Back in the Game

By Kevin Denke
Posted 3/9/11

    The scream.

     That’s what Kristi Anderson remembers.

    One second her daughter, Amber Anderson, chased a loose ball toward …

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Back in the Game


    The scream.
     That’s what Kristi Anderson remembers.
    One second her daughter, Amber Anderson, chased a loose ball toward the stands in the southwest corner of the Fort Lupton High School gym. And then she disappeared.
     “I started counting heads out there and I went ‘Oh, God, that’s her.’ My first reaction was I’d never heard her scream like that ever before.”
    Amber’s cries had pierced the raucous din of the gymnasium – packed to watch the Bluedevils take on rival Brighton High School.
    And, then, silenced it.
     “It dropped like a heartbeat,” Kristi said. “When the crowd realized she was over there screaming, even before I got there, they had completely silenced.
    “You could hear a pin drop.”
    When Kristi reached her daughter, Amber was laying on her side, her face covered by her hands.
    It was Jan. 29, 2010 and one thought went through Kristi’s mind.
     “In my mind I just remember thinking I’m not prepared for what I’m going to see.”
A hair off
    It all begins with the hair.
    Of all the sacred pregame rituals that athletes practice, Amber’s path to game time rests on her hair.
    If her cascade of blond hair is manageable, if she is happy with how it looks, pulled back, normally with a headband, it can say a lot about the night ahead.
    It did that night.
    The hair just wasn’t cooperating.

