- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2012

This offseason stings.

It’s not because the American University women’s basketball team lost a shot at its first NCAA tournament appearance. It’s because the Eagles lost Kayla.

Kayla Wenger, a 12-year-old Bethesda native, sat courtside in her wheelchair at almost every home game. Facial paralysis made it difficult for her to smile or express herself. A deaf left ear dampened the roar of the crowd. Partial blindness in her left eye blurred the experience.

The Eagles would high-five Kayla during warm-ups. She had her own jersey, her own water bottle, her own “AU swag.” After the game, she often was one of the first people to greet the team in the locker room.

American never lost when she was at the game.

The women’s basketball team adopted Kayla through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which matches children suffering from brain tumors with college athletic teams. Its namesake, Jaclyn Murphy, fought a pediatric brain tumor and was adopted by the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team in 2005. She inspired the team, which has since won seven of the past eight national championships. A healthy Jaclyn is playing lacrosse at Arlington High School in New York.

American experienced similar success with Kayla this past season. After a slow start, the Eagles formally adopted her in mid-December. They finished with the most wins in a season in program history (23) and the first perfect conference record (14-0) in Patriot League history.

“I think [she] gave us perspective,” American coach Matt Corkery said. “She brought a kind of light into the program in a completely different way that we would not have had a chance to experience otherwise.”

“She gives us strength,” team captain Lisa Strack added. “Just knowing what she’s been through gives everyone on our team strength … that this girl can withstand so much.”

———

A framed picture hangs on the far wall of Corkery’s Bender Arena office. It reads: “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

The phrase is American’s mantra for service, a constant reminder that Division I athletics can often be used to achieve a greater good. It’s why Corkery contacted the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. If his team could bring a single smile to someone, or brighten a single day in someone’s life, he figured the experience would be worth it.

On a blustery December evening, Corkery, Strack and redshirt sophomore Geleisa George were invited to the Wengers’ home to meet Kayla. They were greeted at the door by her father Eric, a 44-year-old lawyer at Microsoft, and mother Laurie, an ophthalmologist.

Between slices of pizza and board games, they saw a 12-year-old who, despite her physical limitations, was completely and totally normal. Kayla was sharp, funny and, above all else, extremely competitive. She argued with her siblings — Sam, 13, and Madeleine, 10 — but they argued right back.

“No matter what anyone said, she was going to win,” George said.

Just after her seventh birthday, Kayla was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer called ependymoma. Doctors removed a tumor from her cranial cavity and followed up the procedure with chemotherapy and a special type of radiation called proton therapy. The ordeal saved Kayla’s life but damaged parts of her brain that control balance and motor skills.

“I sort of think of it like steering a boat,” Kayla’s father explained. “When she was in water, she had time to catch herself and she could kind of rebound, but on land she would fall very quickly.”

Despite her physical challenges, Kayla’s mental ability was never affected. Sharp and inquisitive, she was a straight-A student at Pyle Middle School. It didn’t take long for her to memorize the names of every player on the AU team, and she graduated elementary school on time despite spending large chunks of first, second and third grade in the hospital.

Kayla attended her first game Dec. 21, a nonconference win over Loyola. While Corkery was addressing the media, she already was in the locker room, sitting comfortably between George and sophomore Sarah Kiely. Kayla remembered every player who had fallen over the course of the game and approached them as they passed by. “Are you OK?” she asked. “That looked really bad. Are you all right?”

The players talked briefly about the game before asking Kayla about her day. She always impressed them with something new — usually nail polish — and was a prolific shopper. She also was a big fan of the popular mobile game Fruit Ninja, which George downloaded to her iPhone to give them something in common.

“Whenever I’d text her I’d just be like ‘Hey, got a new high score on Fruit Ninja,’ ” George said with a smile. “She knew crazy fruit facts, like the banana is a plant, it is not a fruit. I learned that from Kayla, and she learned that from Fruit Ninja.”

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Game days at Bender Arena soon became routine. Kayla usually donned a blue AU jersey and “Go Eagles!” foam finger. She immersed herself in the games, a temporary escape from the physical limitations that kept her bound to a wheelchair. As the season progressed, she also developed close relationships with some of the players.

“It just felt like we picked up another branch of our family,” her father said. “There was all of a sudden this group of people that really cared about Kayla and cared about her well-being, and it gave her something really fun to look forward to and to think about.”

The games brought out Kayla’s competitive nature, and American’s success became her success. A family friend asked her how she was helping the team get all these wins. Kayla simply replied, “commitment. It’s just about commitment.”

It’s impossible to measure Kayla’s impact on the team, but there’s no denying that the impact was there. The proof was in the results.

“She was so proud of that jersey,” George said, “and we wanted to give her a reason to be proud of it, and so we worked as hard as we could on the court for her.”

Strack added: “Knowing Kayla’s there, seeing her after the game always lightens everyone’s mood, no matter the outcome of the game. Her effect on us was past basketball.”

———

The Eagles played host to Holy Cross in the Patriot League semifinals March 5. During warm-ups, several players looked over to Kayla’s usual spot and saw only empty chairs. Her condition had grown worse, and she had been taken to the hospital.

Without Kayla, the Eagles lost by 15.

“That might’ve been on the back of a lot of people’s minds during the game,” Strack said. “I mean, I love basketball and I’ll be the first to admit that, but it doesn’t last forever.”

The following evening, Corkery and assistant coach Danielle Hemerka visited Kayla in the hospital. They laid an AU blanket on her bed and shuffled through the crowd of friends and family members who had also come to support Kayla and her family. There weren’t many words. Just hugs, tears and prayers.

“You can’t even compare the two,” Corkery said, shaking his head. “You can’t compare losing a basketball game to what she was going through.”

Kayla died in the early morning hours of March 8.

The team heard the news when it showed up for practice. Counselors were on hand and, as Corkery put it, “tears were in the room.” George thought of how Kayla used to make her smile. Strack thought of her wit. A half-hour later, practice started.

The team attended Kayla’s funeral later that week. Thirteen players and coaches registered in May for the Race for Hope, a charity walk benefiting the National Brain Tumor Society and Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure. The team in her honor, Kisses4Kayla, raised $83,490.

“I feel like we’ve formed a strong connection with them that didn’t end when we lost Kayla,” said Eric Wenger. “I think that we all feel like we want to keep working together to honor her memory and keep that connection alive.”

———

On a late spring morning, raindrops pitter-pattered against the window of Corkery’s office. He looked at the frame across the room and thought of Kayla. All along his goal had been to do something for someone who would never be able to repay him. Now he realizes that the benefits went both ways.

“Nobody could’ve impacted our team in the way that Kayla did,” he said. “She was just the perfect person, at the perfect place, at the perfect time.”

The Eagles never lost when Kayla was at the game.

And she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

• To make a donation to the Collaborative Ependymoma Research Network in Kayla’s name, visit www.kaylawenger.info .