Former star athlete triumphs after accident that left her paralyzed
Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr., Associated Press
DECATUR, Ala. — Pushing through the crowd of emergency responders, Royal Carpenter yelled frantically for his daughter, the teenager he often called "gym rat" at Hatton High where he coached.
She was lying on a gurney and he could hear her talking.
"Courtney! Courtney!" he screamed, with an urgency Courtney Carpenter had never heard from him before.
"Daddy," she responded softly, tears running down her face.
"What's wrong?" he asked, as paramedics stabilized her body for transport to a Florence hospital.
Neither will ever forget her response.
"I feel like I have been cut in half."
Winter's frost was yielding to the warmth of spring on March 16, 1994, when the life Courtney Carpenter had all planned out took a dramatic turn.
The high school sophomore, a talented multi-sport athlete who at the age of 16 already had six state championship rings, had been injured in a single-car accident.
Some were comparing her to Alabama's all-time greatest female athletes when she had that wreck, which left her paralyzed with a broken back between the fourth and fifth vertebrae.
In that instant, Courtney's dream of playing professional basketball was shattered.
In the years since, she has charted a new course. And lived a new dream.
For 20 years, Courtney Carpenter Boyll, 36, has spent most of her waking hours in a wheelchair. She insists she has harbored no regrets.
"God put me where I'm at for a reason, and I don't question His decision," she said sternly.
There are no pity parties. Never have been.
"I never heard her make an excuse, and her strength is amazing," former teammate and Moulton Elementary counselor LaDonna Cook said. "She does not cry out for help, and if you try to help her, she politely lets you know she's OK."
Work days for Courtney Carpenter Boyll start at 5 a.m., when Scott, her husband of 11 years, leaves for work at 3M in Decatur. She spends a few minutes reviewing her lesson plan for third-graders at Moulton Elementary before waking her three children, ages 3, 5 and 8.
As the kids eat breakfast — generally a bowl of cereal for the oldest two — she makes their beds.
Rolling her wheelchair from room to room, she reminds them to hurry, and occasionally officiates a sibling rivalry.
Her movement is non-stop until all have eaten, brushed their teeth and dressed.
There are moments of frustration, especially when the kids don't like what she had picked for them to wear or leave their book bags on the table.
"There's never a dull moment," she says as she opens the garage door.
Her father, now retired, sits with her youngest son on Mondays. A babysitter comes Tuesday through Friday.
When everyone gets to the car, she rolls down a ramp in the garage of the home she and Scott designed three years ago.
She circles the car to make sure their two school-age children are secure in their carseats.
Then, she rolls to the driver's side and uses the open door to lift herself from the wheelchair into the vehicle.
She disassembles the wheelchair, puts it in the passenger seat and leaves for school.
Her first priority after arriving at Moulton Elementary is to make sure her children make it in the building safely. She has to remind the kids, especially 5-year-old Jack, not to run into traffic.
Without another word, she picks up one of the wheels and the seat of her wheelchair. After pushing the driver's seat as far back as it will go, she assembles half the wheelchair before attaching the second wheel outside the car.
She locks the brakes on both wheels before lifting her body from the car into the wheelchair. A few seconds later, she is rolling herself up the handicap ramp to her third-grade classroom.
For Courtney Boyll, this is routine.
Teachers and administrators say she has that routine down, and they only offer to help when the weather is bad.
Cook said Boyll's students learn more from her example than they ever could from a book.
"They know they can't complain and make excuses because she never does," she says.
Students Wyatt Dutton and Brooklyn Graham — both youth athletes — admire and appreciate her effort.
"She takes her time and helps us," Dutton says.
They also like that her room has an athletic theme. The massive cardboard cutouts hanging from the ceiling are shaped like basketball uniforms and have terms on them like "slam-dunk spelling" and "victorious vocabulary."
On a shelf, she has basketballs signed by teams from Alabama and Auburn from 20 years ago, when she was recovering in Children's Hospital in Birmingham.
She also has a basketball and volleyball autographed by middle school teams she coached at East Lawrence. They sometimes serve as conversation pieces for students who may be struggling and need a pat on the back.
But they are also a reminder of a dream long ago left behind.
In 1994, as a high school sophomore, she already had played on four Hatton state volleyball championship teams and was starting catcher on two state softball championship teams.
Two days before her accident, the Alabama Sports Writers Association selected her first-team all-state in basketball. Standing 5-foot-9 but playing mostly around the goal, Courtney averaged 25 points and eight rebounds in her last basketball season.
College recruiters, who generally came to watch opposing upperclassmen, were taking notice of her ability. In a game against rival Mars Hill, one Division I basketball recruiter called Courtney the best player he had seen that season.
She wanted to play basketball at the University of Alabama and had received recruiting letters from the Crimson Tide coach, Rick Moody.
She had finished her sophomore basketball season and was playing softball in March. In her final game before the wreck, Courtney got the hit that drove in the winning run in the final inning against Speake.
After the team's practice on March 16, 1994, she went to visit a friend — as she and other teammates did after most practices.
She left for home about 8 p.m. and was traveling on Lawrence County 136, a dark, curvy road.
"I hit a dip and the car started fish-tailing," Courtney remembered.