     “I know this is going to sound weird but if my hair is off then my game’s going to be off,” she admitted. “It’s just those little things.”
    And, on this night, it was a lot of little things. And it all went wrong on the biggest of nights.
    The girls had the gym for the “Pack the House” against the Bulldogs. The boys basketball team didn’t have a game. The spotlight belonged to them.
    And it was slipping away.
    “The refs weren’t working for us that night, my shots weren’t going in,” Amber said. “My teammate, Jasmine Shaffer, her shots weren’t falling. Nothing was working for us that night.”
    Shaffer remembers the game all too well.
     “Me and Amber, boy, we knew we had that game,” Shaffer said. “We just felt it was our game. We just went into that game ready to go.”
    The final bad sign for Amber came on the bench between the first and second quarter.
     “I’d throw up in my hands,” Amber said. “My coach was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ He’s like, ‘I think you should sit out for just two minutes.’”
    Amber got back in the game.
    And 30 seconds later, it happened.
Losing Amber, losing the game
      The thought among most fans and spectators in the gym that night was that Amber, her hands cupped over her face as she wailed in pain, smacked her head or face on the bleachers when she jumped out of bounds to save the loose ball.
     “I was probably like 3 feet, 4 feet away,” Shaffer said. “The ball was going out of bounds. She threw it into me actually. I saw her go down.”
    Amber remembers a sharp stabbing pain radiate through her right knee.
    And then it becomes a blur. She remembers Fort Lupton High School teacher Lynn Moore fanning her with a magazine.
     “I remember I opened my eyes and everybody was right there,” she said. “I don’t remember falling, hitting ground. I just remember everyone around me asking “Are you OK? Are you OK?”
    Amber remembers being on the floor for what felt like close to an hour.
    “Since nobody knew what was wrong with me, they didn’t want to touch me,” she said. “They thought it was my face, they didn’t want to touch my head. They didn’t want me moving. I said, “‘No, it’s my knee, it’s my knee.’”
    Kristi remembers the odd sense of relief when Amber rolled over and she could see her daughter’s face.
     “It’s bittersweet, I guess, but I was happy when I noticed it wasn’t her face,” Kristi said.
    For Shaffer, there was something sickeningly familiar about Amber on the floor, writhing in pain. Shaffer tore her anterior cruciate ligament – one of four main ligaments in the knee – her sophomore year.
    “At first, I thought it was her ankle but the way she yelled and was grimacing, I knew it was something bad,” she said. “I knew what she was going through right when she went out of that game. It was hard for me to see.”
    Finally Amber’s boyfriend at the time swept her up and carried her off the court to the training room.
     “When she went out, it was hard,” Shaffer said. “She was like my second hand on the court. It was hard not having her out there with me.”
    Fort Lupton lost the game 72-39. Amber remembers learning, that as a fitting end to a promising night that went bad, the team’s five-gallon water cooler spilled on the gym floor.
    “Everything just kept getting worse and worse that night – everything just piled up,” Amber said.
Hoping for good news
School staff called 911 after Amber got injured. But, by the time she got back to the training room, the pain in her knee was gone. The ambulance wasn’t needed and Kristi took her daughter to the hospital.
    For Amber, who is adamant she isn’t a crier, her emotions got the best of her in the emergency room.
     “She held it together really well until Jasmine got there,” Kristi said. “When Jasmine came in, she was pretty emotional.”
    Amber remembers when she emerged from the emergency room.
     “When I came wheeling out in my wheelchair (from the ER) my whole team, coaches, friends, family were sitting in the waiting room,” she said. “There was like 30 people there for me.”
    There was no definite diagnosis of an ACL tear. Amber was optimistic.
    “When I got back to the training room, it didn’t hurt anymore,” she said. “When I got to the hospital, I thought ‘Wow, I think I came for nothing. I’ll be back playing in a week.’ I told my team ‘I’ll be back playing Tuesday, you just watch.’”
     “She still wanted to have it in the back of her head that it wasn’t her knee,” Kristi said. “’It was going to be fine, it was going to be good. This was just a little setback.”
    Doctors offered some hope that it might be just an injury to the medial collateral ligament – a brief, four-week recovery with no surgery.
    Amber doesn’t remember the customary audible pop when the injury happened that would signal an ACL injury.
     “That was the hardest thing – the anticipation of wondering was the worst, not knowing,” she said. “If something popped, I would have known. Nothing popped in my knee so I didn’t know.”
    As a testament to the trickiness of a knee injury, it was about a month before an orthopedist diagnosed an ACL tear with associated cartilage damage.
    And Amber laughed.
Breaking down
