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The miracle of Casey Henderson

Eric Adelson
Columnist
(Courtesy of Nicole Henderson/Amber Matsumoto illustration)

About three hours into the storm, the roof blew off of her house, and she figured she was going to die.

Nichole Henderson had sent her children to ride out Hurricane Harvey with relatives, and that decision became smarter with every minute that passed. Her little Texas town, Refugio, was directly in the path of the storm. Someone on national television mentioned that they wouldn’t want to be in Refugio that night. Nichole didn’t hear any of that; she was just trying to survive.

She and her husband, Charlie, moved from the now-exposed living room to what they called the “bunker.” It was a carport and she hoped it would hold. It didn’t. After six hours, the leaks gave way to a collapse.

“It was just horrible,” Nichole says. “Like a train going through the house. You could always tell when a large gust of wind was coming. It was beating on the wall. Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom.”

They moved to the bathroom. They huddled with their two cats, their dog and a hamster. They covered themselves with a mattress.

Nichole began writing goodbye notes to her children. One for Casey, 17. One for Sylvester, 17. One for Alice, 14. One for Brayden, 11.

“I love you,” she wrote. “Please remember me.”

*****
Jason Herring drove out of Refugio just before the storm hit. He’s the football coach of the defending state champion Bobcats, here in this town of less than 3,000. He’s got a huge voice and he calls friends and strangers “Hoss.” He’s also a husband and father to an 11-year-old. He didn’t want to go.

“As I’m leaving town they’re saying Cat 4, get out, mandatory,” he says. “We left. It took us about an hour to go about 30 minutes. The whole time I felt tremendous guilt. Our kids don’t have the means [to leave] and I felt I was running. I knew a bunch of our kids didn’t go. That was hard, hard, hard.”

It’s possible you’ve heard of Herring. Back in 2011, his teams won by such wild margins (example: 91-6) that he was referred to as “Halftime Hitler.” ESPN did a profile of him, which featured him screaming at his players while they were up 41-0. It was a bad look for the coach and the town. He said at the time, “I’m more miserable than I’ve ever been. Everywhere you go, everybody hates you.”

But six years later, all that was forgotten. A working-class, hardscrabble town about 50 miles north of Corpus Christi was about to be wrecked. One disaster relief worker would describe the scene as tornado damage without the narrow tornado swath. Nearly every building in Refugio would be damaged. And this was not a town that could easily take this kind of punch; according to the 2010 census, more than a fifth of the Refugio population lives below the poverty line.

“I know our kids were trapped,” Herring says. “It’s 140 mph. I started texting my coaches, reaching out to every player. This is for real. It’s bad, bad, bad. I was afraid they were going to die.”

*****

Hurricane Harvey destroyed the Henderson’s home in Refugio, Texas. (Courtesy of Nicole Henderson)

After 10 hours, Nichole Henderson’s house was ruined and she and Charlie decided to get into the car and flee. Their black Ford Expedition had a busted window, and the storm was still Categoy 1. It took more than an hour to drive what would have taken 20 minutes. They were drenched. Finally they made it to the grandparents’ place and hugged their kids like they had never seen them before.

They would have to live in a trailer for who knows how long. It would take months to rebuild. But they would rebuild.

“The town is very small,” Nichole says of Refugio. “You do have your small-town drama. But when there’s something tragic that happens, the town comes together. You’re able to put everything aside. If it wasn’t for everyone coming together, Refugio would not have made it.”

Something tragic had happened. But there wouldn’t be much time before tragedy struck again, and this time it would happen to her son.

*****
There was no water, sewer or electricity for two weeks.

“Your mind cannot get right,” Herring says. “Trees, roofs, buildings, electrical lines everywhere. You can’t imagine how dark it is, how black, with no power. No street lights, patio lights, nothing. It’s just silent. No activity. No gas stations. Nothing. It’s like a movie after an apocalypse.”

Surviving the storm would be nothing compared to surviving the storm’s wake. Herring was on the phone all day, calling for tarps, construction equipment, whatever. Trucks eventually came with supplies, but how to unload? There were no palettes. And who gets what? How do you choose where to send dishwashing soap, diapers, 1,000 bottles of Off? Everyone needs everything. Half the town was displaced.

