Kevin Ware's scarred right leg. (Eric Crawford photo)
One of the thousands of cards Kevin Ware received from children. (Eric Crawford photo)
Letter to Ware from Bill Clinton. (Eric Crawford photo)
Letter from a mother to Kevin Ware. (Eric Crawford photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The social media numbers alone are staggering. A University of Louisville analysis estimated that during the five-day period after his gruesome broken leg suffered on national television during an NCAA Regional Final against Duke, Kevin Ware generated 96 million impressions on Twitter alone.
Jeff Rushton, director of digital media at U of L, determined that in April of 2013, Ware reached a level of search engine popularity -- according to Google Trends -- that President Barack Obama has reached only three times in his political career.
But Ware didn't need a search engine to tell that things had changed. All he had to do was go outside. Even now, he is a center of attention. People want him to take pictures, sign items, even speak to children who have undergone injuries.
"I can't say it has ever really gone back to normal," Ware said Saturday at U of L's basketball media day. "I don't really go anywhere. I went to Red Lobster a couple of days ago. I was done with my meal, but it was 30 minutes before I could actually leave. But I'm happy to do it. You can be nice to someone in the same time you can be mean.
". . . I feel like Peyton Siva Jr. with all the attention. From students to older people to everybody. But saying hi to people or taking a picture or signing something, you feel like you owe that to people. So many people cared and showed their emotion to me, someone they didn't even know. It means a lot to you."
You don't need Google to understand the effect Ware's injury had on people, or how far it reached. In fact, all you have to do is look at his snail mail.
The bins have been emptied now, but when I saw them this summer, I couldn't fathom how many people still write letters, let alone flood someone with the amount of mail Ware received.
Jonathan Espinosa Valencia, an eighth grader from New Castle, Colo., wrote, "You are like the older brother I never had, and all of your teammates are like all my brothers."
Chelsea Williams, age 8, from Greensboro, N.C. wrote, "I want you to eat a lot of vegetables and get a lot of rest so that your leg will heal perfectly."
Jessica McGivern of West Deptford, New Jersey, wrote to him: "I'm writing to you to show how much of an inspiration you are to me. I recently just recovered from an injury, a ten percent tear to my Achilles' tendon and a broken growth plate. . . . I also hurt myself during a playoff game, by an illegal pick. Just like your team, my team won it all, leaving a big smile on my face. I live by your quote, 'A minor setback to a major comeback.' It is getting me through all the excruciating hours of rehab. . . . I just wanted to say you are an inspiration to me."
In the bins that filled the U of L basketball offices, the story that unfolded was one of a player who inspired people with his response to a terrible injury. There was a card from a woman in Lexington who had a horse fall on her leg, fracturing it in a dozen places. She sent encouragement with the news that she had recovered. He heard from Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. And he heard from college athletics teams all over, from the Alaska-Anchorage athletic department to the Maryland lacrosse team. He got a letter from a man in a Kansas prison -- with medical advice.
So many children were moved to write to him. One, from Goshen, Ky., couldn't yet write, so she drew him a picture and wrote her ABCs on a piece of paper. A woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was getting ready to watch the Wolverines play Syracuse in the Final Four when CBS ran a feature about Ware. Her little daughter watching the telecast became interested and started asking questions about it. At around 5 o'clock, she started writing Kevin a note. The mother wrote one, too, just to let Kevin know how the story had made an impression on her little girl.
Justin Erpenbach of Elk Mound, Wisconsin, wrote to Kevin, "the way you fight every obstacle in your way has inspired me to try in sports 100 percent harder. The way you handled yourself in this incident absolutely amazes me and tells the world how good of a person you are and how good your character is. Also I was amazed at all the media attention you got, and how you handled it so well and were thanking everyone for caring about you."
Brian Jaquette, a Duke fan with two degrees from the school, wrote, "I don't think most people would be able to think, much less talk, while they were in as much pain as you must have been. But to tell your team to go out and win and not worry about you is just amazing. Even though you weren't on the court, I'm sure your words did as much as any player to lead your team to victory. I want you to know that I will be rooting for Louisville at the Final Four and during your recovery."
Mitchell Marcus sent Kevin a special message. Marcus, a special needs student, was a student manager for four years at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas, and before his last game as a senior, his coach surprised him by telling him to suit up. Late in the game, not only did his team do everything possible to allow him to score a basket, the opposing team finally saw what was happening and backed away to allow the special moment to happen. The video became a YouTube sensation and was seen all over the nation and world as an example of sportsmanship. Mitchell, in turn, wrote to Kevin, and told him he was praying for him.