     “I prepared myself but not good enough for when they told me ‘you’re going to need surgery, you’re not going to be playing anything for six months,’” Amber said.
    The laughter was a defense mechanism – one that she adopted a long time ago.
     “When I’m really hurt, I take it as a joke,” Amber said. “I take serious things as a joke sometimes. They told me, I just laughed. I didn’t believe it.”
    Kristi didn’t see it as much as a defense mechanism but a façade to mask her devastation.
    With the diagnosis not only did Amber face, at the very least, a half of a year of rehabilitation, but her senior year of softball – where she was the team’s starting catcher – was wiped out. She started to look at colleges for softball and had just signed up for a competitive summer softball league.
    When the reality sunk in, Amber cried.
     “I think it was just the final say of, ‘OK, it is torn,” Kristi said. “That was all it took when he finally told her the MRI showed conclusively that it was torn.”
     “It just dawned on me when I got in the car,” she said. “Usually I don’t cry in front of other people. When I got in the car, I really broke down.”
Turning 17
    On March 15, 2010, doctors at Children’s Hospital completed the complicated, two-hour procedure of grafting a new ligament in place of her torn ACL.
    It was Amber’s 17th birthday and it was about to become the longest day of her life.
    Any surgery brings apprehension. The fear of the unknown was an added factor for Amber, a first-time patient. She slept for six to seven hours after the surgery because doctors gave her Benadryl allergy medication.
     “I woke up and I jumped because I didn’t know where I was,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it was over.”
    Her mind quickly focused on the task ahead.
     “Now what?” she thought. “What am I going to look forward to tomorrow or the next day? Where do I go from here? That was just my next thought. How do I go up instead of down?”
    But the day wasn’t over yet.
    Doctors used an antiseptic to wash Amber’s knee but, unbeknownst to her, the antiseptic actually induced a scary, late-stage, allergic reaction. After she got home, the skin around Amber’s eyes began to puff up – she likened it to a raccoon.
     “As the night went on, it just kept getting redder and redder and redder and just fire red.” Kristi said. “I thought ’Something doesn’t look right.’”
    She called the hospital and they suggested Kristi called the surgeon to double check. As she called the surgeon, Amber went into anaphylactic shock.
    Amber remembers her whole body became paralyzed and not being able to breathe.
     “You think you’re prepared for everything until your kid tells you, ‘Mom. I can’t breathe, call 911,” Kristi said. “I couldn’t even remember how to call 911.”
    Amber’s younger sister, Autumn, called 911 while Kristi tended to Amber.
    Kristi is trained in CPR and she grappled with the thought that she’d need to resuscitate her own daughter.
     “I can just remember going ‘Oh my God, am I going to have to save her now?’”
    Amber, shaking and screaming through gasps, asked her mom, “Are they ever going to get here?”
     “They’re coming, they’re coming,” Kristi told her frantically.
    And then Amber took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
     “She’s completely still,” Kristi said. “And I thought ‘”Oh my God, she passed out.’”
    And then Amber opened her eyes.
    “’No, Mom, I’m trying to calm myself down,’” Amber told her.
     “Don’t ever do that again to me,” Kristi told Amber. “It scared the living daylights out of me and her sister.”
    Amber’s 17th birthday started with them leaving the house at 4 a.m. for the surgery. It ended the next morning when they left the hospital at about 3 a.m.
     “It was a long day,” Kristi said.
     “That was a scary night,” Amber said.
    “We kept teasing her that it would be a birthday she’d never forget,” Kristi said.
    And Amber agrees.
The next step
    When the dramatic day of her surgery was over, the long road ahead remained in front of Amber.
    For someone who admittedly likes to accomplish the next task in front of her – the long hours of rehabilitation loomed.
     “I just want to know the next step,” Amber said. “I want to know what I have to do to get to this step? How do I get there? When can I get there? I just want to get it done. Unfortunately, it’s something you can’t rush.”
     “Amber’s always been one that ‘Let’s get it and get it done. I wanna go,’” Kristi said. “And whenever the process was slowed – because your body only lets you go so fast – and when she didn’t make the progress she wanted. I think she thought if she got better quicker, then she’d be released quicker. They don’t do that. That graft takes six months to heal before they’ll release you.”
    Unable to rush the recovery, her therapy lagged as Amber eschewed the necessary home therapy exercises that accompanied her multi-weekly rehab visits at the Children’s Hospital facility in Broomfield. She admitted that denial, maybe some depression set in.
     “I don’t have to work. It’ll come on its own,” she told herself. “I got off track, didn’t do my exercises.”
    Kristi thinks it was a natural reaction to being left without sports – something that was so ingrained in her as a young kid.
