Kevin Hess opened his eyes days after a fateful fall from his skateboard near the Cal Poly campus this past winter that cracked his skull.
“I woke up in the hospital bed, and I looked up and saw my mom and dad,” Hess said, taking note of his feeding tube and catheter, “and I thought I must have messed up real bad if they’re both here.
“I wasn’t sure if I drank too much alcohol, or got in a fight, or got robbed.”
Hess had no recollection of the prior week and a half or the fall itself.
To the former Cal Poly football defensive tackle, he blinked one day and instantaneously awoke in a San Luis Obispo hospital bed with worried family members from Arcadia vigilantly hoping to be greeted by the same young man they remembered.
What Hess lost was the memory of the skateboard accident. Until the swelling subsided, doctors placed him in a medically induced coma that lasted nine days.
Friends and family feared debilitating brain damage. What would become of his propensity for computer science? His self-deprecating-but-optimistic wit?
Then Hess came to and days later posted a Facebook status update from the hospital, a quip about being lonely on Valentine’s Day.
Now, their hope is that Hess opened his eyes in a figurative way as well.
TALENTED DEFENSIVE TACKLE
After a standout career at Arcadia High where he was named defensive MVP of the Pacific League for the middling Apaches, Hess was recruited to Cal Poly by former head coach Rich Ellerson, but after his redshirt sophomore season, he had to prove himself all over again to incoming head coach Tim Walsh.
The relationship started off rocky. Hess failed out of the business college at Cal Poly and had to get his grades up at Cuesta College before regaining his eligibility for Walsh’s first season in 2009.
Walsh honored Hess’ scholarship when he got back into school. The Mustangs were transitioning from a three-lineman set to a defense with four down lineman, and big men were at a premium.
In Hess, coaches saw a 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive tackle with the potential to be terrific.
“Kevin had an abundance of talent,” Walsh said. “He was strong, he was fast.
“We would sometimes sit in the coaches’ office and go, ‘Man, that guy’s a good player.’ ”
In his career, Hess played in 41 of 43 possible games, totaling 50 tackles and two sacks.
He could have played even better, Walsh said, but football wasn’t paramount to Hess as it was for some of his teammates.
The coach suspects Hess fought through disinterest in classes so he could enjoy the camaraderie of teammates.
“Deep down, he’s a good guy,” Mustangs defensive end Andy Alcaraz said. “He’s just a big softie deep down inside, but he gives off this tough-guy persona.
“He wants to be loved. He definitely wants everyone to like him. He goes the extra mile to be your friend.”
What nobody knew was that Hess also has a form of depression. His mental health includes spans of manic behavior that contributed to a second departure from Cal Poly.
In the offseason after his junior year, Hess quit the team and left school after a silly argument with Walsh. The coach denied Hess a jersey number request.
“When you’re psychotic or manic, your logic and reason in your brain isn’t logical and reasonable,” Hess said. “It makes sense to you in your brain, but when you articulate that to other people, they don’t understand, and it’s frustrating.”
Things didn’t improve once Hess was back home, and conflicts with his parents led to an involuntary stint in the psychiatry ward at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena.
A SCARY ACCIDENT
Spearheaded by defensive line coach Jamar Cain, the Mustangs’ coaching staff approached Hess and his family about coming back to the team for his senior season in 2011.
“I just want people to take advantage of their opportunities,” Walsh said. “We didn’t know what we were going to get back because he was in a dark place. We met with his dad and we met with Kevin.
“The doctors that he talked to said it would probably be a good time for him. It turned out being a positive experience for everyone involved.”
Hess returned to San Luis Obispo just a few days into training camp and played a key backup role on the defensive line, happy to be back amongst his friends.
Cal Poly won the Great West Conference football title in the conference’s final season.
The same fellowship with teammates that encouraged Hess to come back to San Luis Obispo kept him there.
He held onto a job in the computer lab at the business college even though he dropped out of the university little more than a handful of classes away from earning his degree.
That’s where things stood a year later when he invited Alcaraz on a Feb. 13 skate down the hill to Frank’s Famous Hot Dogs.
Hess was so excited for the run, he took off while Alcaraz was still walking up the hill with his back turned. The telltale scraping sound of a skateboard wipeout prompted Alcaraz to look over his shoulder just a few seconds later.
Hess was down. The lack of blood belied serious injury, but he wasn’t getting up.
“It looked exactly like a football hit,” Alcaraz said. “When a guy cramps up, all his fingers clench up. He was snoring, and his eyes were closed.
“I was trying to wake him up and touch his face a couple times. I didn’t get a response.”
A passing car pulled over, and the driver called for an ambulance. After less than a minute, Hess was trying to stand up and walk home. They held him down until he could be transported to the emergency room.
Alcaraz fully expected to see Hess later that afternoon, which is why he became increasingly worried as the hours passed and Hess never called his friend to pick him up from the hospital.
Hess spent the next two weeks in the hospital. Then, two more in a rehab facility in Pomona. before he pulled himself out and return to San Luis Obispo to pursue work.
He woke up with a perpetual headache and matching cranial scar. He lost his sense of smell. He had to relearn how to walk one inch at a time.
It’s a good thing he can walk normally now because he can’t drive because of the risk of brain seizures caused by his brain injury.
He’s taking medication for that. He also has prescriptions for Alzheimer’s drugs to help with memory loss. All of the pills make him drowsy, but he still needs sleep aids at the end of the day.
Everything — from gourmet meals to greasy snacks at Chevron — tastes the same.
But Hess isn’t paralyzed, and he’s not dead.
“It definitely makes you appreciate the smaller things in life,” Hess said. “People might think it’s unfortunate that he lost his license and has to walk everywhere now. I’m just happy to be able to walk.”
Walsh wants Hess to finish his degree. He would have to appeal to get back into school, but being so close to graduating, the coach believes Hess will be afforded the opportunity if he wants it.
Despite doubting the value of a diploma while he was playing at Cal Poly, Hess said he wants to earn his degree. But he’s also worried about his readiness for school again.
He’s catching himself forgetting details. If he’s thinking of a word, he’ll sometimes be unable to recall its opposite.
Hess still has progress to make in his recovery, but he wants to do it while moving forward. That’s why he left San Luis Obispo again this month, joining former Mustangs teammate Stash McGuinness to work for a tech company in Washington, D.C.
His last days in town gave friends reason to hope that the accident has finally helped him find direction.
“He was thinking as clearly as far as I’ve known him,” Alcaraz said. “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe this is what he needed to kind of change his life around.
“I think he wanted something more in life. He kind of saw that.”