- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Xavier Lewis can’t explain why his brain went haywire.

Countless doctors have pinpointed the effect, but not the cause. They know that a sizable blood clot developed in his brain, cutting off blood flow to the area that controls speech. The most complex organ in his body was slowly, silently suffocating.

But how could that be? Wyoming’s sophomore safety was as healthy as any 19-year-old male could hope to be. He didn’t drink or do drugs. He ate what he was told to, drank what he was told to.

Lewis was a 6-foot, 195-pound machine, built to withstand high-speed collisions and devour long stretches of turf in gliding, confident strides.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to a Cowboy.

Not to Xavier.

All Lewis knows - probably all he’ll ever know - is that in the days leading to the stroke, he experienced repeated headaches, tiny little warning signs firing in his mind.

On Wednesday, Dec. 10, he completed an intense workout - featuring heavy shrugs, which target the upper back muscles - with teammates Eric Nzeocha and Justin Berger. Admittedly, both are stronger than Lewis, but he did his best to keep up.

After leaving the Rochelle Athletics Center, Lewis and Nzeocha stopped by Wyoming’s student union, then headed back to their house. They briefly parted ways - Lewis to take a nap in his room, Nzeocha to watch a movie - but planned to reconvene and go to the library that night.

Part of Lewis never woke up. At 7 p.m., he stepped out of bed, and the room started spinning. Initially, it was a familiar feeling, like all the times he had stood too quickly and been met with a sudden dizziness, as all of the blood rushed forcefully to his head.

He waited, and tried to walk, but the situation didn’t improve.

Lewis stumbled from one wall to the next, knocking over his television, his coordination inexplicably failing him. Nzeocha asked if he was all right, but Lewis didn’t respond.

Eventually, defeated, he slumped to the floor next to his bed.

“It was weird in a sense that it was kind of like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “I felt like I could control it, but I couldn’t.”

Nzeocha brought water, and Lewis drank it. He sat on the floor and took deep, calming breaths. He gathered himself, and the dizziness fell away.

Finally, he thought, the storm had mercifully passed.

“We can go now,” Lewis tried to say.

What he actually said was gibberish - a random, incomprehensible assortment of consonants and vowels.

It was as if the wires in his brain had been pried loose and crossed, so that he told his mouth to produce one sound and it instead retrieved another. A skill that had always been so effortless vanished without a trace.

“What’s wrong with you?” Nzeocha asked. “Are you speaking a different language?”

They moved into the living room, and Nzeocha found a pen and napkin and asked his roommate to write something down.

Lewis stared at the instruments, helpless.

“I just couldn’t think about how to write, either,” he said.

He paced from one end of the living room to the other, stopping only to punch the nearest wall. Nzeocha asked Lewis how he could help. He made frantic guesses, playing a desperate game of charades.

“Do you want to call your mom? Your dad?”

No response.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”

Lewis’ face lit up, and the roommates took off.

They didn’t know what was wrong with him, just that he needed help.

___

Quentin Lewis was waiting on a storm.

It was coming. It had to be. After all, prior to summer 2013, his son’s life had been a long series of triumphs, one after another, each more impressive than the last.

In his senior season at Eaglecrest High School, Xavier Lewis was the recipient of the Gold Helmet Award, the Colorado high school equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. He was named Eaglecrest’s 2013 outstanding senior as well as a local television station’s student-athlete of the year.

Through grade school, junior high and then high school, he earned A’s in every class, digesting knowledge with a rare, insatiable vigor. He finished fifth academically in a class of 522 students at Eaglecrest and planned to major in mechanical engineering at Wyoming.

He was climbing, climbing, climbing. And meanwhile, his father was bracing for a fall.

“You didn’t know what it was, but you could just kind of sense it, looming,” Quentin said.

During the roughly two-hour drive from Aurora, Colorado, to Laramie to drop off his son at college before the start of summer conditioning, Quentin told Xavier to be ready - for anything, for everything. He urged him, in eventual hardship, to fall back on his faith.

“With all of these great things that have come about, something is going to come at you that’s going to hit you really hard,” Quentin warned him. “But it’s going to prepare you for something bigger.”

Sitting next to his father in the passenger seat, Xavier turned his head and nodded.

“You know what, dad?” he responded. “I’ve been thinking the exact same thing.”

___

Xavier Lewis was trapped in his own mind.

It was Wednesday evening, and the Wyoming sophomore was jammed inside the narrow tube of an MRI machine at Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. He was engulfed in darkness, told to lie perfectly still, left alone with his fear and the great and terrible unknowns.

Was he going to die? Would his limbs have to be amputated? Would he ever talk again? Walk again?

Would he ever play another down?

For 45 minutes, he was in a space roughly the size of a coffin, contemplating his fate.

Eventually, he would be moved to a hospital bed, where the doctors would tell his teammates that their friend had suffered a stroke. Lewis would be in the room, conscious, but they wouldn’t address him, as if he were an inanimate object that couldn’t possibly understand.

He would be administered medication to dissolve the blood clot.

He would hear his father’s voice on the other end of a phone, telling him that he loved him, that he would see him soon. Telling him to have faith. Xavier would start to cry.

Eventually, he would be flown by helicopter to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado, for further treatment.