     “We would start in the fall with volleyball, then basketball, then soccer, then softball,” Kristi said. “We kept that cycle up until high school. Then I told her she had to make a choice. She stuck with basketball and softball.”
    Now she had neither.
    Softball was lost for the year and Amber focused her mind on returning for the 2010-11 basketball season. Unable to help the softball team, Kristi said Amber distanced herself from the team.
     “They wanted her to come and be part of the team and she said ‘No, I can’t do it,’” Kristi said. “They wanted her to manage it and she said ‘I’m not a manager. I’m a player. If I’m not going to be considered a player and a teammate, then I don’t want to do it.’”
    Kristi said she was disappointed but understood.
    “I know her enough to know where she was coming from,” Kristi said. “It’s her decision. I couldn’t make that for her as hard I wanted to push her to do that.”
Coming back
     When Amber was released to start playing basketball in October, she knew her responsibilities went well beyond getting herself ready to play again. She would be the team’s lone senior – a far cry from the sophomore who took a reserve role as a senior-laden Bluedevils’ team made the playoffs in 2009.
    She feared she wouldn’t be able to lead the team and her teammates would realize it.
    “I was just scared I was going to go out and disappoint people,” she said. “My team was really looking forward to me being back and I didn’t want to go out there and disappoint, to say ‘OK, she’s not ever going to be back. She’s never going to be what she was last year. We can’t depend on her.’”
    Her first game back against Elizabeth she calls “really rough.” The encouragement from teammates, coaches and parents meant little.
     “Everybody said ‘No, you played good,’” she remembered. “I said ‘No, I know I can do better.’”
    The mental comeback nearly equaled the physical comeback for Amber, who built her game on playing with a reckless disregard for her body.
    “I went from being so (she pauses) so … everywhere,” she said. “The ball’s over there, OK, I’m there. The fear of going and saving the ball always came into my mind.
    “I could never go jump and try and throw the ball back in bounds again because that’s how I hurt my first knee. That was the hardest part.”
It’s time
     In her second game back against Berthoud, Amber scored 16 points in a  loss. But it was up and down – one step forward, one step back through the early games.
    She wondered.
    “I just saw what I needed to do and I tried to go and do it,” she said. “For a while, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready.”
    The turning point in her season came in a game at Englewood High School. Maybe it was the thought of having her grandmother in the stands. Her grandparents were tireless fans for Amber, but health woes sidelined them from coming to many games anymore.
     “That’s when I said ‘OK, I’m going to get going. It’s time,’” she said.
    As her knee strengthened, as she found her game again, Amber relished the joy of playing again even through the struggles of a young team.
    “I’d rather be playing and losing by 100 points then sitting the bench and not being able to play for six months down the line,” Amber said. “I’d rather being running up and down, doing suicides 600 times than watching my team struggle.”
    And just when it all looked like it was coming together; Amber had one of those nights.
Happening again
     It actually was one of those days. She had a crummy day at school already. Then, as she began her preparations for the Jan. 15 game at Northglenn High School, Amber’s hair wasn’t working and she’d even forgot a sock.
     “God, everything’s off today,” she thought.
    She remembers the stifling Northglenn gym.
     “It’s like 90 degrees in here,” she thought.
    And she was tired right from the start, even in warm-ups. When she checked out two minutes into the game, Kristi wondered.
     “I thought that’s strange,” Kristi said.
    For Amber, it was more than strange. The words of her physical therapist from earlier in the week ran through her head.
     “Be careful you don’t want to push yourself,” Amber remembered him telling her. “Your left knee is really weak in there, in the tendon. I remember this playing in my head ‘If you’re tired, you need to sit.’”
    Amber checked back in the game.
    And then she was down again.
Hearing the pop
     “OK, get up,” Kristi said as she saw her daughter down on the court.
    And then the screams.
     “I thought, ‘Oh no, Kristi said.
    Amber was playing defense and, as the ball handler went to penetrate, Amber went to shift with her. Her knee twisted and, this time, Amber heard the pop.
    Kristi wondered what could have possibly gone wrong with Amber’s right knee, firmly secured in a large, black brace.
     “One of the parents said ‘Kristi, I think she’s holding up her other knee.’”
     “My coach (Joe Gutierrez) comes over and I’m yelling ‘it popped, it popped, it popped,’” she remembered.
    A trainer on hand for the game checked Amber and assured her she was OK. Amber got up and walked off the court but it didn’t feel right.
    “Something’s wrong,” she thought. “It was so unstable. It just felt like I was walking on a twig.”

