Kayla Upchurch’s basketball season ended in the opening minute of her first game at GC. After twenty-three seconds against West Georgia and a year of waiting, the rising star of GC planted, twisted, and went down.
“It can’t be,” the sophomore point guard thought on November 10. “Not again.”
It was just a fall. She’d caught a pass on offense, made one mis-planted step and a girl had bumped into her. It couldn’t be serious. It hadn’t even looked serious, people thought she’d lost her footing. She was going to get up; she was going to be fine.
At least, that’s what she told herself.
Right ACL torn in two. Snapped like a rubber band and bunched against her bones. Without this ligament to connect her thigh bone (femur) to her shin bone (tibia), her femur would ram into her meniscus if she stopped suddenly, causing her knee to buckle and for her to collapse.
At the moment though, the pain hadn’t come, just discomfort, so she pushed herself slowly up off the floor and jogged, limping, to the top of the key. West Georgia had just scored and GC was bringing it down. Shanteona Keys went for a layup, missed and West Georgia recovered the rebound. Back on defense, Kayla stepped up to play.
Howard Upchurch, her dad, was just getting to his seat with Kayla’s boyfriend. Her dad was walking in late, so he’d missed her fall, but she looked OK. Aggressive, tenacious, fierce – nothing out of the ordinary. She stepped up at the top of the key and with one cross from her mark, one bounce from left to right, she was beaten, down, and not getting back up. That fall was the only thing her father has seen his daughter do on GC’s court.
“My heart just dropped,” he said. “She was so amped to play and at the home game opener too. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Play stopped. Players took a knee and the crowd sat down. Her coach, Mo Smith, and head trainer, Paul Higgs, ran out and helped her to the sidelines, away from the spotlight, away from the eyes. She could put weight on it, even jog if she wanted to, but when Higgs saw her go down, he felt Kayla’s fears.
“How does that feel?” he said pulling on her knee to test mobility.
“It’s OK, uncomfortable,” Kayla said. “It feels like my last one. It feels just like my last one.”
She’d torn her ACL in her left leg a few years back. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Kayla. She was going to be the leader, the role model, the star stolen from Georgia Southern, but now she was on the bench, an ice pack on her knee, and not getting back up.
“I went through all that work and was so looking forward to playing, and then I just can’t,” she said. “I felt really let down. It’s my own body. There’s nothing anyone could have done.”
Students carrying fresh cups of coffee to class and papers still warm from printing sped by, and brief flashes of conversations echoed into the small nook where Kayla was waiting for the LITC’s elevator. It was the second day of the spring semester and the last day of the most painful week of Kayla’s life.
She’d stopped taking her pain pills early, but one sounded really good right now. A full leg brace made it difficult to get around even with crutches. She was hurting and, in a rare moment, showing it.
As she does when she’s frustrated, the hems of her gym shorts were balled up in white-knuckled fists. Her head was down and she was slumped on her crutches. There was a weariness about her, the kind when all you want to do is close your eyes and let the world turn around you. Anyone could have walked by and missed it, but this moment was a search for something inside to push her through downpour of pain she was wading through.
“It’s a struggle,” she said later. “I knew I would have to get through it.”
She’d waited to have her surgery until after Christmas Break so she could spend time with her dad and younger sister over the break, and this had made the first week of recovery bleed into the start of the semester. It might have been easier to ride back to her apartment and take the day off, but keeping a 4.0 as a pre-law major takes work.
The red LEDs on the elliptical bike bounced around the ninety-five rpm mark as the machine rocked from the revolutions. The bike’s fan, adding a small but noticeable resistance to the pedals, gave out a soft whoosh into the Centennial Center’s training room. This is where Kayla goes five days a week to work her leg. On game days, you can hear muffled stomps from the student section. Shadows lurk in corners and fill sharp angles. Its quiet and windowless, and so is Kayla when she’s here.
Kayla pounded away at the pedals, her bright orange shoes spinning into a fluorescent circle. She swayed her body into each downward stroke, pushing every ounce of potential power into the pedals. It was her second day on the bike and she was recommended to max out at forty RPMs.
“Why do less when I know I can do more,” she said flicking her ponytail behind her back. Her hair runs down the length of the her back in straight, silky strands when it’s not pulled back. Always shining in the rush of brunette hair are two hoop earrings, big enough to put a fist through, that have become trademark for her.
“I like them. I think they’re pretty. One of my old coaches used to call me ‘hoops’ because I would wear them all the time,” she said, smiling. “And because of the whole basketball thing.”
She’s smaller than most the girls on the court, but trim says it better – no excess. The muscles in her legs are corded and toned even after a season off the court, and her body just looks fast. Even when she’s injured and only sneaking in a few late-night baskets, she plays with quickness and finesse. Though she may be thin, when she plays there is an intensity in her movements. Each step, each fake, each dribble screams power. It’s all “attack, attack, attack” as her dad put it.
She gripped the handles of the elliptical, her bright red fingernail polish sticking out against the metal. Her heart rate was at 140, and she’d been on for six minutes.
The whole place was quiet, muted, hushed and so was Kayla. Beads of sweat were collecting on her brow, and her chest noticeably swelled with each breath, but her face was even and unmoved. Her legs kept spinning, but from time to time she would drop her head, breathe deep pushing herself to dig deeper.
"I’ve never thought to quit. Ever. I see this just as an opportunity to come back stronger and mentally tougher.”
After the bike are a series of leg exercises designed to strengthen the hamstring graft acting as her ACL. Her surgeon took a piece of her hamstring, threaded it through a tunnel drilled in her tibia and femur, and anchored it in place. She does wall sits and leg swings with resistance designed to develop the supporting muscles in her knee. She says they’re not too hard, but her trainer, Paul Higgs, gives her what he knows will push her.
When she’s done she cleans up everything she used and says bye if anyone is in the room. She’s smiling as she leaves.
Now her knees have a similar scar, but those don’t matter to her nor does anything else.
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