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AT FIRST, Kayla Hutcheson figured she'd just busted up her nose. No big deal, right? After all Kayla, a freshman power forward at Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, had spent much of her life playing through sprained ankles and stitched-up chins. This is a girl who played football through the eighth grade. As a tight end. Against boys. A little blood didn't scare her.
So when she banged face-first into teammate Jeni Gabriel on a full-court press drill during practice in October, she tried to walk it off. Even persuaded her coach, Bobbi Hazeltine, to let her run sprints with the rest of the team at the end of practice. "Her fastest time of the year too," says Hazeltine, who clocks such things. (There's a reason Walla Walla was 9--2 at week's end.)
But that night, when Kayla got back to the apartment she shares with three teammates, she started feeling all kinds of wrong. Not only did her nose throb—turns out she'd fractured it—but her arms also started to go numb. Then she became disoriented, her mind fogging up like an '86 Civic on a cold, rainy day.
Kayla's roommates rushed her to the hospital, where she was given a CT scan and an MRI. Grade 3 concussion with a little short-term memory loss, a doctor said. Take her home and let her rest.
The thing about concussions is, doctors can't immediately predict their long-term effects. When football players get them there's a fun, familiar phrase—"getting your bell rung"—though there's nothing fun about the amnesia and dementia that may result.
In Kayla's case, she couldn't remember anything from before the accident. Her dad, Bart, drove in from Kimberly, Idaho. He showed her home movies. He knelt and stared in her eyes. Nothing. "I had to walk into that apartment and introduce myself to my own daughter," Bart says.
But instead of taking Kayla back with him, Bart decided to leave her in Walla Walla. At home she'd just sit in front of the TV while he and her stepmother were at work. (Kayla's mom and Bart divorced when she was five.) At school she had a family around her all the time. "At that point those girls and her coach were the only people she knew," he says. "I didn't want to take her away from them."
Teams are often referred to as families, and Kayla's roommates—fellow freshmen Jaimie Berghammer, Jill Haney and Nancy Johnson—did as much as any sisters could. They took turns watching over her, walking her to class and helping her with her schoolwork. "It was like taking care of a kid," says Haney. Indeed, for a few weeks Kayla spoke and acted like a toddler. She had no idea what a banana was; a toaster flummoxed her. Cookies, though, she loved. "We had to hide them all because she wouldn't eat anything else," Johnson says.
As Kayla relearned life, she relearned basketball. You might not think that's a priority, but it's the one thing she quickly responded to. At practices she sat in a lawn chair, giving Hazeltine a thumbs-up whenever she understood something. She didn't recall the rules of the game, but when Hazeltine first handed a ball to her and told her to shoot, she raised it above her head—Kayla always had a funky shooting motion—and swished the shot. "It was like that was one part of her brain that still worked," says the coach.
As the weeks passed, Kayla's easygoing personality returned ("identical to before," says Haney) as well as her facility with language and physical skills. In early December she was cleared to return to noncontact practice, and she spent hours relearning the Warriors' six offenses and 28 set plays. Still, Kayla could only recall snippets of her life. A family trip to Six Flags. Listening to a dance song in the car. She went home for the holidays, but even "meeting" relatives didn't trigger her memory.