His pinky and index fingers pointed toward the sky, with his thumb sticking out from his palm. Former Olathe East High School football player James McGinnis, who suffered a brain injury during a football game in September 2014, planted his trademark communicative gesture — “I love you” — across his right hand.
In the opening segment of the 33rd annual Thomas A. Simone Awards, McGinnis was announced as an honorary guest Tuesday, only one year after the head injury prevented his attendance. The hand symbol preceded the latest examples of his rehabilitation progress.
From his seat inside the Fort Osage High School gymnasium, McGinnis stood up and walked several steps across the floor with his father holding onto the Gait belt wrapped around his waist for support. And then he spoke to the crowd.
“It was great to receive the Nathan Stiles Award (for inspiration) last year, and it provided me with more motivation in rehab so I could return home to Kansas City,” said McGinnis, his words slow but coherent. “From only being able to move my right hand to being here where I am today, teamwork really made my dream work.”
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McGinnis, who wore his Olathe East football jersey, returned to Kansas City full-time in April.
He collapsed during a football game on Sept. 12, 2014, when he attempted to tackle a ball-carrier and hit his head against the player’s hip. He underwent emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and reduce swelling around his brain, spent the next two weeks in the intensive care unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center and then was transferred to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb.
The progress has been slow, but steady, in the ensuing weeks, his parents said Tuesday. Last month, McGinnis walked on his own power for the first time.
“He’s getting a little more independent every day,” his father, Pat McGinnis, said. “There have been a lot of ‘firsts’ recently.”
McGinnis recently completed his final exam for a sports medicine introductory course at Johnson County Community College. He attends class, and his mother, Susan, said James has received an A or B grade for every test he’s taken. He continues to receive physical therapy daily, and he’s working to improve his short-term memory.
“At the end of the day, if you ask him what he did that day, he’s not sure,” Susan said. “If you ask him the next morning what he did yesterday, he can tell you a lot of it.”
McGinnis read a speech Tuesday that lasted nearly three minutes. He concluded it with a familiar gesture — two fingers pointed in the air, a smile on his face.
“I love y’all,” he said.