‘Behind the face mask’

Hudson reflects on near career-ending injury

Date Published: 
April 25, 2014

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Indian River High School senior pitcher Rachel Hudson may seem fearless on the mound, but there's a reason why she always wears her face mask.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Indian River High School senior pitcher Rachel Hudson may seem fearless on the mound, but there's a reason why she always wears her face mask.Behind the face mask of Indian River High School senior pitcher Rachel Hudson, there is a steely-eyed look of focus on the corners of the strike zone. It’s all that anyone watching from the stands, the dugout or the batter’s box can see — on the surface.

But behind the look, the strikes, the game-saving pitches, the leadership, the college scholarship and the wins, is a story — one that not only nearly ended her softball career but could have ended her life, a story that starts with a fastball down the middle and ends with a glove full of dark red blood lying on the pitcher’s mound, and one that Hudson, and anyone else there that day, will never forget.

“It was one of the best games I was pitching, and I had just struck out one of the best hitters on the team,” Hudson recalled of the night that her perspective on the game she loves changed forever. “My coach just called a fastball, and I pitched it.”

At the age of 13, pitching for Selbyville Middle School, the young pitcher didn’t yet understand the dangers of a pitch right down the middle and wasn’t wearing a face mask — two mistakes that she will never make again.

“She normally wears a face mask. She wears it for travel ball all the time, but because this was school ball, she just chose not to put it on that day,” said Hudson’s mother, Lori Hudson, who coaches for the Delaware Diamonds and teaches fourth grade at Phillip C. Showell Elementary School.

Before she had a chance to react to the line-drive shot headed right toward her, Hudson was on the ground, and the Pyle Center stood silent.

Lori Hudson was watching her older daughter’s game at Indian River High School when she got the call.

“When I got to the Pyle Center, I actually drove all the way up the walkway, and I can remember Judy Powell standing there, crying,” she recalled of the powerful imagery as she made the nerve-wracking journey to the mound to see what had happened. “She was the only person I was focused on, because Judy doesn’t cry.”

Not only had the softball game stopped, but the baseball game on the other field had stopped, as well. Everyone was huddled around Rachel.

“When I got out to the field, the other team’s coaches were standing overtop of Rachel. Stephanie Wilkinson just grabbed my shoulders and said, ‘You need to get it together before you see this,’” she described. “I saw her ball glove completely filled with blood. I almost passed out.”

The ball had hit Hudson right under her nose. Luckily, she had been able to deflect it slightly with her glove before it had struck her — but not enough to stop it from breaking off the top part of her jaw and knocking her teeth into her mouth.

“I thought I could catch it, so I kind of put my glove up,” she explained. “I think that’s why it didn’t hit me as hard, because it ricocheted off the top of my glove.”

As she lay there on the ground, her green-and-gold uniform stained red, waiting to be taken to the hospital, the young pitcher had only one concern — whether or not she was losing too much blood.

“All she kept saying was, ‘Where are my teeth? Where are my teeth?” said Lori Hudson of her daughter’s concern.

But when her father, Monty Hudson, got to the scene as she was being carried off the field on a stretcher, Hudson displayed her prowess and love for the game in what she said to him.

She didn’t ask her father how much blood she had lost or if her teeth were missing. She didn’t ask him where she was going or if he was coming with her. She didn’t ask him if she was going to be OK. Instead, as she was carted off, she told her father, who had coached her in softball all her life, about how she had struck out Millsboro’s best hitter on a change-up.

After Hudson was taken to Beebe Medical Center, longtime umpire Charlie Shelton organized a prayer and, along with the players and coaches, determined that Rachel would have wanted the game to go on. As doctors were determining whether or not she needed to be flown to Baltimore and taken to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, her teammates were securing a win against one of the toughest rivals, for Rachel.

After meeting with the oral surgeon, who assured the Hudsons that the roots of her teeth were still intact and that he could fix the injury to their youngest daughter, they decided to let him do so.

The hospital halls soon flooded with friends and family, coaches and teammates, and concerned members of the softball community — but not only did Hudson not want to see them, she didn’t want to see herself, worried that she would never look the same. She made the nurses cover the mirror and, after catching a glimpse of herself as she was taken in for X-rays, refused to look again.

