As he toed the starting line Monday morning for a 2K walk, 19-year-old James McGinnis lifted his right hand high and displayed the “I love you” sign.
His hand remained locked in that position as he swayed to music while waiting for the starting horn.
Twenty months after he nearly died playing linebacker for the Olathe East High School football team, an upbeat and still recovering McGinnis served as the honoree for the 29th annual Amy Thompson Run for Brain Injury. He cheered runners in the 8K and 5K events before leading the shorter walk.
The overall event, which drew about 1,700 participants to Kansas City’s Loose Park, raises nearly $200,000 annually for brain injury support programs. Each year, a person recovering from a traumatic brain injury serves as the honoree — and as an inspiration to others engaged in what can be a very slow recovery process.
When asked why he agreed to participate, McGinnis didn’t mentioned himself. Instead, he pointed to eight rubber bracelets on his left wrist.
Each bracelet represented a different brain-injured friend met during rehabilitation. One had been hit by a car. Another wrecked a dirt bike. A third attempted suicide. A fourth fell during an aerial acrobatic stunt when a cable broke.
McGinnis walked for them —and for all the other brain-injured people he’s met since Sept. 12, 2014, the night he hit an opposing player’s hip during a tackle in his senior season. He finished the following play before he suddenly dropped face first onto the field.
Paramedics who tended him feared he wouldn’t make it. The only positive sign, one later told McGinnis’ parents, was that he still was breathing on his own. Within hours, doctors were cutting his skull open to relieve pressure caused by bleeding in the lining of his brain. When they finished, they said his odds of surviving had doubled, from 7 percent to 14 percent.
When McGinnis awoke after five days in a coma, the former multi-sport athlete and cello player couldn’t talk. So he formed the “I love you” sign.
After 18 days in the hospital, he spent 7 and a half months at a Nebraska rehabilitation hospital before returning home to Overland Park to continue speech, occupational and physical therapy. This summer, he’s taking a break from those to work on yoga and cross-fit training. He also has been taking junior college classes.
He dreams of being able to run again. After that, his next big goal will be driving a car. Maybe next year, said his dad, Pat McGinnis.
James McGinnis never lets the slow pace of progress get him down, his father says. Perhaps it helps that when McGinnis was a boy, his dad taught him not to cry after losing a game. After the game ends, it is too late to change anything, dad always said.
“He can’t change this,” Pat McGinnis said Monday.
One day at the rehabilitation hospital, James told his dad about a dream he’d had: “We were talking and you told me you were proud of me, and you loved me, and then you said: ‘You have to rest.’”
His dad explained that wasn’t a dream. It was word for word what he had told James one day in the hospital.
Then James told his parents about seeing Jesus.
“And when I saw him,” James recounted in a halting voice Monday, “all I could do was look up at him with amazement.”
James said he gave Jesus the “I love you” sign, and Jesus flashed it back. That’s when James realized he was going back to living — “because I have more love to share,” he said.
Since then, “Love one another” has become his constant message. He, his sister and his parents have gotten matching “I love you” hand-sign tattoos.
His former dream of being a chemical engineer may be gone, but now he thinks he can help others by becoming a motivational speaker, counselor or physical therapist.
“To find someone as young as him who has found his purpose in life — I think it’s amazing,” Shawn Barber, a former Chiefs linebacker who served as an honorary co-chair for Monday’s event, said shortly before the 2K walk started.
If McGinnis could finish that walk — more than a mile in length — it would be the longest hike of his recovery. Undaunted, he insisted that he could beat his father, and maybe even his mother, to the finish line after circling Loose Park, leading a band of supporters clad in matching blue T-shirts.
When the starting horn blasted, James McGinnis took off, wobbling a bit, like a newborn colt on unsteady legs. His father’s hand rested across his back, just in case he swayed too much and dad needed to grab him. Mom followed, as did a friend pushing an empty wheelchair, just in case James couldn’t finish.
After the walk’s first uphill leg, James inquired about the wheelchair.
“Let’s see,” his dad said.
James didn’t ask again.
Thirty-eight minutes after starting, a red-faced and sweating James approached the finish line, still wobbling but still walking.
Cheers and applause from the crowd washed over him. He danced a little jig, just like back at the rehab hospital after finishing a therapy session.
He hugged his friends, posed for pictures, gulped some water.
And flashed more “I love you” signs.