As death encroached, Reed Powell savored the sun-bleached sky.
His mind frantically painted 22 years of joy and memory and regret on that blank canvas while the life inside him seeped out onto the grass below. On the side of that lonely Massachusetts road, devoid of hope, minutes dripped as slowly as hours. So he gazed up at that pale sky – his eyes singed by sunlight, his voice suffocated by blood, nerve endings revolting deep within his body – and waited for the final breath.
A 5-year-old begged his mother to let him play basketball.
So Lynnel Reed-Powell, ever-obligated to her children, took him to a local gym for rec league tryouts. As soon as they stepped into the building, echoing with the thunder of bouncing balls and teeming with other children and coaches, that enthusiasm waned. Reed Powell clung to his mother’s leg. Despite her gentle pleas, he refused to let go. Eventually, a coach approached and offered to hold him aloft so he could touch the rim. After some cajoling, Powell finally loosened his grip and stepped away from his refuge. He felt the iron, so high above, on his hands for the first time. Never again would Powell need to be coaxed onto a basketball court.
That gym was in Worcester, Mass., where Powell was raised in a stable home in what, at times, was an unstable community; the city’s crime rate hovers around the 87th percentile nationally. Many of his peers, he says, were thrown off course in high school and never made it to college. But, through basketball and his strong family – growing up, he shared a house with Lynnel, his father, Jerry, his younger brother, Jackson, and his maternal grandmother – Powell remained focused on his future. And he came not only to love basketball, but to excel.
In high school, standing only 5-foot-10, he didn’t need anyone to hold him up to touch the rim or to help him power home two-handed slams. And by keeping his grades up at the University Park Campus School, he was guaranteed admission and free tuition to Division III Clark University in Worcester, which both his mother and grandmother had attended.
“That’s where the drive to be a better person came from, my mom,” Powell says.
Given the proximity, Clark’s basketball coach, Paul Phillips, had taken note of the budding star. Powell played with the coach’s sons in elementary school and Phillips assured him that, when he came of age, Clark would have a roster spot for him. To this day, there is a photo of Phillips and a 7th grade Powell in the coach’s office.
Phillips kept the promise he’d made years earlier, welcoming the athletic point guard onto his team in the fall of 2006 when Powell enrolled at Clark. As a freshman, he averaged just more than 17 minutes per game, starting five times and posting modest numbers while acclimating to the pace of the next level. By the time his sophomore season arrived, Phillips pulled Powell aside and told him the team was his, that he would be the starting point guard.
And it was Powell’s team…for exactly one week.
As the first week of practice concluded, Powell caught a long outlet pass, planted, and went up for what he thought would be a routine layup. It wasn’t. After the screaming and crying had ceased and the MRI had looked inside, Powell learned that both his ACL and MCL, along with part of his meniscus, had ripped apart. He knew his season was over, that his dreams of running the show for his college team would be put on hold. After surgery, he sought to conquer rehab, not to merely progress at the rate that doctors prescribed. Gifted with natural athleticism and raised to work hard, he far outpaced his doctor’s and physical therapist’s expectations. Three weeks in, he was surging through recovery – already able to jog – and, undoubtedly, would be back to his explosive form next season.
“They said it was astonishing,” Powell says. “They’d never seen it before.”
But the progress, the sweat and the diligence didn’t matter. A lump started to grow on his knee near the incision; soon, doctors discovered a staph infection. The tears returned, and a routine visit to the doctor’s office morphed into emergency surgery and an overnight stay at the hospital. Deeply religious, Powell silently clawed for answers before he was anesthetized for the second time in a month. What had he done to deserve this? Why must he endure so much?
Surgeons removed the graft that had caused infection and, once again, Powell had no ACL, no ability to cut or jump or play basketball. Before the ACL repair could be redone, Powell had to spend two months purging the infection. Doctors implanted an internal tube that ran from the crook of his elbow into his heart. He dripped antibiotics from a small bottle into the port in his elbow four times a day – 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight – every day for two months. It took a half hour for the bottle to empty itself into his bloodstream each time – tedium at its peak.
