Posted on 07 May 2014.
The best high school athletes from across Texas will convene Friday and Saturday in Austin to test their strength, skill and will for a spot on the podium.
Hours of practice and preparation will culminate into these few precious seconds of competition on the state’s biggest stage.
“It means a lot. Not many freshmen get the chance to go to state,” explains Slidell freshman Kayson Roof. “My hard work has really paid off.”
HURDLES CLEARED – After several surgeries following crash a child, Slidell freshman Kayson Roof will compete for state titles Saturday in the pole vault and 300 hurdles. Messenger photo by Joe Duty
Roof will vie for state crowns in the Class A Division II pole vault and 300 hurdles.
But aside from the chance to compete, it’s another celebration of life for the 15-year-old, who narrowly escaped death just eight years earlier in a horrific car accident.
“I’m a Christian,” she said. “The reason I believe in Jesus is he didn’t let me die that day. God wanted to use me to show my strength and how I could recover.
“Now, I’m strong, and I am going to the state track meet.”
FEARLESS VAULTER – Slidell’s Kayson Roof won a region title, clearing 9 feet. She enters the state meet, seeded second. Messenger photo by Joe Duty
Roof was just 6 years old on April 20, 2006, when she was riding with her stepfather and brother on U.S. 82 between Nocona and Saint Jo.
“It was a rainy day, and we were going to pick up my mom at work,” Roof explains.
“I don’t remember anything other than my stepdad telling me to put on my seatbelt. I always wore it behind me.”
Over a hill in front of their pickup was a truck pulling a flatbed trailer, loaded with iron pipe.
“We ran into the trailer and a pole went through the window and hit me in the face,” Roof describes. “My stepdad looked at me and picked me up. He called for help, saying my daughter was dying. All my skin was coming off my face.”
Clinging to life, Roof was taken to a hospital in Nocona before being flown to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
She was soon rushed to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, where surgeons skillfully reconstructed her face during a 12-hour surgery.
“It broke all the bones in my face. I had plastic surgery, and they put in several screws. I’m missing my right jaw. They took part of my skull to build a nose,” Roof said.
She continued her inventory, explaining problems with her sinus cavities and pointing to the hole in the roof of her mouth.
That first surgery was one of many she’s faced since the wreck. She has up to five remaining.
“She’s had a lot of surgeries and some they can’t do until she’s done growing,” said her mother, Jennifer Lopez.
Roof spent her seventh birthday on May 4 in the hospital. She was eventually sent home May 7 – which she points out is close to the date of this year’s state track meet.
Miraculously, Roof escaped the accident with no lasting brain trauma. She was, however, left with deep scars around her face.
“I don’t feel them, but I do get self-conscious about them. But people tell me I’m beautiful the way I am,” she said. “That helps.”
In recent years, sports have become the outlet to get Kayson out of her shell. She quickly became a standout in basketball, along with track. She also plays tennis.
“Once I got into sports in the seventh grade, I became more outgoing,” Roof said.
Her mother credits not only sports but also the family she’s found in the Slidell schools for helping her.
“They’ve accepted her, and she’s fit in so well there,” Lopez said. “She’s had such acceptance from everyone. She even said that in her speech last year as the eighth-grade salutatorian.”
Last year is when Slidell coach Cody Vanover began planting the seed, telling Roof she could be a state qualifier.
“She’s surprised herself more than me,” he said. “I told her last year that if she kept working, she’d make it to Austin in the 300 hurdles.
“She started the year running a 58 and every meet ran quicker.”
Roof earned the state spot, clocking a 50.12 to finish first at the Class A Region III meet in Bullard April 26 – eight years and six days after the accident.
But before earning a state berth in the hurdles, she had already claimed the region title in the pole vault, clearing 9 feet before stopping.
“I think I can get a lot higher,” Roof said. “I’m not even turning at the point where I need to.”
That event is now her favorite.
“It’s more fun. I’m not scared of heights. I love it,” Roof said.
Vanover said the freshman still has a lot of upside.
“She’s fearless, athletic and strong,” the coach said. “She doesn’t understand how good she can be.”
Watching her pole vault, Mrs. Lopez admits to getting a bit nervous.
“I do worry about her,” she said. “But I know she’s a strong person. If she falls, she’s going to get right back up and do it again. She’s not one to give up.”
When Roof takes the track Saturday, her mother said she will be surrounded by family ready to cheer.
“I’m really proud of her. It’s going to be exciting to watch her there. She’s made it to the top after going through so much,” Mrs. Lopez said.
Roof said former classmates at Nocona and others have reached out to her since she qualified for state.
“People say I’m a real inspiration to them because I’ve come so far,” Roof said. “To know that I’m helping people in their lives makes me happy.
“For myself, I’m really proud of how I’ve grown so much since [the wreck] to now.”
She even credits her brush with death to helping her become the champion she is today.
“Knowing you were so close to death and knowing it was so close to being so different makes you appreciate everything,” Roof said.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”