The date was Saturday, February 2, 2017. A month from today, the Arkansas High Ladybacks would lead off their fourth season under head coach Elizabeth Tankersley at Arkadelphia.
Senior right fielder/designated hitter Makenzie Montgomery couldn’t wait to step up to the plate and actualize her potential of playing on a winning softball team. Perhaps her team-leading RBI ability would be part of a slew of victorious efforts for once.
Slowly, Makenzie was being robbed: first of her concentration from a lingering headache, second of her energy from a steadily advancing malaise, and almost her life from an unidentifiable malady.
While her teammates were taking BP throughout February, doctors all up and down I-30 were taking Makenzie’s vitals in effort to diagnose her. And when she could, Makenzie too was showing up to practice. It’s who she was: the dependable player Coach Tankersley could rely upon.
“My mom would talk to the doctors and she’d say they’d have to find what’s wrong with me,” said Mackenzie. “Nobody knew.”
The ordeal drove Makenzie’s mother, Ferlisha McClain, to the outer boundaries of her own breakdown.
“It was really frustrating, but I didn’t care,” said Ferlisha. “I wasn’t stopping. I don’t know. There was something inside of me. I don’t know; something as a parent you just know something is not right. Because she has been sick before. All four of my children have been sick before. But it was something that was just telling me that something was just not right. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Makenzie was wolfing down ibuprofen and now developing jaw pain. But she fought through the pain to make softball practice and be there for her teammates and her coach. As she fought every day to get out of bed due to the pain and absence of stamina, blurred vision was the final symptom to retire her. She texted Coach Tankersley just before Presidents Day Weekend telling her the pain was so intense in her head she couldn’t see well.
Still, Makenzie showed up to practice.
“She came out to practice, bless her heart,” recalled Tankersley. “She said, ‘Coach, my throat hurts. My head hurts.’ You took one look at her and you’re like, ‘This kid needs to go home.’ And it just went downhill after that.”
Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock came up with five diagnoses for Mackenzie; anywhere from dehydration, mono, strep throat, ear infection, or migraines. But they couldn’t find anything specific.
At the other end of I-30 in Dallas at Children’s Medical Center, the neurosurgery staff was able to ascertain the problem after an MRI and a CAT scan.
Remembered Makenzie: “After that CAT scan, she came in there and she said, ‘I found what’s wrong with you. I’m not sure you’re going to like it.’ So, definitely it was good to find out what was going on.”
Makenzie had a keloid cyst in her skull, smack in the middle of her brain. The cyst was so forceful in its intrusion in Makenzie’s skull it was pushing her brain out from the inside.
The plan of attack was straightforward: extract the cyst, install a series of shunts in Makenzie’s skull to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid. The recovery time to resume a normal, unathletic life would be two to three weeks. Unfortunately, due to risk of her recently operated skull being hit in softball, her senior season was canceled before it could even begin.
My heart just broke for her because it’s something that you work for for so long and you’re finally it to the summit of where you need to be, and it’s taken away in a blink of an eye,” said Tankersley. “It crushed me. I cried like a baby.”
Makenzie had been there for Coach Tankersley in 2016 during a 6-20 season reminding her coach to simply inhale and exhale and not get caught up in the exasperation of the year.
Said Tankersley: “There were times last year when she was just look at me and say, ‘It’s okay, Coach. Just breathe.’ We struggled. We had a young team last year.”
Now, Coach Tankersley would really have to heed Makenzie’s advice to take a breath during one of her most trying moments as Arkansas High’s head softball coach.
The night before Makenzie’s surgery, Coach Tankersley and the team, including former players, met in the Hardy House, the team’s indoor facility, and had an impromptu vigil for Mackenzie.
“We sat right there in the indoor facility and we just prayed and we prayed and we prayed,” said Coach Tankersley. “We cried and we laughed and we told stories about her. And we videoed it and sent it to her because that’s the only thing that I knew that I could do to let her know that we were with her.”
Tankersley kept Makenzie with her the whole season as she wore a burgundy ribbon in her shoe laces to remind her of Makenzie. She later gave the ribbon as a momento.
While most people were buying mattresses on Feb. 20, Makenzie was lying on an operating table at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.
The neurosurgeons were going to enter Makenzie’s skull, extract the cyst, and be done.
Coach Tankersley was in Dallas that day for her own doctor’s appointment and stopped by Children’s Medical Center to spend time with Makenzie’s family in the OR waiting room. As the surgery drug on for 11 hours and Tankersley had a two and a half hour drive in front of her, she left the hospital.