All the while, he refused to take a year, or even a semester, off of school despite advice from doctors. He went on to make the dean’s list and had one of the best academic years of his life.
“I have a goal to finish this in four years and that’s what’s going to happen,” Powell recalls of his mindset during his sophomore year. “So I don’t care if I have to live at home and commute to school and someone has to drive me or if I have to be in class and this thing is draining out in my arm. There’s no way I’m going to miss class.”
Finally, he could put the bottle down; the infection had vanished. Surgeons dove back into his knee. This time, his body didn’t reject the graft. Nearly three months delayed, he could finally start the grueling rehab process anew. He could finally think about basketball again. Soon, he thought, the most trying year of his life would be nothing more than a memory.
While Powell remained in good academic standing at Clark, the many issues he’d had with his knee hindered his potential on the court. He was going to be the team’s point guard, its leader. He had incessantly attacked the rim before the injury. Now, though he could still dunk, much of that explosiveness had been robbed. He returned to the team as a junior but averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and never got to start. By his senior year, his playing time had risen back to levels on par with his freshman campaign and he was part of a team that won its conference championship and made the Division III tournament. He was elated to have a chance to cut down a net and proud of what he had accomplished, but the knee injury and subsequent medial ordeal loomed over his collegiate career.
“It was a blessing in disguise; I learned a lot about myself,” Powell says.
A blessing indeed – he’d have to draw upon those lessons for what came next.
A mother begged her son not to buy that motorcycle.
But it was his cherry red dream, his reward for finishing Clark in four years despite the health scare, for willing himself back onto the court, for earning a marketing job at nearby Sigma Systems. Stay in school; get your graduate degree right away, she pleaded. Don’t venture out into the world and make big decisions or big purchases just yet.
But Powell had let go of her leg 17 years before, and he relished the freedom of being held high in the air. Why would he run back to safety?
He took the job with a promise to his mother that he would return to Clark in the fall of 2011 to pursue an MBA. First, though, he needed to taste the life of a young professional – to save for that red and black Kawasaki Ninja – and enjoy the independence he’d worked so hard to earn. So, after graduating in 2010, he moved in with his cousin, Seth Pitts, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast. Though Powell didn’t purchase his own bike until the following summer, he’d already acquired his license and had some riding experience.
On June 18, 2011, Powell was only a few months removed from returning to Clark and keeping his promise to Lynnel. The weather that day – the antithesis of the gray winter days that loom over the region for so many months – forced the cousins outside. Powell and Pitts could not resist the call of the sun and the sky and the lure of getting lost in the warm breeze.
Powell wasn’t familiar with the roads, so he was more than happy to hang back and let his more experienced cousin carve a path through central Massachusetts. But once they reached Princeton, Mass., about a half-hour north of Worcester, Pitts urged Powell to take the lead, to relish an unencumbered view from the perch atop his new toy.
Powell insists they heeded the speed limit signs along Route 20 that day; he didn’t dare push the bike past 45 miles-per-hour on unfamiliar terrain. But, on a curve laden with gravel, speed was inconsequential.
The back wheel slipped first.
Hit the brakes; slow down; regain your balance, panicked neurons told him. But their pleas came too late. Despite all of his athleticism, the machine beneath him had wrestled away control. It, not Powell, would dictate where his body moved next. Instead of regaining traction when the brakes engaged, the tire froze and the bike slammed to the pavement. The asphalt gnawed at his skin.
But there was relief ahead – a green field that would surely snuff out the moment’s terror, slow his agonizing slide and let him walk away, body intact. Nothing would encumber the safe tumble through soft grass, Powell knew, save for that damn telephone pole. But the Ninja and the gravel had already conspired to set his course.
