Kayla Samples had finished fishing with her grandfather and was driving, trying to get somewhere like her brother had been doing, when traffic stopped. There had been a wreck just before 4:30 p.m. on state Route 161 near Mechanicsburg. All she could see were tires sticking up out of a ditch.
Then her phone rang. It was her dad, Charlie Samples. Her little brother, John Samples, had just been in a rollover wreck with another car. And Kayla realized the car upside down in the ditch was his.
“It was all like a dream,” Kayla said. “Like it really wasn’t true.”
The last thing Kayla or anyone thought about April 15 was whether John, the hard-hitting linebacker, would ever be able to do what he will do Friday night — play football again for the Mechanicsburg Indians as the kicker on extra points.
Kayla’s only thought was to get home, which seemed to take forever, get mom and drive to Dayton. Sheri Ghindea had already “gotten the dreaded call that no parent wants to get.” John was headed to Miami Valley Hospital on a CareFlight helicopter. Ghindea called the hospital about her son’s condition. He was alive when CareFlight took off, but that was all they knew.
“That was the longest car ride of my life,” Ghindea said.
When Kayla and her mom got to the hospital there were already at least 50 people there from Mechanicsburg and the crowd grew to 80. The news was bad. John’s 16-year-old life was in danger. He had massive brain trauma, three skull fractures, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, broken femur, broken pelvis, a broken vertebra, a collapsed lung and severe carotid artery damage. No one knew if he would ever wake up. And if he did wake up, doctors did not expect him to live a normal life. A vegetative state was the most likely outcome.
When Mechanicsburg head football coach Kurt Forrest arrived at the hospital he immediately understood how bad it was by the reaction of Charlie Samples.
“We knew each other, but we weren’t close,” Forrest said. “And he just gave me the biggest hug of all time and buried his head in my chest. Right then and there it taught me a lesson that night about what a father’s love is all about. And what it truly means to be a coach.”
For 17 days, John Samples was in a coma at Miami Valley. Hope was all his family, friends and community had. The hope increased when the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital at Ohio State admitted Samples for experimental physical therapy designed to help patients come out of a coma. Seventeen days later and 34 in all, John’s gradual awakening from the coma became official on May 17. Four days earlier, he was asked his name and he was able to write it.
“That was a great day for us because we knew John was in there,” Ghindea said. “Once he woke up and realized what had to be done, John went to work in John fashion. He’s a fighter and he’s not going to let anything stop him.”
John’s recovery of his speech and motor skills through therapy at Dodd and extra help from his sister has exceeded all expectations. Ghindea said his recovery hasn’t been baby steps but leaps and bounds. He walked out of Dodd on June 10.
Now the unimaginable will happen Friday night at Southeastern High School. John Samples, who was Mechanicsburg’s leading tackler last season as a sophomore, was cleared by his doctor Monday to kick extra points in the final regular-season game. If the high-scoring and unbeaten Indians perform as usual, Samples will have several chances to kick. The only caveat is that he is not allowed contact and Southeastern knows that.
“This week has been so nerve wracking,” Samples said. “I’ll be nervous in the locker room and when we pray, but I think when we get out there it will all go away.”
Senior kicker Alex Rhine is stepping aside. He will still play as a starting cornerback and receiver.
“I was really happy for him,” Rhine said. “It’s going to be a special moment, and a lot of people will be wearing their #johnstrong T-shirts.”
John has his life back and a lot of people are a part of that. But it’s his sister who John and others say has had more to do with it than anybody. Taking care of her brother has always been Kayla’s way. John’s birth was by C-section, so 3-year-old Kayla was the first family member to feed him.
“From that minute on, that boy has been her world,” Ghindea said.
When John was 10 he tore up his knee playing football and had reconstructive surgery. Kayla was the only person he would allow to take care of him. Since the wreck, Kayla has been relentless in her help. Instead of spending her time away from school with friends, Kayla sat with John while he was in a coma. She slept at a friend’s place in Columbus and took most of the family-member shifts at Dodd. After the coma ended, it was even harder to leave the room because he was communicating even if at first it was only thumbs up or thumbs down.
“We’ve just got that brother-sister bond and it’s strong,” she said. “It’s hard to break. I always look out for him.”
Kayla is in the final year of her education at Clark State to become a physical therapy assistant. So she got some unexpected hands-on experience at Dodd helping her brother with his occupational therapy.
“I know she loves me,” he said. “If I’m getting off track, she gets me on track. She knows I’m a goal-oriented person.”
When Aug. 1 arrived, John was determined to watch football practice every day and lift weights while his sister spotted for him. His next goal was to start school with his classmates. He was told he might have to start with half-days and take it easy. He didn’t accept those terms.
“The progress he’s made is unbelievable,” Kayla said. “Just knowing that he’s going to go out on the football field is unbelievable.”
There was no hope of playing until two or three weeks into the season when John’s mom said, “If I were you, I’d be kicking.” John said, “I blew it off, but later that day I was like, ‘Hey, I could. It’s very unlikely I could get hit.’”
John asked his sister to hold for him and kicked the ball 100 times the first day. He made one. But it’s gotten better. Kayla gives him goals like making four out of five, and sometimes he hits the goal. And he has to make his last kick before leaving the field.
“I told him from the get-go I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll hold it for you,” she said.
John got more good news Tuesday. He was cleared to participate in wrestling drills. And Wednesday he was cleared to drive by himself. He hasn’t given up being able to play linebacker next year even though he knows it’s unlikely.
“There’s always a possibility,” Kayla said. “And with his determination, I’m sure he will try to make it happen.”
John said he had two motivations to get to where he is today. He wanted to be like everyone else in school and not receive special treatment. He’s achieved that one. Second, he wanted to play football, not just lift weights, watch practice, hang out in the locker room and stand on the sideline.
“Just suiting up, being in the locker room and putting the pads on before the game — there’s a different element to the game from knowing you’re going to stand there and do nothing to know you’re going to kick,” he said. “It’s a different feeling knowing you’re actually going to play.”
John’s family and a lot of people from Mechanicsburg will be at Southeastern on Friday night to see his next attempt at giving his best effort.
“I’ll probably ball like a baby,” Ghindea said. “If he actually makes it, I think I will probably have a breakdown.”
Tyler Wetzel is a senior, one of Samples’ best friends and the holder.
“Knowing that it’s going to be John will be pretty special,” he said. “He’s going to put it through the goalposts.”
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