But not yet. First, Xavier had to wait and pray. He had to survive the crushing darkness.

“I thought I was going to die, that this was it,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know when they were going to get me out of there.

“That was the longest hour of my life.”

___

Quentin Lewis didn’t care who was watching.

He had a job to do. Simple as that. Quentin was a strong man, short but compact, with biceps that routinely jutted out of shirt sleeves. But in this case, that couldn’t help him.

He was also fiercely protective. When his children were born, Quentin earned the nickname Mufasa because he wouldn’t let anyone near the babies for a month while their immune systems adapted.

Back then, he had control. He could shield Xavier from a world full of danger.

Now, he was powerless, on a frantic drive to the hospital.

When he arrived at Swedish Medical Center with his wife, Cody, Quentin checked in with a nurse.

Then, in the middle of a crowded waiting room, he fell to his knees and prayed.

“I had to have no doubt,” Quentin said. “I could not allow doubt to come into my mind, because I knew that if I did, my son was not going to come out of this OK. I knew I had to maintain that strong faith the entire time.”

When Xavier arrived at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Quentin and Cody rushed into the hospital room to see him.

Physically, at least, nothing looked awry.

“What are you, man?” Quentin playfully asked. “Are you No. 2? Are you No. 3?”

Xavier smiled, shook his head and raised one finger high in the air.

___

Anything was the only thing.

At first, and for no apparent reason, that was one of just a few words Xavier Lewis could repeatedly say.

It was as if he threw thousands of darts representing all the words in his vocabulary at a wall, and “anything” was the only one that stuck.

For the time being, it was an all-purpose communicator.

“Xavier, do you want a glass of water?”

“Anything.”

“How are you feeling today?”

“Anything.”

When doctors and nurses walked into his hospital room, they routinely introduced themselves and asked him to say his name, a way to keep tabs on his progress.

Xavier’s sister Ashley, who flew in from California, attempted to tutor her little brother from his bedside.

“When they ask who you are, say, ‘X,’” she told him, sounding out the letter.

“Say ‘X.’”

“Say ‘X.’”

Again and again, they asked the same question, and he said nothing - or “anything.”

Until his second day in the hospital, when yet another doctor walked into the room and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Xavier,” he responded.

The room froze. Quentin Lewis, unsure of what he had heard, asked his son, “Did you just say your name?”

Xavier smiled and shrugged, as if he knew he had it all along.

“Anything.”

___

Xavier Lewis is living his father’s words.

“Something is going to come at you that’s going to hit you really hard. But it’s going to prepare you for something bigger.”

Something bigger. Something beyond football. Now, that’s what lies ahead for Xavier Lewis.

“I look at Xavier and say, ‘Man, I envy you,’” Quentin said. “‘A lot of people are still walking around aimlessly, but you have a true purpose.’”

Now, Xavier wants to teach. He wants to be an example. He wants to preach hydration and healthy eating, the kind of things that can prevent the storm looming in the distance, just out of sight.

He wants to inspire.

And, of course, he wants to play.

Since he was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve, Xavier’s life has been a blur of activity: speech therapy sessions, acupuncture, weightlifting and conditioning.

Though not officially, Xavier is a student at Eaglecrest High School once again. He is taking Calculus 2, a course he has already passed with flying colors, just to refamiliarize himself with complex math and note-taking.

He is not enrolled. He’s the only person in the room who doesn’t have to be there.

He steps onto Eaglecrest’s football field, the one he made his name on, and runs through cone and ladder drills, sharpening his footwork, sweat dripping off his brow.

Xavier trains four days a week at Elite Speed in Centennial, alternating between lower and upper body workouts. When he first came in, the trainers weren’t sure what he’d be able to accomplish.

“You wouldn’t know that anything had happened just by watching him work out,” said his trainer, Dominick Magazu.

Xavier’s work ethic has been illuminated, not altered, by the latest hurdle in his path.

“Being a college athlete and a student-athlete is kind of like a job,” he explained. “You have to work on it. You have to improve and put in time. That’s not just football. It’s also being an engineer. You have to read a couple extra books in the library.

“Right now, my job isn’t being a student-athlete. My job is going to therapy every day. I have to take it seriously so I can get back to Laramie, so I can be a student-athlete again.”

Two months after the storm hit, the only remnants of Xavier’s stroke are verbal. His speech is choppy, a challenge, the words occasionally eluding him. He knows what he wants to say but can’t always string together the sentences.

“It has definitely taught me patience,” he said. “Just being able to talk freely, I think about that daily. I just wish I could have a free conversation.

“It’s my motivation. I want to articulate and express my feelings and ideas.”

Still, Xavier is improving. And his actions - bold, determined, unafraid - say more than his words ever could.

On a Sunday morning in February, Xavier sits in his living room across from Quentin, Cody and his numerous trophies stashed on display next to the television.

He is surrounded by family - by love - and by the reminders of what he has already accomplished.

Even so, he looks ahead. He plans for the future.

After taking the spring semester off, Xavier hopes to return to Laramie and his team this summer.

War Memorial Stadium hasn’t seen the last of Eaglecrest’s favorite son.

“I think about playing again every day, all the time,” he said with a big grin. “This is my family, but I have family there, too.”

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com


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