    She tried to jog it off on the sideline. And there was the moment of indecision between Amber, Kristi and her coach.
    For Amber, the moments from before her first injury came full circle.
     “I remember Coach (Joe Gutierrez) looking up at my mom, just giving her that look like ‘Should I put her in or should I not put her in?’ because he doesn’t trust me in the first place.
    “The first time, when I was playing and threw up in my hand, I told him ‘I’m fine,’” she added. “He doesn’t trust me after that.”
    Kristi helplessly shrugged back from the stands when she caught the coach’s eye. She didn’t know the answer, either.
    Amber went back into the game. She lasted 10 seconds, and she knew it was over.
     “I know I’m done. I know what’s wrong,” she said. “I knew when I fell, it was my ACL.”
    This time it was her mom who harbored the denial.
     “There were a few tears from her but I think somehow she just knew it in her head,” Kristi said. “For me it was the finality that I had just watched her play her last game. I remember sitting there thinking ‘Oh, I forgot the camera’ and ‘Oh, well, it’ll be OK. I’ll get her the next game and realizing you can’t do that because there might not be a next game.
     “That was hard for me knowing that was probably the last time I’d watch her play basketball probably ever again or possibly any sport.”
    Shaffer, away at college in Scottsbluff, Neb., got a text message from Amber.
    “She texted me right away, told me that she tore her ACL,” Shaffer said. “It was hard for me. I was about ready to cry on my Sidekick there for a minute. It was very difficult for me to take that in.”
On the mend again
     It is a Friday in February, just a couple weeks after her second surgery, and Amber sits in a corner of the brightly colored waiting room of the Children’s Hospital campus in Broomfield.
    As she waits - wearing a yellow Fort Lupton softball team tank top and a pair of green shorts - she mentions that she is excited about a team bonding night – dinner and a movie. Where will they eat? They haven’t decided. What movie? She doesn’t know yet.
    And that’s OK. The road to another year of rehabilitation is filled with routine. The night will be a rare night of spontaneity. She awaits her turn to disappear through a glass door into a large gym filled with a pair of examination tables, a wall-length set of mirrors and exercise equipment.
    She has become familiar with this place and, over the next six or seven months, it will be home again for two to three times a week as she endures hour-long therapy sessions to rehabilitate her knee.
    Physical therapist David James opens the door and asks if she’s ready.
    James worked with Amber through her first rehab and he’ll guide her through this one as well. He is familiar with her, and he is also familiar with the injury. He estimates he’ll see four to eight patients a day who are recovering from a similar injury with varied damage.
    “The fact that we have that many has to do with the fact that all we do is take care of teenage athletes specifically,” James said. “There’s more of them playing sports, they’re more likely to end up injured.”
    James’ familiarity with Amber is a guide for him as he helps her through the rehab process. Many of the questions he asks her – as he methodically moves her surgically repaired and now scared left knee back and forth – have to do with how much she is working on her knee at home.
    “Each stage of the rehab for an ACL construction has a different emphasis,” James said.
    “The very beginning is getting the motion back in the joint to look just like the other as soon as possible,” he adds.
    He raised his voice to emphasize the words “as soon as possible” as he looked at Amber.
    “The patient is highly responsible for doing home stuff to help that happen,” he continues. “If they don’t do it, it turns out being something we have to help them with.”
    Amber giggles and admits she’s “really bad” about that part.
    The other aspect of the first stage of ACL rehab is regaining strength in the knee.
    James says knowing Amber’s tendencies is helpful but says this knee rehab will likely be different from her right knee.
    “We try not to put any expectations on how this one will be compared to that one,” he said. “It’s always different.”
    Amber will spend the hour working her way around the room on the different exercise equipment. She points to the shuttle machine and says “I hate that thing.”
    For the exercise, Amber lays on her back and pushes a weighted carriage back and forth with her knees. The weight can and will be adjusted as her therapy progresses. When she is finished with the machine for today, there are still hard feelings about the shuttle and she admits that the machine has made her cry more than once.
    “That’s probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I can’t explain how much I hate that,” she says. “This is all easy stuff compared to what I have to do when I get more stable and strong. When I do that, then it gets a little harder.”
    For all her love of team and competing with her teammates out on the court or field, Amber goes through the rehab process alone but she doesn’t think of it that way.
