Commentary

Near-death experience motivates Hensley

Updated: September 10, 2009, 1:08 PM ET
By Lem Satterfield | Special to ESPNRISE.com

Donna Hensley was worried almost immediately, for it was unusual for her 14-year-old son, Kevin Hensley, not to answer his cell phone.

Kevin Hensley
Eric GlemserKevin Hensley and Collierville (Tenn.) have high expectations for the 2010 season.
"We had been trying to call him while we were still Christmas shopping," said Donna, who returned home with her husband, Randy, on Dec. 23, 2006. "One of the first things that we did was to come in through the garage. We were like, 'Kevin? Kevin? Are you here?'"

The parents tried to remain calm, even as they found certain belongings of their son -- a star soccer player -- strewn about their home in Collierville, Tenn., near Memphis.

"Kevin's soccer bag was in the kitchen sink, which is not the normal place that you would find it," Donna said. "At first, as we walked through the house, we thought he was playing a joke on us, because Kevin -- he can be sort of a prankster."

But eventually, the path led to Kevin's bedroom, where the Hensleys found their boy not asleep, but lying unconscious on the floor.

Donna tried to fight off panic, but she felt herself growing impatient and afraid at the same time.

"I think that Randy got to the bedroom first. Randy kind of nudged him with his foot and said, 'Get up, boy,'" Donna recalled. "I kind of nudged him, and I said, 'Kevin, you have about 30 seconds to give me a coherent [response] or we're going to the hospital. And he just came out with this mumble, 'Ah, duh, duh, duh.' He could not get anything out."

"Kevin actually groaned just a little bit," Randy recalled. "But when he barely moved, that's when I was worried. That's when I could tell, immediately, that something was really wrong with our son."

It's all a blur to Kevin.

"I remember walking into the door and just collapsing. I remember throwing up acid and falling down and falling down again," he said. "I would regain consciousness, and then, I would try to get up, and I would keep falling down and hitting my head on the wall."

Rushed to nearby Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, Kevin scarcely recalls being subjected to an initial battery of tests, including a CT scan that was deemed normal despite his failure to recite his parents' names.

"I don't remember anything at all about the hospital," Kevin said. "I remember people talking, but I had no idea where I was."

By process of elimination, doctors deduced that Kevin had suffered stroke from trauma to his neck -- this after an incident during a soccer game in which he landed hard and whipped his neck violently after attempting to head the ball.

"I thought that maybe he was sick from drinking too much fluid, or that he had exerted himself too much," Randy said. "But the last thing that I would have ever thought was that my 14-year-old had had a stroke.

"The damaged area they were talking about controls short-term memory -- which was real close by that are some of the areas of the brain that controls motor skills.

"If the damaged area would have been a centimeter in another direction, Kevin could have been wheelchair-bound or paralyzed for the rest of his life."

Upon that discovery, Kevin feared that the game he loved most -- soccer -- would be lost to him forever.

That was hard to swallow for him. But four years later, he is entering his fifth year as an Olympic Developmental Program member, and has designs on playing soccer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Eastern Illinois University or East Tennessee State.

While doctors were truthful about the extent of the accident, "and the fact that it could happen again," the family was assured that it was a "freak injury that could happen to anybody," Donna said.

"We resolved in our minds after talking to the doctors that Kevin was as safe out there as the next person," Randy said. "But we didn't know what kind of fear or apprehension Kevin would have, whether he could play without feeling guarded."

But Kevin, now a 17-year-old, 6-foot-2, 170-pound defender, had no reservations whatsoever.

"If they would have told me that I couldn't play soccer, again, I would have probably freaked out. I wouldn't have had anything to do. And my life would basically be over," said Kevin, who began his senior year this month.

"Being back on the field was like night and day," Kevin said. "I can't even explain it. It sort of breathed life back into me, I guess."

So Hensley was back on the soccer field practicing with the Collierville junior varsity by January 2006 -- "two or three weeks after he had the stroke," Donna said.

"My doctor said that I could start running with the team in January, but that I couldn't have any physical contact with anybody," Kevin said. "So we started high school practice in January, where we started running at the track and running at the field everyday.

"Then, it just got into the regular practicing and the regular running where I could play, but I couldn't head the ball. That was early February. And then, the first game came along in early March, and I was playing."

Asked if he was heading the ball, Kevin said, "To be honest with you, I did head the ball.

"I'm not sure how much my parents know about this, but it didn't bother me at all. I just starting playing normally, heading the ball again. I couldn't feel a thing."

Kevin's junior varsity team went unbeaten, and then he spent the past two years on the varsity. Collierville returns the bulk of last year's district championship squad, and looks to advance beyond the regionals into the Class AAA tournament.

"We only lost three starting seniors last year," Kevin said. "I have a strong belief that we will make it to states."

An honor student, Kevin suffered some mental damage that has hindered his learning to the point that his curriculum had to be curtailed.

"Kevin was an A-B student his entire time. He got an A in Algebra in eighth grade. But his GPA went very, very low," said Donna, whose son was tutored, initially, "two or three days a week to get him through his freshman year."

The colleges Hensley would like to attend "will accept his GPA," she said.

"Other than that, there is no evidence of him having had a stroke. Kevin can text with blinding speed with his hands," Donna said. "The doctor said that if he wanted to play the flute with his toes or something like that, he might have problems -- but that's how minor it is."

Donna still cringes every now and then when Kevin goes up for a head ball, but said, "I don't think that Kevin ever thinks about it."

"When Kevin went back and played, those were extremely happy and emotional times for us just to see him walk out onto the field," she said. "But in my case, they were also nerve-wracking times, like, 'Oh my god, oh my god, he's back out there again.'"