Randy Hensley knew something was wrong when he saw his son’s backpack in the kitchen sink. Two days before Christmas in 2006, Randy and his wife, Donna, returned to their Collierville home around lunchtime after doing some holiday shopping. They expected to be greeted — maybe not formally, but nevertheless — by their 14-year-old son, Kevin.
“We had bought some things and were unloading them,” remembers Randy. “I called out to him and he didn’t answer, but we figured he was in the back of the house, maybe watching TV. I walked back toward the bathroom and saw him lying on his bedroom floor. My first thought was that he was pulling a prank. I nudged him, told him to get up. But when I looked at him more closely, I saw that his eyes were half open. Drool was coming out of his mouth.” Randy and his wife picked up their only child, carried him to their car, and drove immediately to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Collierville. Wondering the entire drive, what the hell has happened to our son?
Kevin was a big kid, already six feet tall. He weighed 160 pounds. He was approaching elite status as a soccer player, having played since he was 5 years old, most recently for an Olympic Development Team (ODT). As a freshman at Collierville High School, Kevin was a few short weeks from taking the field as a member of the Dragons, the next mile-marker on a path the Hensley family was certain would lead to Division I college soccer. This was not the kind of boy you find crumpled, unresponsive, on his bedroom floor.
Fast-forward a decade, to 2016, and Kevin Hensley — U.S. Soccer’s 2015 Disabled Player of the Year — is training for the Paralympics. He will lead the U.S. Paralympic National Team (PNT) in the eight-team soccer tournament this summer in Rio de Janeiro. Less than 10 years after being found on that bedroom floor by his parents, Hensley will play on a soccer pitch with the world watching.
Growing up, I fell in love with soccer, and I had a few friends who played with me all the way through high school,” says Hensley. He played baseball and basketball until middle school, but soccer “was always the main thing.” A defender, Hensley made up for a lack of foot speed with toughness, an ability to head the ball skillfully, and the vision to help coordinate a team’s attack from the back line. “When I made the ODT in middle school,” says Hensley, “I knew [soccer] was going to be what got me a college scholarship. Being with my best friends every day, training, made it a lot easier. I was playing year-round before high school, going to camps every summer.”
Hensley’s youth coach, Tony Posner, played in the development system for Manchester United in England and infused a love for the game — particularly as played by the Red Devils — that energizes Hensley to this day. “I could tell you the club’s history,” says Hensley. “I love that you don’t necessarily have to be the best team to win games. If you work hard enough, you can get a [win], maybe just one time out of ten. It takes every single player on the field to win games. If one player doesn’t perform, it can cost you the game. That team aspect really plays into it for me.”
The mystery of Hensley’s trauma in December 2006 weighed heavily at the Baptist ER. He had suffered a concussion four years before — playing basketball — but this seemed like far too severe a reaction to be related. Randy and Donna were asked about drug use. While they felt certain Kevin didn’t experiment with narcotics, they agreed to search his room.
A CT scan revealed nothing abnormal. But Donna noticed that her son’s right hand had started to curl. Randy ran his keys across the bottom of his son’s right foot, and it didn’t move. “At that point,” says Randy, “panic set in.” The doctors returned and administered tPA, a drug specialized to break down blood clots in stroke victims. “I started getting emotional,” says Randy. “They moved us out of the room. I had a 14-year-old son, an athlete. What do you mean . . . stroke?”
Hensley was transferred to the Le Bonheur ICU, where he would spend the next 10 days, including a Christmas his family will never forget. An MRA (which reveals images of blood vessels) finally confirmed the doctors’ and family’s suspicion. Kevin had suffered a stroke. But why? And how?
“The MRA revealed that Kevin had suffered some kind of trauma to his neck,” says Randy. “The doctors asked us if we could remember an event about three weeks earlier, when he could have hurt his neck. Three weeks earlier, he was training in Cookeville, Tennessee. He’d gone up for a header, been undercut, and fell to the turf, slamming his neck. He said he didn’t feel really well on the way home. The neurologist said that trauma probably dissected an artery in his neck. It eventually healed and threw the clot. It couldn’t have come from any other extremity; had to be above his heart. Otherwise it would have had to pass through a hole in his heart, which he didn’t have.”