“It seemed like I had all the time in the world to think, ‘Oh my God, this is going to hurt so bad,’ ” he says.
“Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!” Pitts screamed.
After the pole had done its work – the motorcycle hit first, its helpless passenger second – Powell lay limply in the field, unconscious. Pitts’ pleas pulled his cousin’s eyes back open. His head had missed the pole, and the bike had caromed away before Powell made impact, but his right side absorbed the sturdy wood at 40 miles-per-hour.
He couldn’t. Where was the air? His lungs begged for it. But the vomit and blood that poured out of his mouth and the fragmented ribs that had bludgeoned his lungs interceded.
“I’m fine,” he tried to insist, if only to fight back the nearing terror.
But the words wouldn’t come out. So he tried to sit up to prove his point. No. Do not sit up, his body retorted, you are not fine. The pain. The knives stabbing him somewhere deep inside. The pain. In places where he didn’t know he could hurt. The pain. Stay still, lie down, his body insisted. So he heeded its warnings, put his head in the grass and looked up at that blinding sky.
“I’m not going to make it,” he was finally able to mutter. “I’m not going to make it. Tell my mom, tell my brother, tell my dad, tell everyone I that I love that I’m sorry.”
“You’re going to make it,” Pitts insisted. “You’re going to make it. Keep talking to me.”
But speaking would be torture. So he soaked in that white panorama in silence before the darkness took hold, certain it would be the last bit of this world he would ever see.
By middle age, those pristine summer days start to blend together. With a family and a home, they’re not reserved for joyrides or mere leisure. Errands must be run. The house must be kept. Repairs must be made. June 18 was such a Saturday under the Powells’ roof. Jackson’s room needed to be redone, so Jerry and a friend were hard at work. Lynnel did her part too – she ventured to the store to pick up light fixtures.
While she was out, helping sustain the quiet life she and her family had built, her cell phone rang. Lynnel heard Pitts’ mother’s voice on the other line; within seconds, this Saturday had diverged from the rest.
Light fixtures didn’t matter anymore.
A metal roof obscured the sky. Tubes thrust into Powell’s chest and throat siphoned out the fluid and blood that had pooled in his lungs. But he could feel every bump, every vibration the ambulance made inside him as it hurtled to the hospital. He felt the embrace of Pitts’ worried hand. He heard orders to breathe, to stay with us, to hold on.
Lynnel’s face was the last thing Powell saw before the army in scrubs wheeled him into the operating room and began their work. He could not run to her leg and hold tight, so he told her he loved her and that he was sorry; he had not forgotten how much she loathed that motorcycle.
“She’s a strong woman; she never really shows emotion,” Powell says. “But the sight of her face…she looked like a wreck.”
Then they pushed him through the doors. Then the anesthesia took hold. Then his eyes shut.
No one knew if they would open again.
Her son’s body was mangled, but his mind had endured, Lynnel knew. The Reed she loved, the boy she raised, was still there.
“I got to see his eyes open. I got to hear him talk, even if it was only a few words,” Lynnel says. “So I knew his mind was still intact; I knew he still recognized me.”
She wouldn’t hear his words again for many weeks. She wouldn’t see that recognition in his eyes again until she thought she’d lost him forever. She first heard of the broken bones – clavicle, scapula, shattered ribs – and assumed he’d recover quickly. He always had.
But other news trickled out after the long operation. Both lungs had been punctured. His spleen was lacerated. He was bleeding internally. These were no mere broken bones. These were no injuries you could simply will your way back from.
And so the family waited. The doctors had no choice but to keep him in a medically induced coma; conscious life would be hell as machines held him together and his body slowly healed. Jerry would work all day and then come to the hospital and sleep near his son all night. Lynnel, who works in the school system and was off during the summer, would be with him during the daylight. While he lay there, comatose, she often sang to him, said prayers or read him a poem. Nurses told her he probably couldn’t hear her, but that didn’t dissuade her – she wanted her son to know his mother was standing by him in the darkness.
