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Overcoming the Odds

“Every day for ten years, I thought God hated me,” he told me. I sat there, shocked and speechless. The man sitting in front of me is the most optimistic person I know. For him to say such a negative thing really surprised me. “It took me until my junior year in high school to realize there was a reason I lost my right leg. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I became the person I am today,” he said with that grin I have come to know and love over the past seven years. Not only is he inspiring because he is my coach, he is inspiring because of everything negative he has overcome.

December 5th, 1976, Chris Hankins and his mother were headed to a toy store for Chris’ seventh birthday surprise. A seemingly joy filled day soon became a nightmare. Chris’ mother lost control of the car on the icy roads and ran it right into a tree. “My mom walked away with bruises. I was pinned between the car and tree,” Chris recalls. He awoke four days later with a strange feeling. His mother and father, who were sitting to his left, were crying. He saw how upset his parents were, he began to cry too. His mother hugged him and whispered “It’s OK Chris. We’ll figure something out.” Chris still could not place exactly what was wrong. Soon, a nurse walked in stating she needed to change his bandages. As the nurse pulled back the blanket, Chris discovered exactly what was wrong. He leaned to his right and vomited all over her. He was shocked, remorseful, and upset all at the same time. Shocked to see the area where his lower leg had been for seven years was gone. Chris felt remorseful from ruining the nurse’s crisp, white outfit. Chris’s right leg was bandaged up right above where his knee would have been. “I had never been more confused in my life. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened. I’ve never been speechless in my life except for that one moment.”

As if Chris hadn’t been through enough, with the horrific accident, in his life, the next few weeks were even worse. Everything seemed to go wrong. Adjusting to life with a prosthetic leg was impossible. He had a transfemoral prosthesis. Chris no longer had a normal knee. His leg ended at his thigh and attached was a new knee created from plastic. “The doctor told me I would use way more energy just to walk than normal people use sprinting. Moving around the house was difficult,” Chris recalled. His parents constantly argued over medical expenses. With his parents away working their two jobs, Chris had nobody to be around. He was miserable. All of that was relatively mild compared to that day in late January when Chris went back to school for the first time since the accident. Feeling self conscious, he wore the biggest sweatpants he owned, which were about two sizes too big. Arriving at school turned out to be easier than he thought it would. His friends had heard about the car accident, but knew nothing about his leg. Everybody was happy to see him back. “I even got to lead my class to lunch. It was my special day,” Chris said with a laugh. The day seemed to be about as perfect as it could have been under the circumstances, until it became time for gym class. In Chris’ gym class, everybody was required to wear the school issued t-shirt and shorts. That sent Chris into a full blown panic attack. He started crying and asking for his mother. All of the boys in the class laughed at him and called him names. The school nurse allowed him to stay in her office until his mother came to pick him up. If the first day went as smoothly as a sunny day, the next day was a tornado. Everything that had been going right for Chris was going wrong for him the next day. His friends made rude comments to him. They called him a baby and a wuss, nobody sat by him at lunch, and played by himself at recess. The kids did all of these mean things to Chris, but none of them knew the real story behind it. They just thought he was weird. Since his breakdown in the locker room, his teacher allowed him to wear sweatpants. “First grade was the worst grade ever. Between my parents acting hostile towards everybody and my classmates hating me, I felt lonely all the time.” Chris says with a slight frown.

At this point in the interview, I was dumbfounded. I have known my coach for eight years and I never knew anything about how awful his growing up was. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable for asking him to recall all these memories. Chris sensed that and switched to the part of his story that included soccer. Soccer had always been a happy constant in his life. Since Chris did not have any friends to play with after school and on weekends, he stuck around his house often. His dad had been a terrific athlete in high school and college. Chris found an old soccer ball of his dad’s and it wasn’t long before he fell in love with kicking that ball. He begged his parents to let him play on a team but his mother would not allow it at all. She said it was too dangerous and she didn’t want Chris to hurt himself anymore. “My dad always imagined me following in his footsteps. So the two of us went behind my mom’s back and registered me in a fall league in the next town over,” said Chris with a sneaky grin. His father taught him how to properly kick and receive a ball. He even learned to head the ball and a few moves. Chris soon became the best player on his team. His teammates became his new friends. Everything was turning around for him, mainly because of soccer and the new friends. “My dad told my mother he was teaching me to fish. Every Saturday, we would stop at the grocery store and pick up a few fish just so we could show mom what we had accomplished in the morning. She bought our story for the next three years.”

There were many things in Chris’ life that he had to frown about. But those things seemed to occur less and less. Or so he thought. Until high school began, he continued playing soccer with his friends from the next town over. The boys at his school were still mean to him. His parents argued, but not nearly as often as they had. With the help of his father, Chris dominated all of the players in the soccer league. With high school coming up in the near future, Chris’ father suggested he try out for the high school team. That meant he would have to take off his sweatpants while playing. His friends were going to be trying out for their high school team. That meant Chris would not be playing with them anymore. Chris suffered another panic attack very similar to when he was seven years old. As the school year was getting ready to begin, Chris’ soccer league was over. “I was so bored. I missed playing soccer. I decided my dad was right so I went ahead and tried out.” Once he arrived to the field, he took off his sweats. For the first time since the accident, he revealed to somebody other than his family what his right leg actually looked like. His friends were speechless. The coaches did not want him to try out. “They said the reason they didn’t want me to try out was because of insurance issues. They really didn’t want me to tryout because I was different. I wasn’t your average high school freshman boy.” The coaches let Chris try out, but would not let him participate in any contact drills. Chris dazzled the coaches and other players with his amazing footwork and excellent ball skills. “I remember one of the seniors on the team that year telling me how I was the best player at the tryout; all of the upperclassman included.” Not only did the coaches allow Chris to be on the team, he also became a starter for the varsity team as a freshman, the first in school history.

From then on, he was accepted by his peers. The kids he knew when he was seven had matured somewhat in high school. No longer was Chris rejected because of his leg. Chris got past his sad childhood and created a new life for himself. He played on the team all four years in high school. Chris was voted captain his junior and senior years. That role gave him a sense of importance. His teammates realized he was just “one of the guys.” He became the school record holder in goals and assists and still holds both records today. He received a full athletic scholarship to Penn State University to play soccer and study business administration. More insurance issues arose once he arrived on campus, but not nearly as much of a problem as it was in his freshman year. Now, Chris coaches several teams, including the team I played for seven years.

It is a bright and sunny day outside in mid June. The sky was perfectly blue, without a single cloud. The weather would be perfect had it not been for the sweltering near 100 degree temperatures. Having soccer practice on those days are very difficult. The workload isn’t particularly tough, but getting yourself motivated is. While running our sprint workout, I begin to think. “Why do I do this to myself? I feel like I’m going to pass out. This sucks!” My mind and body are telling me to quit. I pick my head up and look right at my coach. It’s then I realize that I cannot quit. With everything he goes through on a daily basis just to function, let alone play soccer, is way greater than what I am currently going through. So what if I am sweating what seems to be liters of sweat. I push through the pain and discomfort because I have learned over the years to not give up on anything. I couldn’t have learned it from a better individual than Coach Chris. Before this interview, I never knew much about his leg. He never really liked to talk about it. He is my motivation not only to succeed in soccer, but in life too. He has overcome more issues in his life than I hope I will ever face in mine. I truly think Chris Hankins is one of the strongest individuals I have ever met.