CARMEL, Ind. – He is on top of the ladder, on top of the world, bellowing triumphantly and holding a piece of net from University High’s sectional championship. Below him are players and parents and coaches, the very people who have seen this miracle unfold. They’re the ones supporting Dr. Chris Cosby as he climbs another step and reaches skyward. There’s your metaphor.
And here’s his wife, Cindi Gonzales-Cosby, below the basket. Her hands are all over the ladder, all over this miracle on 116th Street.
Everybody in this story has won, and they’re not finished winning. The University Trailblazers beat Bethesda Christian this weekend to advance to a Class 1A girls regional showdown Saturday at Jac-Cen-Del. And Dr. Chris Cosby, good ol’ Coach Doc, he’ll be there.
It wasn’t long ago that everything in this story, all this winning, would have seemed preposterous. From 2010-15, the Trailblazers went 28-76. In April of 2016, after new coach Justin Blanding’s debut season – the Trailblazers, including Chris and Cindi’s daughters, Cyan and Honor, went 16-9 – Dr. Chris Cosby suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to walk, unable to talk, unable to understand what was happening.
What happened next, what continues to happen to this day, defies medical understanding. It’s a story about the mystery of traumatic brain injury and the magic of school and community. It’s a story of love and high school basketball.
It’s the story of one man climbing that ladder, and all the people cheering him to the top.
* * *
Today, Doc feels like Superman.
He can’t say why, for a lot of reasons. The stroke left him with aphasia, meaning the right word doesn’t always come out, a noun like boat replacing a word like dinner. When the word he wants is floating just beyond that beautiful brain of his, a brain that put him through medical school and law school, Doc will purse his lips and look at his wife for help.
Before this sectional quarterfinal against Indianapolis Metropolitan, Superman is sitting in the front row of University’s gym, the U-Center. His ‘S’ is subtle, gray on gray, but Doc figures he might wear one of his gaudier Superman shirts, the bright red ‘S’ against a backdrop of gold, for the sectional final if the Trailblazers get there.
Today he feels like Superman, but there are days he feels like Batman or The Flash. He wore a different superhero shirt every day to rehab, and he wears them to University games. He’s also a huge supporter of coach Brandon Lafferman’s boys basketball team; his son Jazen played for Lafferman in 2014 and ’15. This whole superhero thing started after he suffered a monstrous, left hemispheric ischemic stroke, and the most inexplicable thoughts came flooding into his brain.
Well, the first thought needs no explanation.
“I was awake the whole time,” Cosby, 51, says of April 7, 2016, the day he suffered that stroke. “On the way to the emergency room I thought of Cindi. I didn’t know anything, I couldn’t do anything. Cindi was all I knew.”
She is sitting with us in the front row of the U-Center, and tears are filling Cindi Cosby’s eyes, but she’s about to giggle. Because Doc is about to tell me the second thought that came into his head:
Reggie Miller in the Superman shirt.
Remember that? Miller, the Indiana Pacers star from 1988-2005, wore a Superman shirt before Game 3 of the 2000 playoffs against Milwaukee. The Pacers had squandered their home-court edge by losing Game 2 of that first-round series, so Miller was making a statement of intention. Sure enough, he scored 34 points that night to lead the Pacers to victory. They advanced in five games and went all the way to the 2000 NBA Finals.
Why did Chris Cosby, shortly after suffering a stroke, think of his wife and then Reggie Miller’s T-shirt 16 years earlier? He can’t say. It’s a mystery, same for his choice of superhero shirt for University games.
“I wear what I feel like I am,” Doc says.
A few minutes later I find the fourth of Chris and Cindi Cosby’s four children, the only one still in high school. Drej Cosby, whose brother and two sisters attend Purdue, is a sophomore at University High. He has seen his dad, trapped for months inside that brain of his, gradually work himself free to the point where he’s talking, walking, attending practices and working as something of an unofficial coach for Blanding. I ask Drej what he makes of his dad’s tendency to wear superhero shirts.
“Because,” Drej says, “he’s basically like a superhero.”
* * *
Before he could talk, he could draw.
He wasn’t an artist before any of this, but when Cindi heard about art therapy for patients of traumatic brain injury (TBI), she put a pencil in her husband’s left hand and set him free.
Doc is a natural right-hander, but the stroke devastated that side of his body. He shuffles when he walks, wearing a splint to support his lower right leg, and a wool glove covers his cold, curled right fingers. Starting with pencil scribbles on a 4-by-6 index card, Doc advanced to magic markers and then water color, the images rudimentary but brilliant. An early victory was the day his blood sugar dropped — doctors found diabetes after the stroke — and Doc showed Cindi his glucose monitor and the box of orange juice he had just drawn.
“And I understood,” she says.
The first figure he could draw was a number 8, sideways, representing infinity, and it remains a favorite. The stroke left Doc mostly blind in his left eye, a brutal condition he describes by drawing a sideways 8 and filling the right circle with a lovely landscape: a stream flowing past a tree, to a mountain and whatever lies beyond. The left circle he colors mostly yellow with red blotches. In one small section he leaves room for a glimmer of landscape. That, Doc is saying in magic marker, is the world through his left eye.
“My Chris is in there,” Cindi says. “I can see it, but he’s so frustrated. He knew so much. When he had his (family) practice, nurses called him Dr. Google.”
I’m looking at Doc, and he’s pursing his lips and trying to get this out. The sentences come from his mouth in pauses, and if he is not using the exact words he would have chosen before the stroke, he is using the words his brain can muster today.