As night descended on the Metroplex, so too did a dark moment for Makenzie.
“I had stopped at a Target, and my phone rang and it was her mom,” Tankersley recalled. “And I was like, ‘This can’t be good.'”
The neurosurgeons had spent 11 hours endeavoring to get at the cyst without going into Makenzie’s brain. The problem was Makenzie’s veins were so narrow and so crisscrossed it made the thought of reaching the cyst impossible without causing irreparable harm to Makenzie’s brain.
Said Tankersley: “At that point, the mom in me was coming out like, ‘All right, what do we have to do now? Do I need to come up there and throw them one of my coaching fits because I will?’ She said, ‘All we can do is pray.'”
Tankersley blocked a checkout line in Target to open up the floodgates of communication on social media asking people to pray for her most dependable player.
“It blew up nationwide the love and support she had coming for her,” said Tankersley. “Nobody deserved it more than that kid does right there.”
Even 6A West foes such as Sheridan and Benton came to the aid of Makenzie and offered their prayers and support.
“It’s crazy because I knew I was going to be okay,” said Makenzie. “I felt every prayer that was being said. I felt every person cared for me. It was pretty cool to feel that.”
Makenzie says she felt like she was everybody’s champion. Even her mother drew strength from her optimism after the failed surgery as the stress finally broke Ferlisha and sent her to the hospital. When her daughter emerged from an 11-hour surgery asking if the cyst was gone, it broke Ferlisha’s heart so much to have to tell her daughter no.
Nevertheless, Ferlisha drew strength from Makenzie.
“I was telling her all the time how courageous she was because I was a mess,” said Ferlisha.
After another MRI to map out the vein network in Makenzie’s head, neurosurgeons reentered her skull on Feb. 22 to win the final victory against the cyst.
According to Makenzie’s neurosurgeon, the senior had the quickest recovery ever witnessed and she didn’t need one shunt; her brain immediately began draining the cerebrospinal fluid that Makenzie could hear sloshing around in her bulbous, bald head now complete with a zigzag scar on top.
Makenzie’s brain returned to normal instantaneously.
“My side affects would be I would be writing stuff down because I couldn’t remember,” Makenzie said. “I woke up remembering stuff that happened years ago.”
Now that Makenzie was home, Coach Tankersley came to bat for her senior and her family.
“I’ve never seen anybody like Coach,” said Ferlisha. “I don’t know. She represented a million people during that time. She was a comforter. I can’t even begin to tell you the things that she did. She made sure when she got out that I didn’t have to cook. She made sure that people came and brought food for us so that I could focus on her.
“We stayed in the Ronald McDonald House. They paid the bill. There’s so many things that she did. It’s crazy. She made sure she had the hospital bed when she came home. It had a lift on it so she didn’t have to raise up and down.”
Coach Tankersley had actually coordinated with a nurse practitioner friend of hers — Whitney Lindsey — to ensure Makenzie had the appropriate bed. Lindsey, who had taught Makenzie for one semester at Arkansas High, provided the necessary bed without question.
The softball coach even made sure Makenzie had a computer and her homework to enable her to graduate in May thanks to the help of Audrey Wright, Eva Nado, and Tanda Jolly.
Though Makenzie did not make any of the games in 2017, the Ladybacks made the games about her.
Said Tankersley: “They dedicated this season to her. We had her jersey before I gave it to her hanging up. Everybody would go by and high-five it. We checked in with her sometimes. The kids would call her during the games. If not during the games, then after the games.
“It was the best season I had since I’ve been here. It’s mainly because of Mackenzie. They played for her. Everything they did they played for her.”
Makenzie did get a chance at bat on senior night against El Dorado. Setting the ball on a tee, Makenzie hit the ball and took her base uncontested at first.
Makenzie even went to prom and in all of her inspirational glory. While her friends wanted her to wear a wig more in keeping with the shoulder length, braided hair Makenzie wore pre-surgery, she opted to instead wear her hair just as it was, scars and all.
Though Makenzie didn’t get to play her senior season in full, save for one at-bat, her courage and winning attitude in spite of a stolen season is the rudiment for winning seasons to come at Arkansas High thanks to the impression she left on the freshmen and sophomores.
“She inspired them because they understood the love of the game that they had,” said Tankersley. “They took it as, four years from now if this happens to me, is somebody going to pick me up?”