Mizzou softball's Cayla Kessinger leads Tigers after returning from health scare
It had been 646 days since Cayla Kessinger's last home run.
As the 5-foot-9 Missouri star stepped into the batter's box on a 54-degree Florida day, the long wait since her last longball wasn't engulfing her every thought.
Kessinger's health struggles had made her chances of sending a softball flying over the fence again feel impossible at times. But the Saugus, California, native wasn't content with just playing for the Tigers again. She desired to be a difference-maker.
Her redshirt contributions during the 2019 season were felt in the dugout and in the clubhouse, but not on the field or scorebook.
Once Kessinger's swift and powerful swing connected with a fourth-inning fastball from a Baylor pitcher and she watched it land over the 6-foot-high wall in left field, she checked off one major goal in her comeback journey.
"I almost cried," Kessinger said of the long-awaited homer she hit Feb. 8, 2020.
"I remember rounding first base and I looked at (assistant coach) Sara (Marino) and she's like, 'Oh my god! It's over, it's over!' I'm getting the goosebumps thinking about it."
When she reached third base on her home-run trot, Kessinger jogged through a high-five from Missouri head coach Larissa Anderson, who could relate all too well to her left fielder's journey.
Kessinger heard "You made it!" and "You did that!" from Anderson before being swarmed by her Tiger teammates at home plate.
"They were so happy for me because they know everything that I've been through and they know how hard it was on me," Kessinger said. "The post-home-run hugs just are something different."
The 21-month, five-day streak without experiencing those special embraces was over.
Diagnosing the discomfort
During Kessinger's high school softball career, she experienced minor pain sporadically that was believed to have stemmed from general fatigue.
If Kessinger wasn't playing softball growing up, she was involved with volleyball or soccer. She also spent plenty of time with friends, in and outside of athletics.
It was during Kessinger's prep career that she first heard of Thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib are compressed, causing pain in your shoulders and neck and numbness in your fingers, per the Mayo Clinic.
Repetitive injuries and movements in sports where rapid arm techniques occur, such as softball, are some of the most common causes of Thoracic outlet syndrome.
Those occasional inconveniences didn't become severe until a January 2018 practice at the beginning of Kessinger's sophomore season at Missouri.
After several long throws from the outfield, the pain started to overwhelm Kessinger for the first time.
She sought medical advice. Doctors noted the possibility of Thoracic outlet syndrome, but never pinpointed a diagnosis.
As a precaution, Kessinger was given Missouri's designated player role during the 2018 season, which took place after former Tigers head coach Ehren Earleywine was dismissed and before Anderson's arrival.
"As a student-athlete, you kind of downplay because you want to play," Kessinger said. "You kind of downplay the severity of the situation because you don't want to be taken out of the lineup. You don't want to be taken off the field. So I kind of was like, 'Yeah, it hurts, but I'm fine.'"
Kessinger temporarily let her guard down during a late March 2018 conversation with her dad, Cory Kessinger, when she admitted something was wrong. They agreed to combat those issues over the summer back on the West Coast.
Her father's intuition had kicked in a few weeks before Cayla's admission.
"We were here in California, we were watching her on the ESPN app. And she was in the batter's box and she took a swing and she fouled off a ball and she had tears coming down her eyes," Cory Kessinger said. "It's like, 'Oh my god, she's in pain.' And that hurts seeing that."
During one of Cory's 2018 visits to Columbia to watch his daughter play, Madi Norman, the ace of Missouri's pitching staff at the time, connected the dots with her own experience.
Norman told the Kessingers it sounded like Thoracic outlet syndrome. The right-handed hurler isn't a licensed doctor, but her prediction was correct — and an invasive surgery was the remedy.
Two doctors told Kessinger it was too risky to operate; another told her she would never play again after the procedure.
After a wide search, a doctor within the UCLA Health System gave the Kessingers a realistic, yet hopeful path forward — a tough recovery, but one that could get Cayla back onto the field.
Getting worse before better
Kessinger's successful first operation occurred Aug. 2, 2018, when she had a rib removed, part of her scaling muscles removed and her Subclavian artery moved so it was no longer compressed.
