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James McGinnis shows progress from brain injury during appearance at Olathe East

James McGinnis (right) was honored during Senior Night festivities Friday at Olathe East High School. He was joined by his parents, Patrick and Susan McGinnis (far right), and his girlfriend, Caitlin Gosik, who had a firm hold on James’ hand. Go to KansasCity.com for a video.
James McGinnis (right) was honored during Senior Night festivities Friday at Olathe East High School. He was joined by his parents, Patrick and Susan McGinnis (far right), and his girlfriend, Caitlin Gosik, who had a firm hold on James’ hand. Go to KansasCity.com for a video. The Kansas City Star

The Senior Night ceremony started only a few moments into halftime, and from his spot along the baseline, Olathe East senior James McGinnis rolled his wheelchair toward the back of the line.

In his first appearance at the school since suffering a brain injury during a September football game, McGinnis heard his name echo over the gymnasium speakers, prompting a capacity crowd to provide its loudest moment of the evening. So far.

In a halftime festivity initially intended to surprise McGinnis and honor his homecoming from a rehabilitation hospital in Nebraska, McGinnis’ next move instead surprised those in attendance.

With the aid of his father, he stood up from his wheelchair and took a step. Then another. Then another.

In a matter of moments, Senior Night had transformed into James McGinnis Night.

“I was awestruck,” said Olathe East senior T.J. Rowe, a longtime friend who visited McGinnis in Lincoln. “It was amazing. That’s literally the only word I can think of right now. To see him go from being barely able to move to standing up in front of so many people, that was amazing.”

McGinnis returned to Olathe East on Friday for the boys basketball game against Olathe South, a game East won 69-55.

It was simply the latest sign of his progress.

McGinnis collapsed during a Sept. 12 football game, the result of his head colliding with the hip of an opposing player. The contact caused a subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the lining of the brain.

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., where he has spent the past five months.

Until Wednesday.

That aforementioned progress allowed McGinnis to return home this week. Future plans call for him to spend four days every week in Lincoln until he is able to walk on his own power.

“We’ve just rejoiced with the progress he’s had,” said Patrick McGinnis, James’ father. “He’s walking well enough to where his mother (Susan) and I can help him, but he just needs a little more work before he can do it completely on his own.”

McGinnis has climbed nearly every other significant hurdle, said Patrick McGinnis, who spoke on his son’s behalf Friday.

James’ previous swallowing problems — which lingered long after his football injury — have dissipated, though he still experiences numbness in his lips, which slurs his speech. He remains mentally sharp, able to compute mathematic equations and complete other schoolwork.

His memory is on its way back, too. While McGinnis doesn’t remember anything from the hit — or any of his senior season of football, for that matter — there are signs that may come soon.

On Friday, he remembered his way around inside the school. He recognized friends he hadn’t seen in months. On Thursday, he followed instructions he was given a day earlier.

“It truly has been one day at a time — it’s progress every day,” Patrick McGinnis said. “You can’t predict the future with a brain injury. All you can do is hope for the best. And James has given us a lot of reasons to be hopeful.”

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