Pasco Invite: Connell's Whitby back on track after life derailed by head injury

April 18, 2014 

Braiden Whitby

Braiden Whitby practices the discus on Wednesday evening in a training area built at his family farm, Whitby Farms in Mesa. Braiden suffered a head injury while playing football in the fall of 2012 and is headed to the Pasco Invite this weekend to compete in the discus and shot put.

SARAH GORDON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Chances are, Braiden Whitby won’t be winning an Outstanding Athlete award today at the Pasco Invite.

The Connell High junior would consider it a success just to make the finals in his two events.

Whitby suffered two concussions in less than month during the 2012 football season, was wracked by seizures in his arm and had bleeding on both sides of his brain, ending his football career and putting his life into jeopardy.

He missed more than two months of school, had debilitating headaches for weeks and suffered memory loss.

“He missed so much school,” said Connell track and field coach Scott Forsyth. “When he got back, not only short term memory loss, but here is a kid that went from being the athlete — started at running back as a sophomore in high school for the defending state champs — to the kid who couldn’t remember an hour after what he was taught.

“That was pretty sad.”

It is a bit of a miracle that he is even competing today at Edgar Brown Stadium in the shot and discus.

Whitby was hurt initially when his head bounced off the turf while fighting for extra yards near the end of a game against Kiona-Benton in late September 2012. He groggily got up off the field but seemed fine afterward.

He had headaches for the next five days and took it light in practice, but he showed no other signs of a possible concussion.

He played in Connell’s next game against Warden and fumbled three times in the first half because he couldn’t feel his right arm. While Whitby thought it was strange he couldn’t hang onto the ball, he kept playing and scored four touchdowns and was named one of the Tri-City Herald’s stars of the week.

The headaches continued, but like a good farm boy he didn’t let that keep him off the football field.

“He did everything. He didn’t complain,” said his mom, Kim Whitby. “You get banged up, you’ll get little headaches and different things, but you keep playing.”

Connell was crushed by Royal a week later, and Whitby played sparingly at running back, though he did start at linebacker.

The moment that changed Whitby’s life for good, though, was a hit the next week in Finley.

He remembers getting body slammed by a River View defender but not much else from that night. The next day he did his normal Saturday work on the farm and went to bed. But when his mom woke him up for church Sunday morning, he was far from OK.

Braiden had thrown up, was talking a bit funny and his face was twitching. Initially the family took him to a relative’s chiropractor office to do an x-ray, but Braiden threw up so they went to Kadlec Regional Medical Center. That is where the doctors did an MRI and discovered he had bleeding on the brain.

He was kept in ICU for 24 hours with the staff waking him every hour to see if he was making progress — either good or bad.

He tried to return to school a week later, but the headaches were too persistent.

“I remember going to class and rubbing my head,” Braiden said. “Just spacing out and my grade was going really bad and sometimes you start crying because it hurts so bad.”

Things continued going downhill for the Whitbys, as Braiden woke up one Saturday morning struggling to breathe. He was again taken to Kadlec, where it was discovered he had severe pneumonia. He was eventually flown to Seattle Children’s Hospital where he spent 10 days getting healthy and finally connected with a concussion specialist.

The Whitbys returned to their Mesa farm, but Braiden still couldn’t go to school because of lingering issues.

“He couldn’t read. He couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t be on his phone,” Kim said. “All he could basically do is sit there or drive around on the 4-wheeler on the farm because everything else hurt his head too bad.”

Strange as it sounds, the 4-wheeler helped him find a respite from the pain.

Every day for about two months, Whitby would ride around the family’s farm, driving down the ditch road to a bluff overlooking the Columbia River and sit and think about what had happened to his seemingly normal life.

“I was just reflecting on what I could be doing, what things I could be improving on from this experience,” he said. “I was to the point of where I wanted to go to school because I was tired of being home. You miss your friends, you miss seeing everyone and knowing what is going on.”

Eventually Braiden did return to school, though on a limited basis. He would attend his favorite classes and work at home for his other classes. He never fell behind in school, though the memory loss has hampered his ability to be as successful at math and reading.

He was even partially cleared to participate in track and field, a sport in which his family has a history of success. He competed in the Pasco Invite and just missed going to state in two events.

With a new football season looming to start his junior year, some in the school figured he might play again. But the family planned for him to take the year off, and he only attended part of one game.

“The thing I miss the most is I’m a kid that grew up in a football-oriented family,” Braiden said. “We sleep, eat and breathe football. We play it all the time and are up to date on everything. Being told I can’t play anymore, it’s like I’m kind of a letdown to it. It is just hard.”

The health risks of playing again, though, are just too great, and Whitby grudgingly admits that. That decision is more clear to others, though.

“He’s a tough kid. He is a Whitby — they are all tough,” Connell football coach Wayne Riner said. “He would love to play football again, but he is smart enough to know that it is not worth his life.”

With football out of his life for good, Braiden poured his efforts into track and field, hoping to make it to the state meet his junior year and to rediscover that old passion he got from playing football.

“When you play a sport and you get that adrenaline rush, nothing can fill it,” he said. “You miss it, but you can’t do anything about it, so you try to fill it with track or another sport.

“I’m doing it by trying to get that extra foot or two to PR — to try and get a taste of what I used to feel.”

That moment came for the first time Tuesday, when he had a personal best throw in the shot put (45 feet, 5.75 inches) and long jump (19-1) and came bounding over to his mom, all smiles.

Kim said it was the first time she’d seen him like that since before the injuries.

And while Braiden will never be the same kid he was before that fateful night in Benton City, the fact that he is still able to be a kid at all is enough for his family.

“He had the kind (of concussion) you hear about where they walk off the field and feel fine and then fall over dead,” Kim said. “We were blessed that none of that happened.”

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