The coach became a de facto FEMA organizer. One day he found himself recruiting players to clean out a water-wrecked government apartment for an elderly woman. He and the kids cleaned off moldy furniture, raked personal items into boxes, and carried stuff to storage.

Herring scheduled practice as soon as he could – “The kids need it,” he said – but he paid almost no attention to football even as the season started elsewhere in the state. Refugio had to give nearly all of its home games away for the season. When they did play a road game, against Goliad, the best part was not the victory but the hot shower afterward. For a few days after the storm, 11 of his players were sleeping in the weight room. Herring slept in there with them.

*****

Casey Henderson wore No. 8 for Refugio High School. (Courtesy of Nicole Henderson)

Nichole Henderson has a rule. When one of her kids hits the ground during a football game, she makes herself count to three before worrying if they’re OK. So when Casey fell after making a tackle during the second game of the season against Edna, she started her count. She got to three. Casey wasn’t moving.

“Let’s go,” she said to Charlie, heading toward the field to help their son. “Something is wrong.”

The EMT intercepted her and told her she couldn’t go onto the field. She knew the EMT – everyone knows everyone in Refugio – so she didn’t object. She saw another son, Sylvester, breaking down in tears and she ran to him instead. “I told him everything was going to be OK,” she says. “He just kept crying and crying.”

They called for a stretcher. When she finally got to him, Casey told his mom he couldn’t feel his feet and his arms – that they had gone up into the air. Nichole is a nurse; she knew what that meant.

Paramedics eventually got Casey into an ambulance. Before they left, he turned to his mom and said, “Don’t forget my feet.”

He thought they were still on the field.

*****
“I remember the hit,” Casey says now. “I remember the paramedic ride. I remember being halo-flighted. I remember talking to family before going into surgery.

“It was my first play on defense that night. My coach had sent me in. I went in. As the play was called, there was a hole and it was just me and the running back. He tried to hurdle me and his knee pushed my head back. I blacked out for two seconds. I couldn’t move. It felt like my legs were in the air.

“I was 100 percent sure I was paralyzed.

“I was wondering, ‘How are you going to live the rest of your life? How are friends going to view you after this?’

“Once everybody figured out I was paralyzed, they were in shock. My parents were crying. Everyone was crying. Whenever people were crying, I knew they were crying because I wasn’t going to get better.

“I was afraid through the whole thing.”

*****
Casey’s accident came less than a month after the hurricane. Herring hadn’t faced anything like this in 25 years of coaching. He grabbed Casey’s hand as he left the field and said, “I love you.”

It wasn’t fair. This kid had just lost his house. He was 5-foot-6, trying to tackle a 6-foot-2 running back. The boy had done nothing wrong. He had the right form and everything.

But in the coach’s head: “Did I do everything right? Did I teach him how to tackle?”

Refugio lost a 13-0 lead in a matter of a few minutes. In the locker room at halftime, players were shaking and crying. Herring spoke about having faith. What else could he say? The boy was being airlifted to San Antonio.

“Everyone is looking to you to be the rock,” Herring says. “I’m not a rock. I’m a sissy.”

It was well after midnight when Herring got to the hospital to see Casey. The team had won, but it wasn’t any comfort. The coach saw one of his favorite players, the “ankle biter,” in a neck brace. He started to bawl.

“Coach, quit that crying,” Casey told him. “Quit that dang crying. You know I’m tough.”

Casey told the coach he would be back for the state championship game. It was a brave thing to say. The truth was this: the doctors told Nichole that her boy had an 8 percent chance of walking again.

Eight. That was Casey’s jersey number.

*****

Casey Henderson was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio following his injury on the football field. (Courtesy of Nicole Henderson)

Casey had two broken vertebrae. Surgery began a little after 2 a.m. and lasted four hours.

“What am I going to do?” Nichole asked herself in the waiting room. “We don’t even have a home. We’re staying in a trailer. What are we gonna do? Who’s gonna take care of the kids? Who’s gonna be with Casey?”

Back home, the ravaged town immediately began to help. Those with kitchens intact helped with a bake sale that raised $1,000 in an hour. A generous physical therapist paid for a hotel so Nichole and Charlie could stay nearby while Casey was in the ICU for a week. “Pray for 8” became a mantra.

