Sonja Bennett had one rule: Never say “can’t.”
“She’d get mad,” Kalin Bennett says of his mother. “She’d get me to do it and then say, ‘I thought you couldn’t do it?’ ”
As a freshman center at Kent State University, the Arkansas native is going to need that can-do mentality to step into a big-man role on an NCAA Division I team.
Coming down with rebounds takes extra grit, scoring plays are more contested and attention to detail becomes essential.
Having autism doesn’t make it any easier.
In November 2018, the 6-foot-10-inch center became the first student-athlete with the developmental disorder to sign a national letter of intent with a Division I university. When he was born, doctors told his mother he might never walk. He didn’t utter a word until he was 7.
Around third grade, Bennett became enamored with basketball, first as a spectator and then as a clumsy Amateur Athletic Union player struggling to grasp the game’s complex concepts. By 13, however, he had grown to 6 feet, 7 inches, garnered interest from local colleges and dunked on expectations.
Last year at Link Year Prep, a gap-year program in Missouri, Bennett decided he wasn’t going to hide his diagnosis any longer.
He posted on Instagram about his experience growing up with autism and then went to bed.
“I woke up the next morning and my phone was blowing off the table,” says Bennett. “I had Insta messages saying, ‘You give me hope for my child.’ Kids I played against in AAU told me they had autism and never admitted it.”
KSU head coach Rob Senderoff was equally surprised when he found out his recruit out of Arkansas was on the spectrum.
“I just watched a big, strong kid who had a lot of energy, was a really good teammate and played hard,” says Senderoff. “After doing some research, we said, ‘He’s a good basketball player and a good kid. Let’s help him be a good [college] player.’ ”
Since arriving on campus, Senderoff and Bennett’s mother, who moved to Kent to help with his separation anxiety, have worked to keep him focused. Every outlet from ESPN to NBC Nightly News has covered Bennett’s story, but Senderoff says Bennett must perform on the court for the story to continue.
“I don’t want this to be the only chapter in Kalin’s story,” says Senderhoff. “If he can have success or get a key rebound in the NCAA Tournament, his platform grows larger.”
Last month, Bennett wrote his next chapter when he scored his first points in Kent State’s 97- 58 win over Hiram College Nov. 6.
“It’s cool to me that I can inspire people to follow their dreams no matter how far or how high on the spectrum they are,” says Bennett. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and inspire myself.”