Blessing Chekwa's battle began at the 2003 SEC Basketball Tournament. In the Lady Bulldogs' semifinal game against The University of Tennessee, Chekwa collapsed on the court in the first half when she tore her ACL in her right knee.
"I just came down, and I heard it pop. I didn't want to cry on T.V.," Chekwa said. "All I could think was, 'I can't move my leg.' I couldn't pick it up."
With Chekwa down on the court, her teammates and coaches had reason to worry. As a freshman she had started 27 of 29 games, pulled down 129 rebounds and averaged six points per game. Up to that point, Chekwa had played a large role in the success of the 2003 campaign. However, as the athletic trainers helped her off the court, it became apparent the team would be playing without their starting freshman guard.
Chekwa's torn ACL kept her on the bench for the rest of the Bulldogs' postseason play. However, once the season ended, Chekwa had more problems added to her already challenging physical status. Her ACL surgery in April was only the first of three surgeries she would endure over the next four months. At the end of May she underwent surgery on her left shoulder, and in August doctors operated on a herniated disk in her back.
"Of all my injuries and surgeries, my ACL was the most painful. Sometimes I don't know how I got through it," Chekwa said. "My coaches and my teammates think I'm a fighter, but I think it was God, my teammates and my mother that helped me get through it."
Chekwa gives her parents a lot of credit for her quick recovery. She says their concerns and their calls gave her the support she needed. The hardest challenge mentally, Chekwa says, was facing the realization that she might not ever play again, but once that fear was alleviated she struggled with blocking out the pain of everyday rehab exercises such as knee bends, weight lifting, bike riding and running on treadmills.
"It hurt to bend my knee everyday until I had full motion because I could hear my tissues and stuff popping, but I knew it was the only way I was going to get better," she explained.
Head coach Sharon Fanning recognizes the importance of Chekwa's health and her ability to contribute on the court. She boasts of Chekwa's spirit and passion on and off the hardwood.
"If you look up 'winner' in the dictionary, you will find Blessing's name there," Fanning said. "To have a kid that has gone through three major surgeries and to still have the passion, I appreciate, applaud and respect so much how she has come back."
Chekwa, undoubtedly a fighter, has already seen playing time in 23 games of her sophomore season.
"I didn't think I'd be back as fast as I came back. Because I came back so quickly, I still have problems. It's hard trying to get back to that regular spot I was in last year," she said.
Chekwa's teammate Doceide Warren can testify that tough injuries are not easily overcome. During her freshman season, Warren suffered an ankle injury, but had to play through it. At the end of the 2003 season she underwent surgery to correct her ankle for her sophomore year. However, during conditioning at the start of this season Warren severely pulled her right hamstring and has been combating the injury ever since.
"Since August I have been putting too much pressure on my right leg, and I've pulled my hip flexor. Once my hip flexor gives out and my hamstring gets tight, I can't go anywhere," she explained.
Warren's injuries have kept her playing time down and robbed her of the ability to achieve the same statistics she put up last season. As a freshman, she played in 26 games in just the second half of the 2003 season, averaging 8.7 points per game and ranking third on the team and fifth in the SEC with a .405 threepoint percentage. Warren, who accumulated 652 minutes of playing time last season, currently averages only 13 minutes per game on the court for the Maroon and White. She says she has struggled with overcoming one injury only to suffer another.
"When I hurt my hamstring, I was mad. I had been sitting out resting for six months and then as soon as I came back I got hurt again," she said, shaking her head.
When she steps on the court Warren tries to keep her mind off the pain she experiences, but at times the pain becomes too much.
"Sometimes I just feel like, 'Why am I out here?' I just can't play the way I want to because it hurts so badly. I try to push through it, but sometimes I just can't do it," she said. "I can't take off on players like I want to. It's too hard to play through it."
Because of her determination and dedication, Warren fights the pain as long as she can handle it.
"As long as we're going constantly I might not notice it as much, but if I have to go to the free throw line, I am probably going to miss," she said, laughing.
Coaches, teammates and staff of the Lady Bulldogs have great respect for the positive attitude Warren manages to keep despite her situation. Associate Athletic Trainer Mary McLendon has spent many hours rehabbing Warren and Chekwa and claims that even when forced to remain on the bench, Warren gives her all. McLendon adds that Warren is a motivator and leads her teammates by example.
"It is great to have someone on the team that is always in a positive mood and is always trying to get everyone else pumped up, and that person is Doceide," McLendon said.
On top of being injured, Chekwa and Warren have to deal with many hours in the treatment room to reach full recovery. Both Lady Bulldogs spend anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes rehabbing before every practice and every game.
Naturally these two strong hoopsters have learned valuable lessons from their battles. Chekwa claims the struggles have only made her stronger.
"I can go through just about anything now," she said. "I work harder now because you never know, you might not be able to play the next day."
Chekwa and Warren may not be setting personal career bests this season, but what they have achieved shows not only what type of players they are but also what type of people they are. They are young ladies that have fought difficulty and pain without complaints and managed to do so while keeping their great passion for the game. McLendon admits these two injured players have the best work ethic of anyone on the team.
"They have never wanted to sit back and relax and say, 'Hey, I'm just going to coast for awhile because I¹m hurt.' They always work hard and give you 100 percent," McLendon said.
These two tremendous athletes have shown everyone they do not plan to bow out despite the past hindrances and the obstacles yet to come. Once they reach the end of their battles the results of their hard work, persistence and determination will be seen.
"They will make us better as they become healthier," Fanning said.
These Lady Bulldogs have already proved and will continue to prove their toughness.