GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Maybe someday his memory will fill in the blanks from those lost 20 minutes, but a month later, Darrin Kitchens only recalls bits and pieces of the night of Nov. 26.
For the 90,000-plus fans at the Florida-Florida State game last month, certain images and sounds linger fresh.
The sirens whistling as an ambulance from Shands Hospital made its way to The Swamp. The crowd was so quiet you could hear as the ambulance got closer and closer. The Gators huddled around their fallen teammate as a medical team carefully worked on Kitchens. The thumbs up to the crowd that Kitchens gave more than 15 minutes after he dropped to the ground following a helmet-to-helmet hit on the opening kickoff of the second half.
Kitchens has seen video of the play and understands what happened, but as for the moment – considered perhaps the most frightening of the Gators’ 2011 season – he draws only blanks.
“I don’t really remember anything,’’ Kitchens said. “I remember running down the field and my chin strap came loose, so I was trying to buckle it up. That’s the last thing I remember. The next thing I know I was talking to my trainer.’’
Kitchens was knocked out cold when he and FSU’s Chad Abram collided head first. Kitchens was trying to get in position to tackle FSU kick returner Lamarcus Joyner. Abram was trying to make a block. Both players were dazed from the hit.
Abram got up. Kitchens didn’t.
“There were a lot of people scared,’’ said Anthony Pass, a UF associate director of sports health and the football team’s head trainer. “With every injury when a player is down and there is no movement, the first thing that comes into your head is, ‘Could this be a C-spine injury?’ Everything is based off protecting that neck.”
That was Pass’ primary job during those 20 minutes absent from Kitchens’ memory.
Kickoffs are arguably the most dangerous plays in football. On one side you have a flock of fast and athletic players sprinting down the field trying to crunch the kick returner. On the other side you have players sprinting in the opposite direction trying to hammer those coming their way.
You don’t have to be an Albert Einstein to know violent collisions are inevitable
Kitchens is one of UF’s better special teams players and a reserve linebacker. In the previous week’s game against Furman, the sophomore from Homestead made his first career start at linebacker while continuing to star on special teams. Kitchens made a career-high 12 tackles against Furman and stepped onto the field against the Seminoles full of confidence and energy in the annual rivalry game. Prior to signing with the Gators, FSU was one of the other schools he considered.
The last place Kitchens expected to end the night was in a hospital, finally regaining some lucidity when he looked in a mirror on the ceiling and saw himself strapped to a back board, protected by a neck brace and still in full uniform. Trainers had removed his facemask in the ambulance so he could see.
“I never thought I would be in that position,’’ Kitchens said. “I realize it can happen to anybody.’’
That harsh reality is in sharp focus on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. The picture shows a smiling Eric LeGrand, sitting in his motorized wheelchair and wearing his No. 52 black-and-red Rutgers jersey, returning to the site of an injury that changed his life forever in October 2010.
LeGrand was covering a kickoff that day when he collided with an Army return man. He didn’t get up. The result was devastating: two fractured cervical vertebrae, spinal cord damage and paralysis that initially made doctors fearful that LeGrand would spend the rest of his life on a respirator as a quadriplegic.
More than a year later LeGrand’s path to recovery has served as an inspiration to millions.
The day after his appearance at Rutgers, LeGrand Tweeted, “So I left tire tracks in the snow yesterday as I led my team out … next time will be footprints.”
A case such as LeGrand’s is every trainer’s worst fear.
“Out of all the orthopedic injuries – the knee, the ankle, the shoulder, the hand, the elbow or whatever, if you have a problem with that c-spine, it could be life threatening,’’ Pass said.
When Kitchens was hurt, Pass was on the Gators’ sideline attending to a player that had been injured late in the first half.
He didn’t actually see the play. But he quickly realized he was needed immediately as Kitchens lay on his back at the 25-yard line near Florida’s sideline.
“Darrin’s down. Darrin’s down,’’ was all Pass heard before racing toward the field.
From there, Florida’s medical team kicked into action using the methods they practice at least three times a year with the Alachua County Fire and Rescue Department in handling potential C-spine injuries.
Pass immediately raced to Kitchens and took a position at his head. Once Kitchens came to enough to tell trainers how he felt, Pass went on high alert as soon as Kitchens said his neck hurt and that he was having difficulty feeling his arms.
At that point Pass said “you are just kind of nervous’’ for the player and potential outcome.
Pass made sure to instantly provide what is called “in-line stabilization’’ on Kitchens’ neck.
“I support the head and I don’t let the head and neck move from the body, so if there is a fracture, it’s not going to get worse by him moving,’’ Pass said.