    “Actually I never think of it like that,” she says. “I just thought you know I got to be there for them. I only have to be here. As long as I’m there for them on the court. They can’t be here with me during this.”
    She admits she cried on the bench in games after her second injury but her coaches reminded her it was important for her to still be strong for her team.
    Still she is reminded that when the season ends for teammates, her rehabilitation will go on. It would have been easy to sink back into depression and denial that she doesn’t have another season to prepare for.
    But, now, that may not be true.
The surprise
    Amber and Kristi thought the result of her first knee injury meant an end to any chance of playing collegiate basketball or softball.
    But a funny thing happened when they visited Northeastern Junior College in Sterling following her first injury.
    “When we talked to the basketball coach, the minute he found she’d torn her ACL, it was like she didn’t even exist,” Kristi said. “She was shattered.”
    Amber wasn’t going to bother talking to the softball coach.
    “Why would he be interested,” Amber thought. “I didn’t even play this past year.”
    “Let’s just talk to him, we’re here,” Kristi insisted.
    Brock Bassegio, charged with reviving the NJC softball program, saw something special in Amber immediately.
    “One thing I could tell right away was that she was a competitor and that she was passionate about softball, two things I definitely want on my team,” Bassegio said. “I have talked with other coaches and have heard nothing but good things about her.”
    “We must have talked to him for an hour that day, just the three of us,” Kristi said.
    Then, in a strange coincidence, Bassegio happened upon Kristi and Amber the next day at a gas station in Hudson.
    “I thought maybe that was a sign that good things are to come,” Bassegio said.
    But, if Bassegio might have been impressed byAmber before, Kristi assumed the second injury would kill any interest. She e-mailed the coach with her daughter’s bad news.
    To her surprise, Bassegio wasn’t deterred at all.
    “When I found out that she had her second ACL surgery and talked with Amber on the phone, I could tell that she was already working hard and will continue to work hard until she is 110 percent and ready to play,” he said.
    “Holy cow,” Kristi remembers thinking. “I am so shocked.”
    Bassegio said they would work with Amber in her ongoing rehab when she comes to school this fall.
    “I told her that when she comes in the fall, we will be on her schedule, if she needs more time, or needs a day off, she just has to let me know, whatever it takes for her to be ready to go for the spring season,” he said.
    Amber signed an official letter of intent to play softball at NJC.
    Bassegio’s confidence will be her drive through the second round of rehab.
    “He’s just that confident,” she said. “My mind says don’t disappoint him, don’t let him down. I had too many mental lapses the first time I hurt my knee.”
Senior Night
     Amber didn’t have any intentions to put on her blue and white, No. 22 Fort Lupton uniform again.
    She had made her peace with the end of the season. She didn’t want to wear her uniform on the bench or even in warm ups.
    She still kept stats, provided insights to her coaches on the bench and was the first to greet her teammates as they came off the floor. And that was enough.
    “I’m not a player now,” she told her mom. “I’m done now.”
    “It was kind of a hard thing for her to find out where her place was and what her role was,” Kristi said.
    Her time on the bench actually got Amber thinking she might make a good coach. Gutierrez can see it.
    “She came and talked to me about how she could help the team,” he said. “She initiates the contact as the kids are coming off the floor. She’ll pull them to the side and give them pointers. She sees different things to their play, even though she’s not playing. She could curl up. But she chose to help the team.
    I think if the opportunity came along, she’d be a great coach,” he added.
    With some prodding from Kristi and Gutierrez, she decided to slip on her uniform one more time for senior night.
    “For me, I just wanted to see her one last time in that uniform even though she couldn’t play,” Kristi said. “It was nice to hear her name called one last time.”
    Amber got to ceremonially start the game by standing on the court for tip-off.
    For Kristi and Amber, the night was a chance to reflect not on what could have been but what was including back-to-back playoff appearances her freshman and sophomore years and a playoff victory.
    “I think we finalized back when she had her surgery. For us the finality of it had already taken place,” Kristi said. “It was still nice to see her out there and for some of the people that respected her to see it come to an end.”
    “I actually held it together. I’m not much of a crier in front of other people,” Amber said. “I got a few bouquets of flowers from family and friends and my coach. It was nice.”

Contact Kevin Denke at 303-659-2522, ext. 225 or    

Additional reporting by Steve Smith



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