One day, when she was in the midst of her normal routine of song and prayer, the beeps from the machines that were interwoven with his body and life began to quicken. Maybe he can hear me, she said to the nurse. But the crescendo built. As the sounds grew louder and more frequent, the fleeting chirps of joy swirled into a terrifying cacophony. Like a swat team called to battle, doctors and nurses swarmed the room and Lynnel was forced out.
Jerry and Jackson arrived and the family sat amid the despair of not knowing. Eventually, someone emerged from the room and said that Reed’s heart had stopped, but that he’d been revived. That didn’t mean he was safe. They’d done all they could; should he survive the next 15 minutes, he might live an hour. Should he survive an hour, he might make it through the night. Should he make it through the night, he might have a chance to see the sky again.
So the parents waited for the 15 most important minutes of their lives to tick away.
“At the time, my husband and I were insane with grief, just crying,” Lynnel says. “I didn’t know where I was in time or space.”
But Jackson sat unfazed. He’d grown used to seeing his brother – the high-flying former basketball star – recover quickly. He’d seen Reed battle back from an ACL surgery, infection and two more operations to play elite college basketball. He’d heard tales of his brother fighting scarlet fever in elementary school to give a speech in front of a crowd at a local mayor’s inauguration.
“We’re about ready to fall apart and his younger brother is like, ‘He’ll be fine. He’s just doing the Reed thing,’ ” Jerry says.
Fifteen minutes later, Powell lingered. An hour later, Powell lingered. When the sun finally broke through after an endless night, Powell lingered. Twice more during those weeks in the darkness, Powell reached what seemed to be the end. Twice more, as Jackson was so sure he would, Powell pulled through.
Through it all, Lynnel kept a journal to chronicle the ordeal. Initially, it served as a guestbook for those who came to visit, so that Powell could see how many people cared for him.
“Through it all, his parents were very strong,” says Phillips, Clark’s basketball coach, who came to the hospital to visit Powell’s parents. “You feel helpless. You want to be supportive, but you don’t want to be in the way.”
As the coma drew on and the nights and days blurred into an endless nightmare, the notebook morphed from a log of visitors into something more. It was his mother’s way to document all that happened to him so that, when he woke, he could glimpse the chunk of his life that he missed. It also served as a window into her thoughts, her daily prayers, her despair and her hope. And it was a long thank you to the many staffers who kept him alive.
Several weeks after that initial surgery, after Lynnel heard him say “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” the family gathered in his hospital room. Doctors decided it was safe to rouse him, that he wouldn’t slip away again, that the family wouldn’t have to endure another 15 minutes waiting for the end.
Through the fog, he saw short blonde hair.
All the faces in the room were lost to the haze, but he saw that hair, his girlfriend’s hair, Erin’s hair.
“Happy anniversary,” he mouthed, words unable to escape.
Erin Peete, a former soccer player at Clark and Powell’s girlfriend for a few months before the accident, fell apart. The couple was about to celebrate one of their “monthly” anniversaries when that patch of gravel changed the direction of his life. Her boyfriend didn’t realize that he’d long since missed that anniversary. The tears confounded Powell until nurses in the room told him the date, told him that he’d missed many days in what felt like a matter of minutes. Several weeks of his life had vanished in an instant; the next few would not pass so quickly.
He could not speak and struggled to hear, see or even lift an arm up a few inches. And parts of him had been taken away. A lobe from his lung was gone, along with a rib on his right side. On the day he crashed, he weighed a well-sculpted 180 pounds. By the time he awoke, 48 of those pounds had withered away.
“I looked like an 80- or 90-year-old on his last legs,” Powell says.
