Varsity Basketball

Pratt senior is enjoying every moment

Pratt basketball player Luke Southard.
Pratt basketball player Luke Southard. The Wichita Eagle

There are moments when Maggie Southard worries intensely about her son, Luke, a senior basketball player at Pratt. Icy roads send thoughts swirling about the dangers of him driving. Watching him run track hurdles is excruciating as she fears a tumble.

These aren't just normal mother worries.

They are the fears of a mother who thought her son might die following a head injury suffered during a 2008 football game.

That's why Luke Southard swallows any tinges of annoyance when his mother reminds him for the umpteenth time to be careful. He knows she was by his side when he stopped breathing twice during an ambulance ride to the hospital.

"I put myself in her shoes," said Luke Southard, who is 6-foot-4 and averages 7.2 rebounds. "I was basically asleep and in a coma... she didn't know if I would wake up. I looked awful. I had things hooked up to me and coming out of my mouth. Picturing what she went through for me, I think I can deal with her (fears)."

* *

Ever since Luke Southard was a tyke, he played sports. He and his brother, Nathan, who is 22 months older, usually played on the same summer teams.

Until that day in Scott City, Southard hadn't suffered a serious injury.

It was Sept. 12, and Pratt had made the nearly three-hour trip for its second game.

Southard, a junior outside linebacker, loved football but eagerly anticipated playing basketball, his favorite sport.

His job on the play was to stop fullback Chaston Hoeme, who was blocking for the running back.

Their collision was violent and Southard fell hard. His parents, Maggie and John, knew he was hurt, but they had no idea how badly.

Doctors later told the Southards that Luke had suffered a subdural hematoma — his brain had slammed into one side of his skull, twisted and ruptured a vein.

"I was on the field before he hit the ground," Pratt coach Jeff Fuss said. "I knew he was hit bad.... I saw he went limp, and his arm got twisted up and seized on him.

"... When we got out there, his eyes were open, but he was out cold and his eyes were dilated as big as dimes."

Fuss was so affected by the injury that he nearly quit coaching, calling it the worst night of his career.

"When I went out there, he was seizuring and he was making noises that I have never heard before and I will never forget," Maggie Southard said. "There was no assessing (him), it was like, 'Go!'

"They knew time was of the essence. The time, it saved him."

* * *

Maggie Southard rode with her son in the ambulance to Scott County Hospital, sitting at his feet while the EMTs worked on him.

Twice on the way, Luke stopped breathing.

"I stayed out of the way," Maggie said. "I knew we were in trouble. There was no time for getting emotional."

Luke was flown to Denver and taken to Swedish Medical Center, which specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries. The initial concern was releasing the pressure off his brain.

The Southards were later told that as soon as neurosurgeon John McVicker drilled into Luke's skull, blood shot up several feet into the air — and the pressure was off Southard's brain.

"Time is of the essence," Maggie Southard said. "People pass away when they don't get the pressure off fast enough."

* * *

The Southards now knew their son would live. But no one knew what he would be like.

Luke was a 4.0 student, a member of the National Honor Society, junior class president, student council, the first in his class.

Would he still be their intelligent, smiling, athletic son when he woke up? Would he remember them?

No one knew.

Back in Pratt, the school and community rallied together. Fuss spent time with his players, often crying with and hugging them.

Schools such as Scott City, Andover Central and Clearwater raised thousands of dollars for the family.

Four days after the injury, Luke woke up.

"We're not sure if he'll recognize us," Maggie Southard said. "We're thinking, 'Thank God he's alive, he's breathing on his own, this is good, this is good.' "

* * *

Luke Southard spent 10 days at Craig Hospital in Colorado for physical therapy as he re-learned walking.

That's where the Southards saw the old Luke had returned.

He desperately wanted out of the hospital, wanted to get back to Pratt. He pushed the nurses to push him. If they said he was finished, he'd ask for one more.

"I wanted to get back to my normal life," he said.

"They didn't want to squelch his determination, but they didn't want him to overdo it," Maggie said.

Three weeks after the injury, Luke surprised his classmates at Pratt by showing up at the homecoming pep rally.

"Oh, talk about goosebumps," Fuss said."... We brought him in the back door. He walked across the floor and people were crying, hugging."

* * *

Luke returned to Colorado for one more week of rehab, but when he came back to Pratt for good, he dove back into school and athletics.

He took a math test on his second day back — got a perfect score. In November 2008, he took the ACT test — scored a 33. By mid-December 2008, he had completely caught up on all his schoolwork.

But he battled a major disappointment when he was told he couldn't play basketball — too much risk of a head injury so soon after the accident.

"I was back, I wanted to go full-steam ahead," he said."... I wanted to be right there with them and win with them and lose the tough games and get the adrenaline going and get the team feeling. That's hard to get from the sideline and from the stands."

Luke ran the high hurdles for the first time that spring, and that's when he truly felt back to normal —sports were again a part of his life.

He qualified for the Class 4A meet in May. In the fall, he ran cross country for the first time — after the injury, he knew he'd never play football again — and made varsity.

He's at his happiest right now, starting for a winning basketball team.

The next step, college and a possible degree in engineering, is right round the corner. On Jan. 25, he'll interview at Kansas State for engineering scholarships.

Southard's hair has grown back, covering the scars of surgery.

Life is moving forward.

But he has changed a bit inside. He's a bit more careful, a bit quicker to embrace life.

Pratt boys coach David Swank "Always says to enjoy the moment," Luke said.

"I think that kind of hits it on the head. Enjoy being with your friends, enjoy being with your family."