Chambers seeing field, life clearly
Senior eyes national home run record five years after head injury
Four and a half years ago, Arizona senior Stacie Chambers fouled a softball off her face hard enough to cause a traumatic brain injury that still presents her with challenges to this day. In the process, she also lost an entire season of play.
Despite the difficulties she’s had to deal with, Chambers needs just one home run to tie Laura Espinoza and Leah Braats in the Arizona career record book at 85, and six more to tie UCLA’s Stacey Nuveman for the NCAA career home run record (90).
Chambers and her Wildcat teammates head to UCLA’s Easton Stadium this weekend for a three-game Pac-10 series.
“It’s been a long five years,” Chambers said. “My freshman year here, in my third game I ever played, I hit a foul ball into my face and got a head injury. That took months to get diagnosed. During that time, nobody really knew anything. Nobody understood anything. I had no idea what was going on with myself. Nobody understood because I looked perfectly fine on the outside and I wasn’t (fine) on the inside, mentally.”
No one takes her journey lightly, especially her coach.
“The one thing that I always look back at is the adversity that she has been able to bounce back from,” said Arizona head coach Mike Candrea. “She got hit in the mouth and that gave her a pretty severe concussion. She had to sit out a year for that. It has been a long struggle to get her back to being normal again.”
The injury took place during Arizona’s fall tournament in 2006. After sitting out the 2007 season and negotiating two facial plastic surgeries to repair the damage from the wayward softball, Chambers returned to the lineup a year later, joining a Wildcat squad that entered 2008 as the two-time defending national champions.
Starting all 54 games as UA’s designated player as a redshirt freshman, Chambers tallied 15 home runs. In her sophomore season, she started 61 games as the Wildcats’ catcher and two at DP, earning first-team All-Pac-10 and third-team All-America honors while putting 31 home runs into the record books.
It was at that point that Chambers started having vision problems.
“My sophomore year, I was fine,” Chambers said. “My junior year, I started struggling a little bit and I was striking out a lot more than I usually [did]. I was swinging at pitches that were not even remotely near the strike zone and I was like ‘Well, I swear it was [near the zone.]’
“I’d go look at video and it was nowhere near where I thought it was. Coach said ‘OK, there’s something wrong here.’ So we found a doctor that I work with now who specializes in vision.”
There is a slight distinction between eyesight and vision. Vision deals more with the neurological aspects of a brain processing what the eyes report, while sight (visual acuity or clearness of vision) is dependent on the sharpness of retinal focus.
“She’s an eye doctor, but it’s more in-depth,” Chambers said of her vision therapist. “My vision was messed up. I had problems tracking the ball. I have come a long way, don’t get me wrong, but I still am working at it. I’m still struggling at a lot of stuff. And I always will. That’s part of my head injury. I still deal with things all the time.”
Despite her vision issues, Chambers continued with a home run pace that would give her a shot at Nuveman’s record. She hit 21 round-trippers as a junior in 2010, and has 17 through 50 games this season.
Without Candrea’s support, Chambers may not have returned to the game of softball.“When you have a situation like that, you don’t really worry about the game too much. You worry about the well-being of the young lady and what kind of life she’s going to be able to lead,” Candrea said. “She has been a mainstay for us for the last five years. I’m just really glad to watch her play right now with a clear mind and back to having fun and enjoying life and being the person she was before when we recruited her. She did go through some really severe personality changes that sometimes concussions can bring.”
“We’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Chambers said of her relationship with the veteran coach. “I’m glad he’s been there for me because it would have made things a lot tougher for me if I didn’t have his support. If he wasn’t there believing in me along the way, I probably would have given up. I think a couple of times I actually told him I wanted to quit because I was so frustrated and was ready to give up, but he talked me out of it and I’m glad he did.”
|1||Stacey Nuveman, UCLA||90|
|2||Laura Espinoza, Arizona||85|
|Leah Braatz, Arizona||85|
|4||Stacie Chambers, Arizona||84|
|Check out more NCAA records.|
The turning point in her return to the game was a team meeting.
“It was tough coming back because others thought I looked fine,” Chambers said. “Nobody understood what brain injuries are because it’s not something you can physically see. Coach and I and my parents decided that it was best to have a team meeting about me with all my doctors, the whole team, our whole staff, everything and talk about it and let them know what’s going on. And after that, things got much better.&rdquo
Chambers still has to manage the damage of her brain injury on a daily basis.
She is registered with the disability resource center at the university, which provides her with access to note-takers and extended time to take exams. She also received a waiver through the NCAA to allow her to take a lighter class load than normal as a result of the brain injury.
Chambers is scheduled to walk in graduation ceremonies with her class on May 14.
“It has been a long road for me,” Chambers said. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that I’m a week away from graduating.”
This weekend against UCLA, the focus won’t be on academics. It’ll be on helping the Wildcats pull away from the log jam of teams around .500 in the conference standings. Along the way, if a record falls, that’ll be OK too, although don’t count on Chambers noticing when it happens.
“Right now, I honestly have no idea how many home runs I have in my career. I have no idea how many I have this season,” Chambers said. “I honestly try not to pay attention to it and everybody brings it up all the time. But I know if I think about that, I’m just going to put more pressure on myself because obviously that’s a huge honor.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think about it. But it’s not something that’s in the front of my mind. For my name to even be anywhere on that list, to me, is a huge accomplishment seeing all the stuff that I’ve been through.”