As the days wore on, Powell found he struggled to sleep. He could drift off for only 30 minutes at a time amid the discomfort of the tubes, the flickering machines and 24-hour monitoring from the hospital staff. The bed held him prisoner; his lone companions were time and regret. Sometimes, thanks to powerful pain medication, he hallucinated; once, even thinking he’d been lost to the jungle, fighting a war.
“That was torture,” he says of his waking weeks in the ICU at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “There were times when I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it to where I can go back home again.’”
Strength, along with his senses, crept back. Eventually, he could move his limbs and sit up in bed. Soon after, nurses would support his weight as he took his first steps since he hopped on that motorcycle. After six weeks in that bed in the ICU, doctors cleared him to go to the Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in nearby Westborough, Mass.
When he arrived at Whittier on Aug. 1, therapists asked him how long he expected to stay. Maybe a week, he told them. Everyone chuckled. Thanks to all that time spent immobile, he had almost no control over his body. He couldn’t even put a spoon in his mouth to eat because his atrophied muscles no longer had the ability to gauge the weight of an object. Pathways between his body and brain had gone unused for too long. Therapists told him he should expect to be there for six-to-eight weeks.
But his birthday was on Aug. 8. He wanted to feel his bed, to see his home, to eat cake with his family on his own terms. Plus, his MBA program at Clark started in September. He had to keep his promise to his mother. He had to start on time. He wouldn’t let any more of his life slip away. Therapists and family told him not to set such high expectations. He’d have to idle in that rehab facility for more than a month, they told him, and trying to return to school would be foolhardy. Take a year off to recover, they said, then go back to school.
But Powell remembered shocking the doctors when he rehabbed that damaged knee. He remembered doing things they’d never seen before. So he attacked his new task with the same ferocity, the same single-minded drive. With no work or schoolwork to do, his only task was to rebuild trust in his body and strength in atrophied muscles. Rather than doing the minimum amount of the taxing exercises therapists prescribed, he tried to stay active all day and, when sleep would evade him, through the night.
It started with walks to the bathroom near his bed and back that left him sweating like he was battling in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Then he could walk from one side of the room to another. Eventually, he took a stroll down the hallway, then down and back up the stairs, then a lap around the building, then two, then three. He made all of that progress, conquered all of those milestones – from struggling to move a few feet in an air conditioned room to walking circles around a building in the summer heat – not in eight weeks, or six, but in seven days. He was released on Aug. 7. He would eat his birthday cake at home.
When he arrived, he didn’t go up a banister draped in balloons or through the front door plastered with a “Welcome Home Reed!” sign. He didn’t go to his bed or to the kitchen table for a home cooked meal. He stopped in the house’s small front yard, lay down in the grass and affixed his gaze skyward.
“I laid there and relived the accident and my time in the hospital,” he says. “And prayed.”
This time, his view wasn’t obscured by searing pain. This time he could breathe.
This time, death’s advances held at bay, he knew it wouldn’t be his last chance to savor the summer sky.
“Will I ever be back to my normal self?” Powell asked Dr. Timothy Emhoff, the physician who had performed Powell’s emergency surgery at UMass, on one of his last days in the ICU before he ventured to Whittier. Emhoff ate breakfast in Powell’s room nearly every morning to keep him company.
“You probably won’t ever be able to run again,” Powell remembers hearing.
“That can’t happen, because I want to play basketball again,” said the 132-pound patient, who had consumed so many meals through a tube and had just lost parts of his lungs and ribs.
Emhoff’s disposition grew serious and he looked Powell squarely in the eye.
“You won’t be able to play basketball again in your life.”
The building on Clark’s campus that housed Powell’s MBA classes sat a mere 100 steps from the sidewalk where he’d step out of the car every day. Students around him traversed that path unconsciously. Instead of counting steps, they were lost thinking about the next test or last night’s mediocre date or the text message they were furiously typing. But he knew that path; he knew those 100 steps. He’d grown to dread them. He broke the sojourn down into 20-step intervals, with rest after each. He’d lean on poles or shift his weight onto the cane he carried instead of sitting down. He dreaded the sting of hard wooden benches; he’d grown so emaciated that his bones, like knives poking out from the inside, would press hard against his skin whenever he sat.