Every day, Casey’s mom would move every joint in her son’s body three times. Then she would do it again, six times a day. That was her life and his: test a joint, no response, test another joint, no response.

*****
When he wasn’t on the phone about supplies and relief for the town, Herring was on the phone with people of faith. He was calling the entire nation, asking for prayers. He spoke with someone in Billy Graham’s orbit, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s. He figures there were more than a quarter of a million people praying for some kid in small-town Texas. And this is without much help from social media. “I don’t do the tweeter,” Herring says.

Three hours north, in Pflugerville, a contractor named Brian Miller had planned to donate his time in Houston. But a pastor at First Baptist Church told Miller about what had happened to the Hendersons’ home. “We thought we were going to Houston,” Miller told the Victoria Advocate. “But unbeknownst to me, God had a different thing for me and he was going to introduce me to an amazing community called Refugio.”

*****
Test a joint. No response. Test another joint. No response. On and on it went for Nichole. It wasn’t even something a mother usually had to do for a newborn baby. Now she was doing it for a 17-year-old.

Then, after nearly two weeks of this, Casey’s left hand moved on its own. It wasn’t that he lifted it. He didn’t even try to move it. “It was like a flop,” Nichole says.

Was it real? Or was it a hallucination? It happened again. A flop.

Nichole started to cry.

*****
In late October, the Bobcats finally played a home game. They won 78-0. Nobody complained about the score. There was word that Casey had movement in his extremities. Everything else was a bonus.

Rehab in San Antonio was grueling. That’s when Casey cried the most. A therapist would ask him to do something that used to be easy, like push his arms away from his body, and he couldn’t. He would wait until no one was around, or wait until his girlfriend was close by, and break down.

On a Thursday in November, Casey and his parents took the long trip home from the hospital in San Antonio. They saw the work being done on their house. The next night, they went to the team’s first playoff game.

Nichole and Casey had a plan for the evening. She sat in the tunnel next to her boy in a wheelchair. On the night the hurricane hit, she prayed her family would reunite. She prayed for them to be all in one place – all at home in Refugio. She cried again at the realization that it was happening in that very moment.

The Hendersons moved onto the field, leading the team. They were greeted by a short silence and then a cascading ovation as Casey rolled toward midfield.

Then it went silent again as the wheelchair stopped.

Casey pushed himself up from his chair and began to walk on the grass of his home field.

“We hid it from everybody,” Nichole says, the smile coming through her voice. “Nobody else knew.”

Casey had started moving his left fingers a few weeks earlier. Each day, he got a little more movement in his arm. Then he began to move his legs.

“Each day I would cry tears of joy,” Nicole says. “He did something new each day.”

At first it wasn’t controlled movement, but eventually he gained control. And finally he stood up.

Eight weeks earlier, Casey had told Herring he would be back for the state title game.

He was back for the first playoff game.

Eight weeks after losing feeling in his arms and legs, Casey Henderson walked back onto the football field at Refugio High. (Courtesy of Nicole Henderson)

*****
When Jason Herring was interviewed for the Refugio job a decade ago, he heard something he couldn’t quite believe: “We are sick and tired of going to the [quarterfinals].”

The candidate quipped, “That’s four rounds deep! That’s when it gets tough!”

No one in the room laughed. Not one.

Herring got the town a state title in 2011, and another one last year. The Bobcats are on track for the state finals again, with the chance to defend a title in the most challenging of seasons.

Yet the story of the year has already been written. A championship would be for history and pride. The victory has been long secured.

*****
Nichole gets asked the same question all over town: Will Casey play again?

“This is the way I look at it,” she says. “It was a pure accident. He did everything right. The other player did everything right. You can get in an accident in your vehicle. You get back in a vehicle. That’s the way I look at it. If he can get in a vehicle, why can’t he get on a field?”

Casey feels mostly the same. If he can, he will.

“I feel like it will send a message to people,” he says. “Anything is possible, anything.”

A local TV station came to interview Casey and filmed him walking slowly across a dirt road. The chyron beneath his name said, “Miracle Kid.”

Last weekend, the Hendersons moved into their newly remodeled house. The entire town celebrated as the family took a tour. Casey’s room had a special touch: a giant 8 painted on the wall, floor to ceiling.

Everyone in Refugio will always remember what that number stands for.

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