“I went to medical school, I went to law school, I knew everything,” he says. “April 7, 2016, I lost it. Everything was derailed.”
Once upon a time they had a doctor’s salary and a beautiful home in Noblesville. Now they live on his disability in a small rental near University High, getting free tuition from the school. Cindi wants to work but can’t leave Doc for long, so the bills are mounting. Cindi cuts corners where she can, canceling cable and going to the McDonald’s parking lot when she needs the internet. Medically speaking the worst is behind them, unless it isn’t. Traumatic brain injury is a caged monster that can break loose at any time, and Doc often has seizures at home. After 22 months, Cindy knows tomorrow could bring anything.
As for Doc, he often draws his brain. In one picture he divides the brain in half, the right side a brimming kaleidoscope of hope and colors, the left side dull and mostly barren. In another he labels the brain’s various parts – frontal cortex, occipital, parietal – and fills them with squiggly lines. In the temporal cortex, where he suffered the stroke, he has hidden a single word inside the squiggles, a word camouflaged so carefully that I can’t find it until Cindi tells me exactly where to look.
And there it is, hidden in the temporal cortex of Doc’s brain, everything he has to say about his current condition:
* * *
Doc is in the locker room, his eyes closed and his head moving rhythmically as coach Blanding gives the team final instructions. Blanding pauses and Doc fills the gap:
“Let’s gooooooooo,” he rumbles softly, swaying to music in his head.
Blanding smiles, the players smile, and now Blanding is reminding them of something Doc drew just for them.
“I showed you Doc’s picture about what all of this really means,” Blanding says. “It’s not about you. It’s about all of us.”
The picture is a statement of purpose, the words written in black ink except for the ones – italicized below – in blue:
“You are a miracle, and will never know how much you contribute to the lives of others. Because you do contribute, even now “
Blanding raises a fist and the Trailblazers surround him. They are chanting: “1-2-3 … Blazers!” Cosby is chanting something else, chanting quietly until the last word:
“Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s go let’s go let’s go let’s goooooooooo!”
A few minutes later the Trailblazers are warm. They return to the bench for introductions, Doc’s cue to rise. Already he has been active in pregame, rising to shout the time to tipoff in five-minute increments.
“Twenty minutes!” he whoops, an auctioneer in a Superman T-shirt. “Twennnnnnnnty minutes!”
“My favorite Doc Cosby story,” Webster says, “is what he used to say (before the stroke). Players on our team would run past, and he’d say in a low voice, so the other team couldn’t hear, because he didn’t want to be hurtful: ‘She can’t guard you.’”
Today, University is running away with this sectional quarterfinal – final: 90-23 – and Trailblazers reserve Jhordan McGuire, a 5-10 junior, shines in the extra playing time. Doc is watching her score and pass and rebound, and his eyes are wide as he talks about McGuire, a running monologue I hear in bits and pieces as he paces the sideline:
“… going to be so good …”
“… has it all …”
“… can play!”
Cindi is smiling. This is her husband at his happiest. His involvement with the University basketball teams, sparked by the participation of Cyan, Honor and Jazen, escalated after the stroke even with that trio moving onto Purdue and Drej running cross country. Doc is an honorary coach for both teams, leading some drills in practice and getting those fist bumps before games.
“Besides my own family,” Doc says, “this is all I have right now so I can ‘get out of the downing.’ It’s not about winning championships. I’m just happy when I can coach the kids! I love all of it and them! It’s good for me.”
At home he is frustrated, a brilliant man tormented by incomplete memories of what he once was, but in the gym he is vibrant and he is getting better. The progress is invisible in real time but obvious over long stretches even now, 22 months after his traumatic brain injury. Nobody can explain what is happening here, only that it is happening: A stroke survivor is inspiring a basketball team, and the team is inspiring the stroke survivor.
“Whatever he gets from us,” says Blanding, “trust me: We’re getting more from him.”
Says the admission director, Nancy Webster: “This is happening in our gym. We’re pretty lucky.”
On the court, McGuire is about to shoot a free throw and Doc is standing and yelling: “Come on, give me one!” On the front row, Cindi is beaming: “Look at his eyes,” she says. “Look how alive they are. It only happens here.”
Dr. Chris Cosby sits down next to me. I don’t ask him a thing. This charming, brilliant man just starts talking.
“This team, it’s …” he stops because he can’t find the word. Doc purses his lips and looks to the ceiling. Nope, he can’t find it there. He looks to Cindi, who wants so badly to solve the riddle but cannot. Doc shakes his head, then breaks into a smile. He’s got it.
“This team,” he says. “It’s everything.”
In a few days this team wins its first sectional since 2012. Blanding is given the IHSAA trophy, but it’s not his to hold. The trophy belongs to someone else, so the University coach hands it to the man in that gaudy shirt, the bright red ‘S’ against a backdrop of gold. On this basketball court, surrounded by this basketball team, Dr. Chris Cosby is not a shuffling stroke victim. He is Superman, and with the trophy in one hand and his left arm spread wide, he is ready to fly.
How you can help Dr. Cosby
Dr. Chris Cosby’s massive stroke on April 7, 2016 rendered him permanently disabled from aphasia, blindness and paralysis, and made a full-time caregiver of his wife, Cindi Gonzales-Cosby. They live on disability, and on May 31 will be looking for housing near Carmel where their son Drej Cosby attends high school. Assistance in any form, including contributions to the “Wounded Superhero Fund,” can be sent to University High, c/o Justin Blanding at 2825 W 116th St, Carmel, IN 46032.