And once that daily journey was complete, he’d constantly shift his weight and fidget in his chair – to no avail – for the duration of his class. The pain was incessant; he merely got to choose where it would bite him. His mind, too, had not emerged unscathed. Short-term memory loss, spurred by a brain that had gone unused for so many days, plagued him. Anything he was taught, anything he needed to remember, would slip away unless he wrote it down.
“I’m looking at this bone-scrawny guy who can’t even sit in a chair long because his bones would hurt so much…I’m also remembering that he was in a coma for all those weeks. He had no brain function. I’m thinking how are you going to go to an MBA program and start that?” Lynnel says. “I didn’t think that he could do it and I underestimated him. I was wrong.”
Powell finished his first year as an MBA student with a 3.95 GPA.
Today, he’s thriving in his second year in the program and already has a job, which he’ll start this October, with the national accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen. He’s fulfilled his promise to his mother, well on his way to that master’s degree and an enviable career. But there was another part of his life that he missed, another challenge he needed to undertake. Thanks to that knee injury – the blessing in disguise – he’d only played three seasons of college basketball, not four.
Early in graduate school, Powell made an exhausting trek to Phillips’ office. There, he told his old coach – perhaps only to motivate himself, to keep his own spirits up – that he would eventually return to play.
“The whole time, I’ll be honest, I’d say, ‘Yeah, Reed,’ but I’m thinking, ‘No way – no way he’ll be able to play for us again,’” Phillips says. “I’m not going to discourage him, but there’s no way.”
His appearance alone suggested that Phillips was right to have his doubts. Former teammate, John Karas – who was a freshman when Powell was a senior, a team leader, a mentor – can’t shake the image of first seeing Powell when he returned to campus. The two, both guards, used to battle in one-on-one scrimmages before practice. Now, two years removed, Powell walked with a cane and was nearly 50 pounds lighter.
“When I first saw him after the accident, he was coming out of a graduate class,” Karas says. “I thought, “Oh my God, is that Reed?’ I had to do a double-take. I didn’t even recognize him. He was thin as a rail.”
But once the days of nurses and therapists dropping by the house and family members helping him tend to old wounds – marks left by the tubes and machines – had passed, Powell wandered back into the basketball gym. Months earlier, he couldn’t lift a fork; could he still dribble? When the ball started bouncing, the old point guard found that his deft handles hadn’t abandoned him.
But his jump shot, always the bane of his game, had fled entirely. His first shot, a midrange pull-up, drew nothing but air. So he moved to the free throw line. Again, not even the clatter of the rim. Now to the block for the most elementary shot in the sport. The layup from close range barely made it to the iron. So it was back to work. First, the pool, then grueling P90X workout routines, and soon hitting the rim, at least, wasn’t a chore.
That turned to scrimmages, where he’d wear a protective device on his right side to shield the soft space once guarded by ribs. Only once has he not worn it. A hard screen, an elbow to his unguarded innards, left him breathless, once again begging for air. He hasn’t made that mistake again.
Gradually, the speed started to return, along with some of the quickness on defense. The explosive first step, first bludgeoned by the knee injury, had vanished. It wasn’t coming back. And his ability to, at only 5-foot-10, fly up near the rim, would be only a memory. But the skills that remained were enough to draw the attention of Phillips’ son and Powell’s former teammate, Jonathan. The senior, who rarely stopped by his father’s office, dropped in one day and told him that Powell had made progress, that he might make it back.
Powell remembers one day of pickup in the spring of 2012, less than a year removed from the field in Princeton and the white sky, when he went hard at a defender, absorbed contact and made a layup. Was it just a good play? Just a good day of pickup? Powell, still searching for his long-lost swagger, remained unsure. But the team’s leading scorer, Brian Vayda, approached afterwards and told him, quite bluntly, that the team needed help at point guard and that Powell needed to keep working to come back.