Strokes are insidious. They attack the most vital part of the human anatomy — our brain — without warning. Furthermore, the symptoms of a stroke can be subtle: lightheadedness, a reduced sensation of touch, weakness in an arm, drooping on one side of the face. Kevin Hensley showed no signs of any of these right up to the moment he collapsed on that December morning almost 10 years ago. “I had done some training,” he says. “Nothing unusual, and had some stomach pain on the drive home. I just thought it was from working out.”
Upon regaining full consciousness, Kevin couldn’t even identify his parents’ names, but he gradually — quickly, when measured in life terms — regained what he considered a normal state. But while still at the hospital, Kevin tried to toss a Nerf basketball into a nearby hoop — with his right hand — and the ball sailed several feet over the basket.
“I remember having tests done, but I was never frightened or scared,” says Kevin today. “To be honest, I was 14 and felt fine when I woke up. I didn’t really know what a stroke was. I didn’t understand how serious it was, or how serious it could have been.”
Hensley walked out of that hospital shortly after New Year’s Day and was back in classrooms at Collierville High School when school resumed, as though nothing abnormal had happened over his holiday break. But his condition was far from normal, even if his ailment was quite invisible.
“I got right back into our preseason training for soccer,” says Hensley. “I couldn’t head the ball; strictly running. My goal when I got out of the hospital was still to play college soccer. I was still going to get there. Having that mindset got me through a lot of stuff.” The Collierville jayvee team went undefeated that spring with Hensley manning his position . . . again, as though nothing was abnormal. “If I didn’t have soccer,” says Hensley, “I would have shut down.”
Soccer came easily and helped fuel Hensley’s rehabilitation, but not academics. He had difficulty with short-term memory and taking tests became a rigorous chore. Many teachers grew impatient with Hensley’s struggles, his invisible barrier to learning making a more severe impact one year to the next. “It was frustrating to be an honors student,” says Hensley, “to have never had any trouble with school, then after the stroke, struggling with little stuff. It was a struggle to study. I honestly didn’t want to go. I wouldn’t have gone to school if I didn’t get to play soccer after school. I didn’t want to show [signs of the stroke] on the soccer field, because that would be weakness. I didn’t want to show it in the classroom, because there were people who’d make fun of me. If I had to take a test in another room, I’d be called stupid or dumb. I just wanted to be like every other kid.”
As much as Hensley labored in class, he continued to excel on the soccer field, all the while playing for a wheelchair-bound coach (Ken Mears was paralyzed in an accident as a teenager). Hensley earned all-state honors as a senior in 2010 and accepted a partial scholarship to play at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. He played that fall for the Eagles, but the academic struggles only intensified. He returned to Memphis in 2011 and enrolled in community college courses. Hensley finally realized some benefits from ADHD medication. (“Just being able to focus in lectures, reading and studying.”) Refusing to give up soccer, he played in a men’s league at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex and began coaching a U-11 team for the Lobos program.
Just as he will never forget December 23, 2006, Kevin Hensley has December 19, 2013, emblazoned in his memory, a moment too big and too life-changing to be lost in his cognitive battles. Shopping at a grocery store (preparing for a party he was hosting that night), Hensley received a call from Stuart Sharp, the new coach of the U.S. Paralympic National Team. “He asked me about my story,” remembers Hensley, “speaking in this thick Scottish accent. He said he wanted me to come train with the Paralympic National Team in California. I didn’t know what that was. I told him, ‘If you look at me, you’re not going to be able to tell I have any disability at all.’ He said, ‘That’s exactly what we want.’”
Sharp had read an online story by ESPN (originally posted in 2009) about Hensley’s stroke recovery and return to high school soccer. The Scottish coach felt Kevin would fit perfectly into his plans for the PNT.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Hensley. “I didn’t know what level it would be. The first camp [in Carson, California] wasn’t so great. Coach Stuart had just taken over. Three or four of the current players were with us then. [The PNT roster consists of 14 players.] Coach Stuart assured me it would get much better, and it has.”
