phone. Mo’s face glows as soon as he hears Harbaugh’s voice. Harbaugh is fired up; he asks if Mo is “attacking” his day so far, and Mo laughs and says, “Well, it’s always busy around here.”
Harbaugh tells Mo that the team is having a big festival at the Inner Harbor on Saturday, which is the third day of the NFL draft. Then he asks Mo if he would be willing to announce one of the Ravens’ fourth-round picks that day; it would be the first time in history that an NFL draft pick is announced by someone reading off a Braille card.
“I would like to do that!” Mo says, and Harbaugh shouts, “Yes!” Mo can’t stop smiling.
As Saturday approaches, though, he gets apprehensive. He has done plenty of public things — remember, he once went on the radio while he was coming out of the bathroom — but this is different.
Sonsy tries to understand his anxiety. “Of all the things you’ve done, you’re nervous about this?” she asks. Mo nods. “I’m afraid I’m going to mess it up,” he says. He loves the Ravens so much, he doesn’t want to let anyone down.
Sonsy tells him everyone gets nervous sometimes. She tells him to be confident. On Saturday, they go to the Inner Harbor. When Mo arrives, Poe, the Ravens’ giant furry mascot, flutters around him. Mo says, “I don’t speak bird, but I think he likes me!” and cuddles Poe. Then Mo goes onstage. He gets the index card and runs his fingers over it once, twice, three times. He leans into the microphone and in a smooth, clear voice calls out, “With the 123rd pick in the 2019 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens select … Ben Powers! Oklahoma! Guard!”
In the Ravens’ draft room, Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta dabs his eyes as he watches Mo announce his pick on TV. Off to the side of the stage, Sonsy stands with her brother and watches her son rip right through his fears and nail it. She bawls as the fans crowding the platform chant Mo’s name. “They came here for my kid,” she says. “They came here for my kid.”
Lesson 6: Giving is better
A few months after calling Powers’ name, Mo visits Ravens practice. He sits on the sideline. A big, burly player comes running over. “Do you know who I am?” the player asks Mo, crouching down. “Ben Powers!” Mo yells, grabbing at Powers’ hand. “You killed that pick,” Powers tells Mo. “You screamed it so loud!” Mo beams. They hug so tightly, Mo’s hat gets knocked off.
Near the end of practice, an assistant coach whispers a play into Mo’s ear and then Harbaugh invites Mo into the team’s huddle. The players gather around. Mo is right next to Jackson, the team’s quarterback. “Double right, two J alley,” Mo calls out, and the players clap as they break the huddle. “Let’s go! This is for Mo — we got to make it count, baby!” Jackson tells his teammates as they come to the line.
The ball is snapped. The players bang into one another. For once, Mo does not need Sonsy in his ear telling him what is happening — he can hear it all himself. He hears Jackson take his steps back. He hears the grunt as Jackson lets the ball go. He hears the quiet, just for a split second, as the ball arcs. He hears the shouts as it lands in the receiver’s arms for a touchdown. Jackson leaps into the air and slaps his hands together. Sonsy throws up her arms. Mo’s shrieks and laughs are the kind of warm, rippling cackles that can melt snow.
Harbaugh calls all the players over. They circle around Mo. In front of everyone, Mo takes out the index card from draft day. It is a historic card, a card you’d think Mo might want to keep forever. But Mo turns to Powers. He runs his fingers over the raised dots just one more time. Then he says, “This is the card that had your name on it from the draft … and so I’m giving it to you.”
He thrusts the card into Powers’ chest. Powers smiles and grabs Mo in another hug. The players crowd in and all put their hands in like they do at the end of every practice. Mo feels himself surrounded. Then he puts his arm above his head, his tiny hand pushing right into the middle.
Lesson 7: Always — always — think of others
When Sonsy first learns about Mo’s bilateral retinoblastoma years ago — the cancer that takes his eyesight as a baby — she also is told that Mo has a genetic mutation, an irregularity in his DNA. This means that even if he can beat a tumor in one part of his body, the cancer will recur somewhere else.
It does, four more times — in his sinuses, in his lymph nodes, in his leg, in his lungs — and it requires, at various points, chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplants and surgeries. There are long scars down both sides of his thin back. His hair comes and goes and comes and goes.