Ware waded through all the mail, and said he answered every piece.
He also heard from names you'll recognize. Bill Clinton sent him a letter, and in handwriting at the bottom, wrote, "You've inspired the country." Duke's Mike Krzyzewski wrote, as did the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Marquette coach Buzz Williams wrote to him, and enclosed a business-card sized motivational message: "It's not hard to live through a day if you know how to live through a moment."
"The correspondence with people like that was an amazing thing," Ware said. "But it's a pretty humbling thing when you see kids, or people who have gone through tough times, reaching out to you like that."
Ware had some tough times of his own. There were frustrations. There was boredom. He spent the summer doing his rehab, working on upper body strength, going to school and playing video games.
"I just learned to embrace the small things. Not being able to walk, or do small things on your own," Ware said. "For the first couple of weeks, I was asking my girlfriend to go get me something to eat or a shirt or any little thing. You appreciate being able to be up and to do things for yourself.
"It sucks being bored. But with all that rest I feel like I'm getting a little taller. I guess just resting my legs, this rod in my leg may help. I feel like I'm an inch and half taller."
Ware still has screws at the knee and ankle of his injured leg, securing a steel rod. He showed reporters the scar on Saturday, but said he's feeling no pain. If there are mental or emotional scars, they're deeper down.
"There was a point that I was down on myself because I couldn't do certain things. I was saying, 'What was so bad about it?'" Ware said.
It was at that point that Ware went to his girlfriend, Brittany Kelly, and asked if she thought he should watch the video of his injury. She advised him that it would not do him any good. Rick Pitino said the same thing.
"It's tough because your mind feels like you're ready to play, but your body isn't ready yet," Ware said. "You feel like you should be able to jump and do a lot of the things you did, but you haven't healed to that point."
When Ware became discouraged, he went to the video. He would watch himself in U of L's win at Syracuse, or its NCAA Tournament win over Oregon. And there were others. He watched those a lot.
"When I get a little down, just not being able to practice, I always watch film," Ware said. "I asked one of our video guys to get me film where he bought I was good, offensively and defensively, and I'm thinking, that's you. You're going to get back there."
The last step in his recovery process, Ware said, is to strengthen the quadriceps muscle in his injured leg to the point where he can get back onto the court and do basketball things. He said he's not worried about re-injury.
"From that point, there's no doubt in my mind," he said. "I know I broke my leg, but that's as far as that goes. I feel like it was a freak accident."
Every day now, Ware is turning his attention a little more to his return to the court.
If his teammates are hungry to get back to a third straight Final Four, Ware is the most hungry of all.
"It sucks, because this is my second year in a row of not playing in a Final Year," Ware said. "My freshman year we played Kentucky and then last year. But I feel like, we're not one of those teams who is fully grown early in the season, but it's going to depend on how we come together and finish. I feel good about this team."
Ware said his relationship with Pitino has grown.
"He was a father figure to me before," Ware said, "but now he's even more of a father figure. His main worry has been helping me with things off the court. He doesn't talk much about basketball with me."
At one point this summer, a rumor spread that Ware had been kicked off the team. He said Saturday that the rumor reached him at his mother's house, where he was visited because "she was going through some things."
He said his sister came into his room one morning and asked him, "Have you been kicked of the team?" Ware said he laughed. "I haven't heard anything about it."
He said when he called Pitino, the coach told him not to worry about it, that he'd take care of it.
"I didn't feel like it was my place to say anything, because it was false," Ware said.
Ware said he didn't know where or why the rumor originated.
"The whole UK-U of L thing, simple as that," Ware said. "As far as I know, it was on a UK website. I wouldn't say it was that for sure, because I don't know, but that's as far as it goes for me."
He said his brush with celebrity has changed the way he acts.
"Attention just makes you more cautious," Ware said. "Just saying the littlest things, even saying nice things, people can take that and run with it. Everybody has cameras and phones out and you just have to watch."
Pitino said he plans to take it slow with Ware. He expects the player will need more time to re-adjust to the game than he realizes.
"The great thing about Kevin is what happened to him as a person as the result of this," Pitino said. "He was a guy who was mistrustful, withdrawn. Now he has opened himself up. He's capable of speaking to large groups of people, to expressing himself. It was always there, but the magnitude of his situation revealed that in him."
Ware was in uniform for the Cardinals' scrimmage on Saturday, but he didn't participate. He expects to be back in practice by the end of the month. His days away from the game are now numbered. He wants to play in the opener, but said, "That will be up to Rick (Pitino) and Fred (Hina). . . . I just know when I do step back out there, it's going to be a special moment."