Five weeks ago, doctors rushed Kodee Bennett in for emergency brain surgery.
But on Friday, the 15-year-old started in center field for the Payette Packers Single-A American Legion baseball team, capping an unbelievably fast recovery from a freak accident that fractured his skull.
“It’s a miracle,” Packers coach Dan Cudaback said. “We call him our miracle player. It’s unbelievable. You’d think somebody with that type of injury would be out for a year.”
Returning to the baseball field at all this summer seemed impossible on May 4, when Payette High’s starting second baseman sprinted for a pop fly in shallow right field. He dove for the ball, striking the right side of his skull against the knee of the charging right fielder. Payette catcher Austin Stricker said it sounded like a ball hitting a wooden bat.
The impact shattered his skull with so much force that it punctured the membrane around his brain and caused it to bleed. An air ambulance took him to Boise’s Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, where he underwent three hours of surgery to repair the damage and have surgeons implant a metal plate.
“When that accident first happened, all we cared about was him being OK,” Payette High coach Tracy Bratcher said. “If he ever got to play sports again, that was going to be an added bonus. Seeing him progress the way he has and get to play baseball this summer, it’s quite a thing.”
As soon as he woke up from surgery, Bennett asked when he could return to the diamond, and then started breaking all the timelines set by his doctors. A projected two-week stay in the ICU turned into three days. He recovered so quickly that the hospital sent him home in time for Bennett to attend Payette’s first-round district tournament game May 8.
He returned to Payette with paralysis on the left side of his face and slurring his words. But speech and physical therapy focused on his small motor skills erased any trace of those. He stayed with the Pirates throughout their district and state tournament run, and in the 3A state consolation final, he was in the starting lineup; after his name was announced, Bratcher subbed him out.
“I just wanted to get back out here,” Bennett said. “As soon as they told me it’s going to take time, it was getting back and trying to prove the time wrong and get out here as soon as I could.”
Bratcher tried to convince him it was OK to miss the Legion season, but Bennett wouldn’t have any of it. He admits that he did sneak in throwing sessions to stay sharp, pushing his limits out of his parents’ sights. Four weeks after his surgery, his doctors cleared him to return to baseball practice May 31.
But the quarterback can’t play football this fall.
“We no sooner made it in the house, and he was out the door with his baseball bag and jumped in the truck and was on the way to practice,” said Mindy Mordhorst, Bennett’s mother.
Cudaback remained skeptical, limiting Bennett to the batting cage that first practice. He allowed Bennett to take up his spot at shortstop Monday, expecting to see a month’s worth of rust. But Bennett proved him wrong.
“What I was expecting to see was a guy a little gun-shy as far as going out to the outfield for a fly ball or shying away from a ground ball,” Cudaback said. “But he was right back to the old Kodee.”
Bennett plays with a foam insert in his hat to protect his skull. A stronger, carbon-fiber one is expected to arrive soon, allowing him to return to his natural position at shortstop or even on the mound.
He can play only in the outfield with the foam protection, forcing him to learn a new position. He admits it’s a bit awkward, but at least he’s back on the field.
“It feels like life is full again,” Bennett said. “This is all I live for. And once it’s back, it almost feels normal again, right back to where it was.”