The vehicle hit a tree, and though she said she was wearing a seat belt, the force of the impact threw her into the back seat. Courtney was conscious but couldn't raise her body.
About five miles away, her father heard emergency vehicles racing past his home on Alabama 157. Richard Hatton, one of his former players, knocked on his door.
"He told me Courtney had been in an accident," Royal Carpenter said.
Her older sister, Robyn, was a freshman at Jacksonville State University when their father called. He told Robyn about the accident and said Courtney was OK. He also said their former pastor, who lived near Jacksonville, was coming to be with her until her brother came to get her. Then he hung up quickly.
The message confused Robyn. If her sister was OK, why was their brother coming to take her out of college?
She found the number to the emergency room and called back. Robyn implored her father to tell her the "whole" truth.
"He told me there were no outside injuries, but that Courtney couldn't feel her legs," Robyn said.
Courtney was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Birmingham for surgery.
Family members arrived before the helicopter. Doctors told them they would be able to see her, but needed to remain calm because she had blood in her lungs.
"I lost it," Robyn said.
Courtney looked up at the sister she admired and smiled.
"I got this," Courtney said.
Her spirits remained high following two surgeries and two months in rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta rehabilitation facility.
The stubborn soul that pushed opponents around on the athletic field was now directing the family.
When Courtney was in intensive care with tubes running from her body, Royal Carpenter announced that he would not coach football the coming fall.
Courtney opened her eyes, looked at her father and said: "Daddy, I want you to coach."
So he did. Hatton had one of its best football seasons ever, and Royal Carpenter was named state 2A Coach of the Year.
Four months after the wreck, in mid-July 1994, Courtney returned to the gymnasium where she had reached so many of life's milestones, including learning to crawl. A few weeks later, before school opened for her junior year, Principal Larry Hancock explained the changes that had been made to make the school more accessible for her.
There were tough moments, but Courtney decided to stay involved with athletics. She attended practices and traveled with the team when she could.
One day during her senior year, she jokingly mentioned that she was going to walk at graduation.
It was a joke because it seemed impossible — until a nurse at a Decatur rehabilitation center told her about a brace.
"She thought I could do it, but I knew I could," Courtney said.
Only a handful of people knew about the plan. But cheers rose at the graduation ceremony when Courtney, wearing braces on her legs, walked across the stage into the embrace of her father, who gave her a hug, a kiss and a red rose.
She accepted an academic scholarship to the University of North Alabama and lived on campus two years until her sister, who married and became Robyn Hutto, was hired as head volleyball coach at Lawrence County High.
Hutto said she was the brains, but Courtney, working as a volunteer assistant, was the inspiration that carried the team to Class 4A state championships in 1998 and 1999.
"My playing time was cut short, but this put me back in touch with the game, and I loved the competition," Courtney said. "Coaching is about inspiring kids. I felt I could help them with their dreams, regardless of my circumstances."
She had more dreams of her own.
While at UNA, she prayed she would meet her soulmate — the person who would look past what she couldn't do and focus on her heart.
In 1999, Scott Boyll walked into Cornerstone Church, bringing with him what he called his "issues."
Born in California, he didn't grow up in the church. Courtney was the first person he met at Cornerstone, and she put him at ease.
"Her smiled nailed me," he said.
Scott Boyll, now 34, didn't say anything to her because "I knew she was from a prominent family, and I didn't think I was good enough for her."
Courtney told her grandmother she thought he was cute, and the grandmother shared the conversation with Scott's mother.
For two weeks, Scott wrestled with whether to call the woman he said had a "million-dollar smile."
There were struggles in their courtship, primarily because Courtney was independent.
She refused to let Scott push her in her wheelchair. But when strangers approached, she allowed them to help.
"I thought people were looking at me and calling me a jerk because I wasn't helping her," he said.
After dating almost two years, Scott was ready to take the relationship to the next level, but he had questions, such as whether Courtney wanted children.
He said she had kept a lot of "personal stuff" from him, but, "I knew I was falling in love" and there were things they needed to talk about.
Convinced that nothing would tear them apart, Scott said he spent every penny he had to purchase an engagement ring and a dozen roses in the summer of 2002.
Nervously, he dropped rose petals from the entrance of the home of Courtney's aunt to her swimming pool, where he spread a blanket on the ground. He wanted to prepare a lunch but had no money left, even for "any kind of picnic food."
Of course, Courtney said yes. It would have been a scene fit for a romance novel but for the fact that Scott couldn't get the ring on her finger.
"She had those big knuckles from playing sports, and it just wouldn't go on," he said.
They married on June 14, 2003.
Eleven years and three children later, Courtney and Scott Boyll rarely notice her disability. Like most parents, their focus is the children. Life in their home is no different than most others, they believe.
"We all have problems and challenges," Courtney Boyll says. "You just see mine."
She said acquaintances still ask if she curses her fate, even if she blames God.
"I talk a lot to him, but I never ask why," she said. "Accidents happen, but God's plan for my life is still good."
Her husband saw that winning spirit the first time he met her. He still does.
"The human spirit will find a way to press on through the harsh and most cruel circumstances," Scott Boyll said. "My wife has. She's my best friend and the best thing that has ever happened to me. That's why it's so easy to love her."
Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml
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