Paralympic players must be ambulant with any of the following three neurological conditions: cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or the lingering effects of a stroke. Athletes compete under four classifications, from C-5 (least mobile) to C-8 (most mobile; Kevin Hensley’s classification). There are seven players to a side (including the goalie) with at least one C-5 or C-6 on the field at all times and at most a single C-8 player. It’s a fast game, one often swung by goals in transition, following turnovers. There are two 30-minute halves.
The field and goals for Paralympic competition are slightly smaller than regulation soccer. “If you push too many players forward,” explains Hensley, “you’re gonna get beaten coming back. Playing center-midfield as I do, it’s a ton of running. It’s different than 11-a-side, but after playing for three years now, I’m comfortable with it. You have to think about playing a teammate’s proper foot, because he might be disabled on one side. Things you don’t think about in a normal game.”
“The first tournament we saw, in Canada, we were blown away,” says Randy. “The pace, the physicality. These players still slide-tackle, still knock you down. Most of them still head the ball. One player looked like he had two left feet, and you watched him take the field thinking there’s no way he could play soccer. And he was beating people to the ball. He might trip and fall down . . . but every player does.”
As the first player Sharp actively recruited for the PNT, Hensley has grown under the coach’s steady, watchful eye. “He came to the team technically sound,” says Sharp. “You could tell he had an understanding of the game, and he played at a fairly high level. But even over the last nine months, his technical ability, his tactical understanding, and his game management have improved significantly. He’s worthy of wearing the U.S. crest on international soil. He works hard at camp, but he goes back and watches a lot of game footage. He’s constantly questioning his performance and trying to improve. There’s no substitute for heart.”
Hensley has faced skeptics, those who see a strong, fit athlete with no apparent disabilities... playing soccer against men with cerebral palsy? Look at you. How is your team not killing everyone?
“They’ve never seen a game,” says Hensley. “They don’t realize how mobile players actually are.” Hensley’s disability surfaces when he reaches extreme fatigue, often at the end of a half. His right knee will lose its ability to fully support his stride, sometimes buckling under his weight. [Another identifying factor doesn’t impact Hensley much as a soccer player: His right hand can squeeze at less than half the strength of his left.]
Hensley fills more of a play-making — and goal-scoring — role for the PNT than he did for Collierville High. He found the back of the net in key wins at the 2015 World Championship in England, where the U.S. fell to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. The U.S. team will face the Dutch again in Rio de Janeiro as part of Group A, which also includes Argentina and the group’s favorite, Russia. Group B consists of Ukraine (another favorite), Brazil, Ireland, and Great Britain. [The top two finishers in each group advance to the tournament’s semifinals.] Hensley likes the draw. “We’ve beaten the Dutch before,” he says. “We’ve beaten Argentina.”
According to Hensley, Russian players are paid handsomely to perform — and win — at elite tournaments. The team captain is said to have received a BMW after the team won last years’ World Championship. For comparison’s sake, Hensley earns a moderate amount through a sponsorship with Dick’s Sporting Goods. He will not make a living, by any means, as a disabled soccer star. But a coaching career for Hensley may have no ceiling.
“He’s a thoughtful leader,” says Sharp. “He’s not the loudest person around training camp. He’s not the one leading chants in the dressing room. He’s quietly assured, and measured in anything he says. When he speaks, every single player listens. They have the utmost respect for his thoughts and guidance.”
After Rio, Hensley would like the PNT to establish a permanent residency where the team could train. Until that happens, he’ll return to the Memphis area to coach and play whenever possible. “My main goal is to play soccer every day,” says Hensley. “I still love to play, and I want to play at a high level as long as I can.”
From a heap on his bedroom floor to a national player of the year honor, Kevin Hensley has spent the last decade of his soccer life on a path with more directional shifts than a Manchester United counter-attack. When connecting the dots, Hensley mentions the support of his family and friends as the fuel, and his mindset the engine. “I can’t imagine my life,” he says, “without soccer being there.” Goals remain to be scored. And a few others achieved.
The 15th Summer Paralympics take place September 7-18 in Rio.