“The doctor told Monty and I that one of two things would happen,” said Lori Hudson of the discussion that followed the successful surgery. “She would either look at us and tell us she was completely done or she would want to get right back out there.”

The Hudsons did not want to push their daughter in either direction. They knew she had talent, they knew she loved the game, but they also knew that this was her decision and her decision alone.

“If she was going to do it, it had to be done fast,” Lori Hudson explained. “We knew she had the ability and could ultimately do something with this — even at 12, we knew that she could pursue her dream.”

After having the bridge of the top of her jaw wired back together on a Tuesday, Hudson rejoined her team in the dugout that Friday for a USSSA tournament in Roxana, not yet allowed to play. As she sat on a bucket at the end of the dugout, watching her team and rapidly tapping her feet - her mother knew that as soon as she was able to, she’d be back out there.

“She wanted to be back out there. She couldn’t take it,” Lori Hudson recalled. “Friday night, she was sitting on a bucket at the end of the dugout, and I looked over and her feet were just going as fast as they could and she’s cheering the team on.”

Less than three weeks later, Hudson made her return during another tournament in Pennsylvania, getting her start in right field before moving to first base and eventually being called on to pitch again.

Before she took the mound, however, she made sure to put on her face mask — something she would never forget again.

“When I pitched, I was a little scared that the ball would come back at me, but I knew I had a face mask on,” she explained of how she had reassured herself.

The team that they were facing, however, was a relatively new program, and none of their players took the same safety precautions. In fact, most of them seemed to look at Hudson’s mask skeptically, apparently wondering why she was wearing it.

After the game, the younger pitcher approached her less-experienced opponents. She told them her story. She showed them her freshly wired jaw. She opened their eyes to the fact that what had happened to her could have happened to anyone, and could have been worse.

“They were in shock. I don’t even think the coaches at that point understood,” Lori Hudson, who had talked to the team’s coaches with her husband while her daughter talked to the players. “These are beautiful girls that have their entire life ahead of them, and we don’t want anything to happen to any of them.”

After the tournament, the Hudsons got a note from the coach of the team, letting them know that they had gone out and bought face masks for their players. Not only that, but every travel team in the district starting requiring face masks for their pitchers, first-basemen and third-basemen — in an effort to prevent a similar injury from occurring ever again.

“It just didn’t impact us — this impacted a school community, a softball community,” said Lori Hudson of the ramifications. “Things happen for a reason, and I really think that this happened so that we could save somebody else.”

Rachel Hudson didn’t want to go through the physical trauma that resulted from her life-changing injury, but today she’s glad that she did. It has made her a better pitcher, it has made her a stronger person, and it has given her an avenue to deliver a pertinent message to not only the community, but to the entire state.

In reality, what happened to Rachel could have happened to anyone. In reality, if the ball had struck her just a centimeter higher, according to her doctors, she could have been killed. In reality, the injury could have easily caused her to hang up her cleats forever — but instead, it didn’t.

Instead, it did happen to Rachel, who was strong enough to overcome it. Instead, the ball hit her in a spot that allowed her to continue on in life and in softball, with a powerful message. Instead of hanging up her cleats, it gave her the drive to work even harder and one day lead the Lady Indians to one of their best seasons in years, before heading off to fulfill her dream of playing the sport she loves at the collegiate level, for Flagler College.

A line drive may have cracked her face that day, but it never put a crack in her spirit. If anything, it strengthened it.

“I’ve practiced more, worked harder,” she said of the experience’s impact. “Every pitch counts to me. I tell myself, ‘I need to get this on the outside corner. It cannot go down the middle.’”

Hudson’s parents have also noticed a change since that day. She’s picked up her speed, she has more precise movement on the ball — but most of all, she’s matured as a player and as a person.

“We didn’t want it to happen, obviously, but things happen for a reason. I, to this day, think that there was an angel with her,” Lori Hudson said, to put it in perspective. “As parents, we’re extremely proud that it’s her choice to wear that mask now. Obviously, we encourage her to, but her father told her, ‘Ultimately, it’s your choice.’”

When Rachel Hudson leaves for college next fall, she will bring her face mask and put it on to start the next chapter in her career, just as she’ll continue to put it to finish this chapter as one of the leaders of an already historic season for Indian River softball. She’ll wear the face mask for as long as she plays, and behind that face mask, there will always be a girl who remembers why.