As her original recovery allowed for basic hitting and throwing during the fall, Kessinger knew something was still off. Pain from her elbow also started throbbing.
Kessinger again sought medical attention. This time around, it was a straightforward diagnosis. She needed an Ulnar nerve transposition, a procedure that removes pressure from the elbow, according to Lawrence (Kansas) Memorial Hospital.
The worst part of having that additional surgery was that it couldn't wait.
Kessinger knew soon after going under the knife for a second time she was likely to miss the 2019 season.
"Could I have played? Probably. But was it in my best interest to? Probably not," Kessinger said. "I was nowhere close to ready. I was nowhere close to fully recovered. And I wasn't going to put the output on the field that everybody was expecting and that wasn't fair to myself. That wasn't fair to my coaches. It wasn't fair to my teammates to not be able to put my best foot forward out there."
'Not even in the slightest am I OK'
After Anderson took the program's helm, she felt it was necessary for Kessinger to be at every game because of the infectious energy she brought to the bench.
While Kessinger took to her new responsibility, that wasn't enough to satisfy her.
A Californian at heart who loves going to the beach, she had become enthralled with Columbia, but could no longer participate in her favorite activity in her new home.
During a late January 2019 practice at the Devine Pavilion, Kessinger was glad to see her teammates getting ready for an NCAA Tournament appearance, but wasn't happy herself.
"That was the day where I was like, 'Is this really over for me? Am I even going to be able to play again?' And something happened in practice and I kind of excused myself and went to the bathroom," Kessinger said. "And I just broke down."
Marino had to use the restroom herself and found Kessinger mid-breakdown.
"She was like, 'Are you OK?' And I was like, 'No, not even in the slightest am I OK.' And I just cried and I felt like I cried for hours," Kessinger said of speaking with Marino that day. "I just was like, 'Am I going to be able to do this again? Am I going to be the same player that I was? Am I going to have success? And am I going to disappoint myself and am I going to disappoint my team?'
"I was worried about so many things in that moment that didn't matter. It was just so overwhelming that I just couldn't take it."
Marino entered the area of coaching where mentorship and helping athletes with off-field circumstances comes to the forefront.
Maybe it was because Marino was an expecting mother at the time, but even if it's an unwritten rule, she wanted to guide Kessinger through the tough experience.
"She was struggling and it was hard for her going through the injury, the process that was in place through the injury, the pain she had been in, everything, and she was just frustrated," Marino said. "And seeing (Kessinger) in there, it was kind of just talking her through it and being like, 'It's going to be OK.' I don't understand because I've never been in that situation, but basically telling her we're going to help her through this and she's going to be OK and she's going to make it through it."
Those within Missouri's program have said Kessinger and Marino are similar in their mindset, which helped with Kessinger's overall recovery. Both are known to be gracious and want the best for everyone.
Marino, a standout at Hofstra when Anderson was the Pride's assistant coach, told the now-Tigers head coach that Kessinger was having a hard time.
Anderson trusted Marino's judgment to help Kessinger.
"When athletes are so competitive and they're used to a certain level of success, and then they're trying to overcome some adversity and especially with an injury, they get very frustrated, " Anderson said. "It's trying to help them through that and letting them know that we are patient with them and it's going to be a long process that we don't expect them to be at the top of their game the second that they're able to be cleared. And just letting them know that we're going to help them through it, that kind of puts them at ease.
"And when Cayla's going through some of those hard times, she's expecting so much from herself and then she feels like she's letting the team down. And when you give her the support to be able to grow through that process and also how she can help the team in other ways, then she's adding more value to her role within the team."
Steady improvement and comfort
Anderson and Kessinger related in a way most couldn't. At that time, Anderson also was recovering from surgery after her own Thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosis.
While Kessinger's symptoms were neurological, Anderson's were arterial, with surgery Feb. 1, 2019, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. The Tigers opened the season a week later in Tempe, Arizona.
Anderson's managerial debut for Missouri was seven days post-surgery, and she didn't take her usual spot as the team's third base coach until a month later and didn't feel 100% until six months after the operation.
Kessinger, Anderson, Norman and former Missouri All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas all had to overcome Thoracic outlet syndrome.
