His broken leg progresses nicely, as the season of expectation, the return to the Final Four, has instead become the longest in Ahrens’ young life. Instead, he waits without bitterness for “The Plan” to play out.
Versailles - As Kyle Ahrens’ luck would have it, I picked the worst night of the winter to schedule interview time.
Ice and freezing rain were blowing sideways Monday afternoon outside of Versailles High School. Practice had been cancelled earlier in the afternoon and other area activities were following suit.
Luck? It’s been that kind of year for the Tigers’ 6’5″, 195 pound junior with the sweet jump shot and the spring to jump out of the gym. This was supposed to be Ahrens’ “coming out” year in Ohio prep basketball. Coming off an eye-opening sophomore campaign that landed him in the Division III state finals game last March, this was supposed to be “moving day”, in PGA vernacular…the day (or season) where one puts himself in position for a fabulous Sunday. In Ahrens’ case, his senior year.
But luck was no lady to Kyle Ahrens…no strains of the old Sinatra classic.
On December 28, after five lopsided wins to start the season, Ahrens landed awkwardly on his left leg attempting an “alley oop” dunk at the rim in a game with Anna. He broke both bones in his lower leg, instantly, that sickening “popping” noise that athletes recognize immediately as something not just bad, but devastating, and career-threatening.
“I knew right away that something was really wrong,” Ahrens said Monday. Ice and rain notwithstanding, he was in the gym to work out, to shoot, and with “moving day” now gone, still intent to prepare for Sunday (his senior year).
“They took me into the training room and the pain was really bad, but the frustration was worse. Coming back from last year we really wanted to get back to Columbus for this year’s senior class. I really enjoy my teammates and we wanted to win a state championship. They’re an amazing group of guys and the guys who have stepped in for me and Damian (Damian Richard, who recently blew out his ACL, as if luck wasn’t bad enough) are really doing a good job. I still think they can make a tournament run.”
News like a broken leg travels fast in small towns like Versailles. Stunning to the fan in the stands, or the neighbor next door, but you might be surprised at how Kyle Ahrens accepted the diagnosis, the prognosis of a year lost…the longest season possible for one with so much to gain, and so much to lose.
“My mom,” says Ahrens. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why is this happening to me’, and she comes to me and tells me it’s God’s plan, that everyone will be OK. She told me that over and over, reassuring me that things would be fine. She sends me quotes all the time and never lets me get down about it.
“The night it happened, after I got back home from the hospital at 12:30 in the morning, my teammates Nick (Campbell), Damian (Richard), Evan (Phlipot), and Ryan (Knapke) all came to house to be with me, to talk with me. That’s the kind of guys they are. That’s how much they care.”
You don’t hear it much anymore from one his age, but ask him and Kyle Ahrens unashamedly shares that faith is a motivating factor with everything he does. His life and all that comes with it is part of a “Master” plan.
He regularly attends St. Denis Catholic Church in Versailles, every Sunday. The morning after his injury he was at services, in a cast, sitting in the back row with his broken leg propped up on a chair.
“He’s very faith driven,” says his dad Kevin, a varsity assistant coach at Versailles. “He always has been. When it happened you don’t know what to say, but that it is God’s plan and you have to move on.”
Nonetheless, an enormously tough thing for a dad, and coach, to see.
“Oh yeah,” says dad. “I actually didn’t see it happen during the game, and one of the other coaches said it was a cramp. But when I realized what had happened, and realized the pain he was in, my heart just sank. You hope for the best, but when I got to him on the court he told me, ‘I felt it pop’. That was tough.”
The extent of the injury? Well, you’d expect it to follow with Ahrens’ thus far over-the-top career. A 12-point scorer as a freshman, he followed that up with 19.8 ppg as a sophomore, and was averaging right at 24 per game at the time of his injury in December. He broke not just one, but both bones in his left lower leg, the fibula and the tibia.
But his prognosis is good. Just seven weeks removed he’s not only walking without a cast and crutches, but with only the slightest hint of a limp. He’s jogging, slowing returning to regular basketball movements, and of course, shooting.
One of the state’s most heralded small school prospects as a shooting guard and small forward, he’s been offered by as many as 13 Division I schools already, with still his senior year left to play. Those interested include Michigan State, Dayton, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Butler, Iowa and Boston College. And news travels fast in the recruiting circles, as well.
“The coaches I’ve talked to from schools have told me to just relax and get well,” says Ahrens. “Their attitude about me as a player hasn’t been changed by this. Don’t push things, they tell me, or I’ll just make it worse.”
His criteria for eventually picking one?
“My choice will ultimately come down to quality of academics and feeling comfortable with the coaching staff,” he says. “I want to major in business and have a good career path to fall back on if my dream of playing in the NBA doesn’t work out. I’ve always had that dream and I’ve always wanted my family to be happy and honored with what I did.”
But first, get well, and get back to work. And surely God’s plan hasn’t been altered by something as mortal as a broken leg.
Things are progressing nicely as the season, and the hoped-for return to Columbus, has instead become the longest in Ahrens’ young life. The season of promise currently hovers around the .500 mark as he watches from the bench with abject frustration, helpless to contribute. Instead, he waits without bitterness for the plan to play out.
“I have to be patient,” he says. “It’s healing and I’ve been having some aches and pains in there, exactly where it broke. If I’m going too hard I know it and I back off. I’m taking it slow so I can be back in time for AAU in the summer.”
For a time basketball is out of reach for Kyle Ahrens. “Just a bump in the road,” he assures. “I know I’ll come back stronger and better than before.
“I’m not bitter, even though when it happened I wondered why it happened to me. My mom kept hammering it in my head, it’s God’s plan, it’s God’s plan, it’s God’s plan. It’s given me even more motivation to come back. I’ve never been so determined to be back on the court. I’m lucky to have another year to play and I’m ready to play. My leg isn’t, but in my mind I know I’ll come back stronger and better than I was before (the injury).”
It’s no surprise to parents Kevin and Sue whose words over the years have made a permanent imprint on their son’s attitude and outlook.
“No,” says Kevin. “It’s a testament to how he is and how hard he works. His talent is God-given, but he’s here every day to work, whether with me or another coach. He’s never gotten down or discouraged. We’re very proud of how he’s handled this.”
They say bones that break ultimately heal, but the mind must heal, as well. “Why me?” needs to become “Why not me?”, Dr. Phil might say.
“Just a bump in the road,” said Ahrens as he got up Monday to go shoot while the wind and snow raged outside. The leg is healing while his mind has healed.
The longest season for Kyle Ahrens was now one day shorter.