When Kitchens did wake up and tried to move, Pass told him to relax and not to make any movements as the medical team prepared to put him on a scoop stretcher and transport him to the waiting ambulance via a motorized cart they call “The Gator.’’
The medical team got lucky in one way.
“Darrin was on his back, which is an ideal situation for this because we didn’t have to log roll him,’’ Pass said. “Everything is orchestrated on a 1-2-3 count. Once he was on the scoop stretcher, we had the spine board at his feet. Lift him on 1-2-3 for spine board. That’s the most movement we’ll do.’’
Once they got Kitchens on the spine board, they locked him down from head to toe using “spider straps” before lifting him onto the motorized vehicle.
Throughout the process, Pass was the voice that Kitchens heard.
“My job at the head is to make sure everyone remains calm, but most important is to make sure Darrin knows that I’m here for him and that I’m not going to let anything happen,’’ Pass said. “I think that the touch I have with him reassures him and me – I won’t lie to you – that this kid is going to be OK. I just don’t want you to be out there strapped to this board and thinking all these crazy thoughts.’’
One of Kitchens’ first questions to Pass was whether anyone had called his mom. As he worked his final game as an ESPN analyst, New Mexico coach Bob Davies relayed to viewers how important that is under these circumstances.
“One thing you always think about in these situations, these trainers always have the parents’ phone numbers, and they contact them immediately,’’ Davies said during the live telecast. “That’s the best policy. The communication to the parents is critical right now.’’
By that time Pass’ medical team had already made arrangements to allow Sarah Durkin, wife of linebackers coach D.J. Durkin and someone the Kitchens family knows personally, to make the call.
“The parents were informed the whole way. They got to talk to the doctor at the ER,’’ Pass said.
Sarah Durkin and Kitchens’ girlfriend later met Kitchens at Shands Hospital, where he was transported by ambulance along with one of UF’s team doctors who was there to relay information back to Pass at the game. Immediately after the game, Gators coach Will Muschamp came to Pass for an update on Kitchens in a game that featured several UF players leaving the game due to injuries.
But none as alarming as seeing Kitchens lie motionless in front of a hushed crowd and millions watching on TV.
“It’s always scary when you deal with something like that,’’ Muschamp said.
During his time at Shands, Kitchens was evaluated and had tests and X-Rays taken of his neck. All the tests came back negative, and about four hours after the hit, Kitchens was able to return to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium under his own power.
Kitchens, Pass, the Durkins, Kitchens’ girlfriend and other members of Florida’s medical team were all smiles as they talked about the previous night. It was around 1:30 Sunday morning. Kitchens was slowly turning back to his old self despite a headache and some grogginess.
The final prognosis was a concussion, which considering the events of the past few hours, was a relief.
In Pass’ seven seasons at UF, it was only the second time that he used a spine board during a game. The other time was with Percy Harvin in 2006 at Florida State. Harvin actually returned to the game in the fourth quarter.
“Most of the spine boards that you do come out with in this type of scenario end up this way,’’ Pass said. “You don’t want to be on the ones that come out the other way.”
Kitchens was cleared to return to full-contact practice this week when he made his final visit to a neurologist. Kitchens said the MRI looked good and that his concussion symptoms have faded.
When he thinks back to Nov. 26, one moment stands out above the rest.
“When I’m coming to, I didn’t really know what was going on,’’ Kitchens said. “I find myself in the back of an ambulance. I’m just going through all my toes and all my fingers, moving every body part. Thank God I had a lot of family and friends praying out there because God came through for me.’’
Kitchens’ return to full-contact drills on Wednesday didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, who surrounded Kitchens as he lay on the field a month ago hoping for the best.
“It was good to see him just get back out there and running around,’’ fellow linebacker Lerentee McCray said. “I talked to him before practice and asked, ‘What do you think you’re going to be able to do today?’ He was like, ‘I’m just going to try to ease back into it.’ It was real good to see him back out there because we were kind of shocked when we saw him on the field. Everybody was worried.’’
As long he doesn’t suffer another injury, Kitchens is expected to play in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 against Ohio State.
Prior to leaving for a six-hour drive on Thursday from Gainesville to Homestead to spend Christmas with his family, Kitchens talked calmly about the scariest moment he has ever experienced playing football. He also spoke about how grateful he is to be able to still play the game.
For a few moments as he lay on Florida Field on a cool November night, that seemed to be in question.
“No player wants to get hit like that,’’ Kitchens said. “It’s a relief. I’m glad it’s not career-ending.’’