The will of the amateur athlete never ceases to amaze me.
I got another glimpse of it last Friday, while watching a high school basketball game at Forest Park High. Lady Panthers guard Kayla Potts, out all season with another ACL tear, just one year removed from a similar injury in her other knee that sidelined her for half of the 2012-13 season, made her return to the court for senior night.
It wasn’t a symbolic return, per se. She was in complete uniform. She stayed on the court for most of the night in Forest Park’s blowout win over Region 4-AAAAA foe Mount Zion. She made trips up and down the basketball court, at times looking close to full speed.
She wore no knee braces. She didn’t seem to have much of a limp in her step. And late in the second quarter of the game, after she blocked a shot, an interesting expression came across her face.
It wasn’t a smile. It wasn’t cocky or arrogant. But it was almost as if she were saying to herself, “I can still do this.”
And then, after halftime, she would make a few more trips up and down the court. A couple of good defensive stops. She finished with five points and three assists before she sat down.
In her Forest Park uniform.
For the last time.
The last time? Yes. Although Forest Park started region tournament play Monday night. Despite the fact that the Lady Panthers are favorites to make another deep run in the postseason — annual knee ligament problems and all. Despite her solid performance in her first game all season, Potts said that the first would also be the last.
When I heard her reasons as to why she played, and saw the tears well up in her eyes as she explained, suddenly the stat sheet didn’t matter anymore.
Not to her. Not to me.
“This is pretty much my last go around,” Potts said after Friday’s game. “This was really just for me to get out here on Senior Night, to enjoy my last run and to let everybody know I’m still here, still supporting the team, but it’s pretty much my last go around.”
And for some, it would seem like a sour way to end what began as a promising career. In her freshman year, Potts led the Lady Panthers to a state championship game that they lost against Southwest Dekalb. But you just knew that with her abilities, Forest Park would be back again.
And again. And, perhaps, again. But then the injury bug paid a visit in a most cruel way. Potts sustained her first knee injury in the last part of her sophomore year, and didn’t come back until the second part of her junior year.
She touched the court for the first time against Ola, and Forest Park commenced to soundly defeating the Lady Mustangs to the tune of 57-9. Potts scored nine points and dished out five assists in her return. The Panthers would only lose twice more with Potts in the line up — both times to eventual state champion Southwest DeKalb. The second one was a 43-41 loss in the Class AAAAA semifinals.
As close a game as that was, you couldn’t feel bad for Potts and company. They didn’t seem to feel bad. Sure, no one likes to lose, but with virtually the entire team returning, you just knew it would be Forest Park’s title to lose.
Then Potts lost her knee. Again. But as I said, where some would see sour grapes, Potts chooses to remember sweet memories.
“My time at Forest Park, I mean, it was great,” she said. “Coach Cole, and all the coaching staff. I really learned a lot from them. It was emotional, but…”
Her voice cracked, then trailed off, followed by two streams of tears, one from each eye. Of course she wanted to be healthy. Of course she wanted a string of championship rings. Instead, she got two injured knees and a boatload of lessons she’ll take with her to Mercer University.
“It was tough,” she said. “But I pretty much pushed through it. All the injuries and everything, I pretty much never gave up. I kept pushing and kept thriving. Like coach said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
She did plenty of good things during her time on the court at Forest Park. But perhaps, the greatest thing she did was display a toughness and a tenacity that didn’t know how to succumb to odds stacked against her.
Through it all, she maintained a quiet confidence, combined with a lethal focus. She was one of those rare players who made you think that as long as she was on the court, her team would find a way to win.
Late in the fourth quarter Friday with the game having long sense been decided, coach Steven Cole lined up his bench players to check in at the next stoppage of play. The eager reserves quickly burst off the sideline onto the floor, while the starters, Potts included, shuffled off to the bench slowly. Potts looked as if she were counting her last steps on that Forest Park gym floor.
She said her most memorable moment in her Forest Park career was the last game she played in her first season — that state title loss to Southwest DeKalb.
I say her most memorable moment is the last game she played in her last season. One that had little championship implications, but made a huge statement all the same.
Kayla Potts’ heart for the game is, perhaps, bigger than the game itself.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily newspaper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1.