“Actually hearing those guys ask for me to come back and play, that’s when it was really reassuring,” Powell says. “It was, ‘Hey, I’m not crazy. I’m not just out here living in a dream world thinking I can come back and play. These guys actually think I can as well.’ ”
And once Phillips saw him play, the coach grew certain that Powell could contribute – even if he didn’t log many minutes – to his team, that he’d earned another shot. Powell wouldn’t have to face a tryout, but he wouldn’t serve as a novelty, a mere mascot, either. There would be no special treatment. He would run every grueling step alongside his teammates even though part of his lung had been cut away.
Fifteen minutes into practices or conditioning drills, Phillips says, Powell labors and his jersey drowns in sweat. The powerful two-handed dunks have departed along with the explosiveness and the unflappable stamina. But in their place are maturity and willpower, along with a steady stream of pump fakes, head fakes and deliberate moves.
“This isn’t easy for him,” Phillips says. “Every day for him, he has to work harder than the usual guy.”
As preseason practice wound down and the team began scrimmages against other squads, Powell was still waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding his eligibility. He was a graduate student. He’d missed a year due to injury and missed another as he rebuilt his body after the crash. It was a murky, unique situation that forced Powell to send off an incessant stream of paperwork. But the letter finally came in October – he was eligible; he could play.
Tears came to his eyes, flushing out some of the lasting regret. Once again, he was Reed Powell, successful student. Once again, he was Reed Powell, college basketball player. Once again, he was Reed Powell.
And, like they did three years before, Karas and Powell – now only a few pounds shy of 180 – began sparring in one-on-one contests before practice.
“It’s almost like he hasn’t missed a beat,” Karas says. “He keeps that flame; somehow, he keeps it burning.”
Before the season began, before he slipped on his white Clark jersey with the red “15” on the stomach, Powell reread his mother’s journal. He needed to remember just how far his mind and body had traveled. He needed to remember how improbable his path from lying on the side of that road to taking a knee by the scorer’s table had been.
Her words were invaluable, but he craved her presence; he wanted to show her he wasn’t the fragile boy in the hospital bed.
She had refused to see any of his scrimmages or practices. She’d stayed away from his first four games. Seeing the son she thought she’d lost tossed into the maelstrom of a college basketball game would be unbearable. The fear of what might happen would evoke images and arouse emotions she yearned to keep buried.
Then, on Nov. 29, she relented.
It was Clark’s fifth game of the season – the home opener against Worcester State. Powell earned 16 minutes in the team’s most recent game, but they had occurred out of Lynnel’s sight, out of her mind. She had only seen him walking around the house. How could he run? How could he, with shattered ribs and damaged organs, absorb so many blows from the powerful bodies that swirled around him? How could the lungs that nearly failed him carry him up the court at such speed?
“As much as I know the ribs had healed, I didn’t have confidence that they had healed so much that if he took a hit it wouldn’t send him back,” she says. “I was afraid of that. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see him play.”
But she went. She was his mother; it was her “obligation,” she says. It was the same obligation that had her speeding to the hospital in hopes of seeing her son’s eyes once more before they might’ve shut forever; the same obligation that encouraged her to whisper prayers and poems into his deaf ears; the same obligation that brought them, together, to that basketball tryout when he was 5 years old, when he clung to her.
Now she was the one clinging to him – holding tight – scared of the unknown.
With 15:24 remaining in the first half, not long after Lynnel and Jerry had settled into their seats, Phillips beckoned their son off of the Clark bench. Soon after, Powell stepped in front of a Worcester player hurtling towards the basket, absorbed the full force of his momentum and fell hard to the wood below. But Powell sprang up – offensive foul, Clark ball – shook off the hit and trotted back down the court.
A mother exhaled…then she let go.