"It is estimated that 90% of cases are neurological (nerve compression only), whereas 3-5% are venous and less than 1% are arterial," according to a blog post from Lindsey Colbert, a Columbia-based physical therapist who helped Kessinger and Anderson with recovery.
Mentally and physically, Kessinger got better through routine exercise and communication.
Her return to softball seemed imminent by the end of 2019.
Cory Kessinger said flying to Florida for Missouri's first games of the 2020 season, he didn't know if Cayla was cleared to play.
In Kessinger's first game back, 90 weeks after she had most recently played, she reached base safely in all four at-bats against Notre Dame.
A day later came that memorable home run against Baylor.
"I think her hands were in the air pointing before she was more than maybe 4 feet out of the batter's box. And you could just see how exciting it was," Cory Kessinger said. "And I think I may have probably had more tears in my eyes than she did at that point because it was like, 'Oh my god, she's back!' This is what we've been waiting to see and we've missed it. We didn't know if we were ever going to see it again."
To the naked eye, the struggles Kessinger endured weren't apparent once she returned.
She was in the best form of her career, starting all 26 games of the 2020 season in left field for Missouri.
She posted a .429 batting average, six home runs, 32 RBIs and a .532 on-base percentage. Last April, Kessinger was selected as a second-team All-American by Softball America.
Kessinger ended the abbreviated 2020 season on a 15-game hitting streak.
"I wish COVID never happened. That's all I can say," Kessinger said. "I have never felt more confident and secure in myself as an athlete at that moment and I think I was playing with something to prove to myself. I, for once, didn't care what other people on the outside thought.
"... All the things that really don't matter but sometimes you get caught up in, I wasn't worried about that because I was just happy to be there. I was happy to finally put my cleats on and put a uniform on and play. So I think growth-wise, that was a big milestone for me in my career, just learning how to play and enjoy the game. ... I think I took it for granted how much being an athlete means to me.
"But at the same time, I also got to learn what it's like when you don't have sports. I think so many times we're created through our sport and we create our identity based off of our sport. And when I had that taken away from me, I had to learn what it was like to be Cayla Kessinger the person, not Cayla Kessinger the softball player."
In Missouri's final game of 2020 against Illinois, Kessinger drove in the Tigers' only run on a double down the right-field line.
Dealing with COVID-19
Once the coronavirus pandemic forced stay-at-home orders and canceled NCAA spring sports, Kessinger didn't return to California.
She stayed in Columbia, citing the skyrocketing of positive cases in her home state.
Something no one could have ever predicted took softball away from Kessinger again. She used the shutdown to further develop relationships over Zoom with teammates who were also away from their families.
Marino tried to use the open communication to take Kessinger's mind off being isolated. Kessinger got to see Marino's dog and son, who is now a toddler.
"I know she was doing a lot of training on her own during that time, which I think is awesome," Marino said of Kessinger. "I always think finding that time by yourself where you can figure things out is so great. And I think it helped her decide what she wants for a future but also where she wanted to go this year."
What does the future hold?
Entering this weekend against Mississippi State, Kessinger was hitting .306 on the season with eight home runs and 24 RBIs.
The redshirt senior has been in a relative slump, but as Anderson tinkers with Missouri's lineup, her offense is getting back on track from the designated player spot.
Kessinger graduated in December with a degree in hospitality management.
She hasn't decided yet where she will be come next year.
"What are my plans? I don't know. I couldn't tell you where I'm going to be in the next couple of months because I have a sixth year, if I want to take it," Kessinger said of her NCAA eligibility. "I have another year to play if I want to. And I'm not saying that I am or whatever, but that opportunity is there.
"... Also at that point, I have to find a job and that's going to be difficult, too. I don't know where I'm going to be and right now, I'm just kind of taking it day by day. I'm searching the job fields as best as I can.
"But at the same time, I'm not going to get my hopes up or anything too crazy, because as we know, things can be taken away."
Kessinger is going with the flow. She found joy within her struggles and is still playing softball.
That's the simple yet luxurious reward of her five years in Columbia.
Contact Eric Blum at email@example.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.
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