Most Viewed Stories
Broken in body, not in spirit: Pikes Peak Christian athlete revels in second chance
‘There's a reason I'm fine. I shouldn't be'
Kaleb Ham walked down the blue-carpeted hallways at Pikes Peak Christian School, arms swinging with each stride as he turned to greet classmates to his left and right.
Sounds pretty ordinary, right?
Then consider the events of a cold Oct. 5 afternoon. Ham took the ball as he had 62 previous times that season. But this time the sweep to the left sideline ended with a violent collision with a Kiowa linebacker. Ham, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound running back who could bench press 355 pounds, lay on his stomach, motionless.
When Ham didn’t immediately pop up, third-year coach Doug Miller knew something was seriously wrong.
“That was the scariest 25 minutes of my life,” Miller said. “We waited on the ground until the paramedics got there. I pinched him so hard on the thigh, it turned black and blue the next day. He told me he didn’t feel it at all.”
Ham was transported to Memorial Hospital. The game resumed, the Eagles absorbing a 52-8 loss while focusing on their fallen teammate.
“The neurosurgeon came in talking about me being a paraplegic (paralysis from the chest down),” Ham said. “The C6 and C7 vertebrae were completely shattered. I just remember my face being stuck in the ground. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t move. I was just getting colder and colder. It was really terrifying. At the same time, I knew this wasn’t it. I was going to be OK.”
When Miller and his staff arrived at the emergency room that evening, they expected the worst. For several hours Ham exhibited no movement in his lower extremities, the prospects growing dimmer each passing moment.
“I expected to see a paraplegic,” Miller said.
Then it happened. Just a twitch.
“The neurosurgeon wanted to do a check one last time, then they were talking about surgery,” Ham said. “Then my toe barely moved, just a little, and he jumped back. He was yelling at his nurses and freaking out. He was looking at my X-rays, trying to figure out what was going on. I was able to start moving.”
A subsequent MRI revealed the fractures in the vertebrae had settled back in place. Ham’s spinal cord, while bruised and swollen, was not severed as feared.
“The neurosurgeon said if the fracture had been one millimeter lower down, there could have been permanent damage,” Miller said. “They called it amazing. We called it a miracle.”
The next day, Ham took his first steps. Six days after the injury, Ham left the hospital and attended the Eagles’ next game, a 12-6 loss at Miami-Yoder. Pikes Peak Christian lost its remaining two games to end up 4-5 after winning four of five with a healthy Ham.
“We lost because he was the heart of our team,” Miller said. “Without his spiritual and emotional leadership, we were flat.”
Ham, on the condition that he could touch his chin to his chest, was officially cleared from wearing his neck collar at his final follow-up appointment Monday with his neurosurgeon.
He could weeks ago.
He’ll be allowed to play basketball, not his favorite sport, but better than full restrictions and being cooped up.
“Because of God, I’m fine,” Ham said. “I was completely healed, no surgery. Just a lot of prayers. I didn’t listen very well while I was recovering at home. I didn't wear my brace all the time like I should have. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m good. I don’t know how to explain it.”
His reluctance to take no for an answer comes naturally. The oldest of four in a military family, Kaleb and his family eventually settled in San Antonio after stays in Houston and Hawaii. At 22 months old and hospitalized with a gastrointestinal infection, he was accidentally over-medicated and suffered permanent hearing damage.
His mother, Jennifer, taught him how to read lips. He spent eight years at the renowned Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children to improve his ability to communicate. He thrived and overachieved in his transition to mainstream schools, and it was almost counterproductive. He didn’t fit in, and many kids made every attempt to let him know. He grew his hair long to hide his hearing aids.
“Some of it was because he did so well with his aids,” Jennifer Ham said. “The other students didn’t think he was that deaf, so when he wouldn’t answer them in the halls, they thought he was dissing them. He had such a hard time with that.”
Changing schools from tiny, private River City Christian to 5A powerhouse San Antonio Madison took the naïve teenager to unimaginable places. In addition to the continued taunts, his friends turned on him as they fell prey to temptations, along with easily obtained illegal substances.
Ham recalls awakening on a convenience store floor across the street from his school, bloodied, beaten and his face swollen, his wallet taken by those same so-called friends. Apparently, he said no too many times.
He knew there had to be a better place. So he called longtime friend Nate Harris, whom Ham had known his entire life. Harris and his family moved to Colorado Springs two years ago.
“I needed a fresh start,” Ham said. “My parents and I had these conversations for a couple of years. It wasn’t safe for me anymore, and they knew, too. I needed my life back together. I needed my best friend again. Something was pulling me here.”
It wasn’t an easy sell, but all sides knew it was right.
“We weren’t ready for him to leave home, yet,” Jennifer Ham said. “It broke my heart, but my husband and I never doubted that we made the right decision. That’s what you want for your children, to be successful and happy. As much as we miss him, that’s where he’s supposed to be.”
Living with the Harris family and attending Pikes Peak Christian for his senior year, the Eagle Scout made an admission he never thought possible.
“I really enjoy going to school here,” Ham said. “I’ve never said that before. The teachers care. People don’t care that I’m deaf. I’m beyond happy here. This is how I am and don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I could hear completely. I don’t think I would have strived so hard to be the person I am.”
Ham loves the underdog, because he is one. Despite his life-altering experience and accompanying disability, he refuses to put football in the rearview mirror, hoping to attend Azusa Pacific (Calif.), first as a kicker, then ultimately as a running back. He revels in defying the odds, even defying science.
“That’s the best feeling in the world, for people to say I can’t do something and then I turn around and do it,” Ham said. “People were saying I wasn’t going to walk. Look at me. I know I’m lucky. But I know there’s a reason I’m fine. I shouldn’t be. There’s a reason, and I want to know what it is. I think it’s to keep going.”
He averaged nearly 16 yards per carry, the most of anyone in school history, and had 17 touchdowns in five-plus games. To Ham, a continuation of this season exists, even if others doubt it in such an inherently violent sport.
“Football is a huge passion of mine,” said Ham, who wants to pursue a career in physical therapy. “I know I can go far with it. I want to show kids that if you’re deaf, blind, whatever, you can still surpass anything. I want to keep striving to be something.”
So he walked away, to his next class, making up for lost time. And to continue his journey to be something and to take advantage of a second chance.