Yet Mo’s energy never fades. He posts videos in which he says things like, “I’m going to be OK — I’m just going through chemo today. Don’t worry about me!” and then giggles like he is talking about SpongeBob. He makes his radio call-ins around treatments. He makes plans with the sister of one of his friends; they are going to go to the homecoming dance together when they get to high school, they decide, and he will wear an orange tuxedo (for the Orioles) and she will wear a purple dress (for the Ravens). When the Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2013, Sonsy squishes into Mo’s hospital bed and describes the game to him as she watches on the small TV.
In June 2020, the cancer returns for a fifth time. It is spreading now, the scans show. But Mo doesn’t want to slow down. He can’t attend his middle school graduation, so a parade is organized that goes down his street. Car after car rolls by, horns beeping and people shouting Mo’s name. Ravens lineman Bradley Bozeman brings flowers and balloons and a Ravens game ball. Mancini, the Orioles outfielder — undergoing chemotherapy of his own while battling colon cancer — crouches down next to Mo.
It is warm and safe and joyous, a day for celebration. But within weeks, the doctors tell Sonsy there is nothing more they can do. They are stopping treatments.
Mo processes this. And he says to Sonsy, “Oh no — what about my fans? I don’t want them to be sad!”
Then he says to Sonsy, “What about you? Who is going to take care of you?”
And then, finally, minutes later, he says, “Why won’t my medicine work? I’ve been taking it my whole life.” He looks at his mother. “Why won’t it work?” he asks, and Sonsy doesn’t know what to say.
She only knows that this is Mo. The question about himself comes last.
Lesson 8: Be unforgettable
On July 27, a letter arrives. It is from the Orioles. Mo is going to be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame, it says, one of only two fans ever to receive the honor. Mo manages a weak smile as the words are read to him.
The next morning, he can barely walk to the bathroom. Sonsy keeps hoping he will give her that laugh, that grin, that sparkle, but it is too hard. He whispers to Sonsy, “Mom, I can’t do it anymore. I’m sorry.” Sonsy wraps him up in her arms and takes his hand. “I love you,” she says into his ear. They lie on her bed together all day, and she keeps saying it, over and over and over. He is 14 and forever her baby.
That evening, Jeremy Conn goes into work to do his radio show. Shortly after he goes on the air, he gets a message on his phone: Mo has died. He tries to go on with his show, tries to do an interview through the tears. It is impossible. He tells the station manager he needs to leave and cuts short his show. He runs out of the studio and heads toward Mo’s house. Above him, the sun sets for the night in a blistering mix of orange and purple. Mo’s colors run together like a watercolor.
Baltimore weeps. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, says he is “absolutely heartbroken.” Lamar Jackson says Mo “was a great soul.” Trey Mancini says, “You have truly made this world a better place.” John Harbaugh says Mo “represents the best of us and has left an indelible mark on so many.”
Later, in talking about Mo, Harbaugh says that “some things are just beyond description.”
“They just kind of strike you in your spirit,” he says.
In September, a few days before the Ravens’ season opener, the team invites Sonsy to come to their stadium. Team officials take her out to the stands and show her nearly 600 life-size cutouts of Mo, an array that fills up a section of seats. The area is called Mo’s Rows, and it dawns on Sonsy that it does not matter if there are pandemic restrictions on attendance this fall; Mo will be at every game.
Come down to the field, a Ravens official suggests, and Sonsy goes to the end zone where “BALTIMORE” is emblazoned on the grass. Normally, the letters are colored in white. This year, she is told, two letters will be a different color from all the rest: the M and the O.
A paint bucket is offered to Sonsy, who is staggered.
How can you measure what a little boy means to a team? To a city? To anyone who ever met him or heard about him or listened to him on the radio? My boy? Sonsy thinks. Mine? Sometimes Sonsy can’t believe this many people cared about Mo or were inspired by him. Sometimes she can’t believe he made such an impact.
Only then she thinks about his voice. And his smile. And his laugh. And then Sonsy takes the bucket and bends down, painting her son’s name out in gold.