This story originally appeared in Lacrosse Magazine in 2008.
The Comeback Kid
It’s hard not to like James Hendrick right away.
He’s energetic and enthusiastic, yet has the composure that most 16-year olds haven’t mastered quite yet. He looks you straight in the eye, and is polite, respectful and well-spoken. He has an easy smile, a quick laugh, and is full of life, which makes the events of February 27 that much harder to imagine.
On that day, while playing goalie for Neptune Beach’s (Fla) Fletcher High School lacrosse team, he almost died.
The particulars are all hazy at best in James’ mind now. A shot. A save off his chest. Lying on the ground. Voices. A helicopter.
He has retold the story so many times that it’s likely the details he has gathered from others have been twisted together in his brain to form his own memory bank.
“I remember being down and I remember coach’s voice saying ‘squeeze my hand if you can hear me,’” Hendrick says. “But it’s all really scattered. It’s like it didn’t really happen and it’s all a weird dream that I had.”
But it did happen. Commotio cordis and cardiac arrest. A healthy young athlete on the verge of an incredibly tragic and unimaginable occurrence. And if not for the quick reaction of several people – most notably his coach Josh Covelli – all might have been lost in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately, Covelli is only a part-time lacrosse coach. His full-time job is serving as a firefighter for the city of Jacksonville. All Florida firefighters are required to be certified Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT).
Covelli was among the first to reach James.
“He wasn’t able to say anything, but every time we said his name, he looked at us and grunted,” said Covelli. “We called 9-1-1. As I’m communicating with the operator, our trainer says, “Josh, he just stopped breathing.”
As a trained EMT for four years, Covelli had performed CPR in nearly two dozen life-saving situations. This time however, it was different.
“It’s definitely a lot more emotional when it’s somebody you know,” Covelli said. “There’s also this thought in the back of my head that this is a kid. He’s just started his life. There’s a little more riding on it.”
As the school’s automated external defibrillator (AED) was getting hooked up on James’s chest, the paramedics arrived on the scene. Their more technologically-advanced AED machine was quickly substituted for the school’s basic unit. They were ready to shock his heart back into a normal rhythm. Everybody had to step back.
“I watched James’ body come up off the ground and come back down,” said Covelli. “We shocked him and he cardio-converts (restoring a normal heartbeat). He’s stable at that point and his vital signs are pretty decent. He’s breathing on his own.”
James is loaded onto the helicopter and transported to the shock trauma center.
Through a quirky set of circumstances, neither of his parents were at the game, but other parents intervened to make sure they knew what had happened. Two players’ mothers drove to James’ house to get his mom.
“It was probably a sign from God that we weren’t meant to see it happen,” said James’ mother, Lori. “Either his father or I are always at the game.”
James’ dad, Jim, was the first to arrive at the hospital. Doctors informed him that James was in stable condition and having x-rays taken. While Jim waited, James sent a message out with one of the doctors.
“I love you and I’m fine.”
“That helped put me at ease a little bit,” explained Jim. “But one of the ER doctors also said they might have to put him on a respirator, which is not a comforting thought.”
Ultimately, they didn’t have to do that.
“I woke up in the hospital that night and my mom and coach were in there with me,” said Hendrick. “They told me I had been hit in the chest by the ball. I knew exactly what it was from the start. Commotio cordis.”
James spent two days in the hospital, during which time every teammate, as well as some opponents, came by to see him. He was released on Friday and told by doctors to stay home from school for a week. That’s when he started to get the idea.
“After I came back to school the following Monday, I started thinking ‘Hey, I feel fine. I can make it back for the last two weeks of the season.’ I had talked to so many doctors and realized that it really was a freak accident. It wasn’t going to keep me from playing lacrosse.”
After consulting with his parents, it was decided that his return would be based on medical clearance. The doctors had told the family they were being overly cautious, helping Jim and Lori accept the idea of a possible return to the field.
“I knew that I couldn’t protect him forever and that I had to let him go,” Lori said. “We left the final decision up to him.”
A stress test and electrocardiogram were completed among a full battery of tests and the final decision was made during a five hour visit to the pediatric cardiologist.
“He gave me the clearance and I drove straight home from there, got my pads and went to practice,” explained Hendrick. “I called Coach and told him I was on my way.”
“There was no doubt in my mind that if it was his choice, he would have been back the next morning (after the incident),” said Covelli. “But I didn’t think the doctors would let him return this year.”
James returned to practice on March 19, the day before Fletcher’s game against Episcopal.
After stretching exercises were completed and the players ran through a few line drills, Covelli sent the entire squad – except James - to the other end of the field for more drills with the assistant coaches. The head coach spent the next 45 minutes shooting on his goalie.
“I wanted all my attention on him,” Covelli said. “I guess I thought if somebody is going to knock him out, let it be me this time. I asked him if he was comfortable, and he said yes. Then he asked me, ‘Coach, are you comfortable.’ I said no, not really.”
Eventually, the rest of the team returned to begin a man-up, man-down drill. But nobody would take a shot at the goalie.
“They would fake the shot and then kind of lob the ball to James,” Covelli explained. “Obviously, he could tell what they were doing.”
The coach decided to change drills, putting himself in position to shoot at James. The other coaches also started taking shots.
“We had to show the kids that he’s O.K. and he’s back to playing goalie,” said Covelli.
Despite that sentiment, the final emotional hurdle didn’t come until midway through the next day’s game against Episcopal. The first real test against James came in the second quarter.
“I think it was the third shot of the quarter and James blocked it with his chest,” Covelli said. “Then he picked up the ball and cleared it. The ball is going down the field and I’m just looking at James. My assistant coach says to me, ‘Josh, the game’s going that way.’ I said I know. Then he asked me if I was going to stop looking at James and I said I will once he lets me know that he’s O.K. About 30 seconds later, James nodded at me and said ‘I’m good.’ That was my critical moment.”
“I don’t remember any point during the game when we really relaxed,” said Jim, who watched alongside Lori.
Despite 16 saves from James, Fletcher lost the game. The Senators did rebound to win two of their final four regular season games with James back between the pipes, and finished 8-5 overall in their third season of play.
“That first game back was nerve-wracking, but it’s all turned out well,” said Lori. “He has recovered so quickly. It’s hard to imagine that he’s dead one minute and then he’s back up and around.”
A not-so-gentle reminder about the fragile nature of life.
“This really makes you appreciate your kids,” said Jim. “They can be here one moment and gone the next.”
James still talks about the incident when asked, but says that he is focusing on getting back to his normal life. As a teenager living less than a mile from the beach, that includes heavy doses of surfing, skateboarding and going out on his Dad’s boat.
“I’ve always had a respect for life, but after this whole thing, I do realize how different this could have been,” he said. “I realize I’m not bulletproof.”
- Paul Ohanian