This ending hurts
When Jessalyn Deveny was 14 years old, she was watching the University of Connecticut play Notre Dame when the Huskies' leading scorer, Nykesha Sales, crumpled to the ground with a torn Achilles' tendon. The injury abruptly ended Sales's college career -- and her dream of winning a national championship in her final season.
"I remember thinking, `Oh, that's so sad,' " Deveny said. "You hate to see people go down, especially in their senior year."
Deveny is no longer a teenager. She is 21 years old, a senior for Boston College with dreams not unlike those of Sales. Yet she, too, suffered a torn right Achilles' that has ended her college career and will limit her to street clothes when her team celebrates Senior Night on Saturday.
It is not the ending she envisioned when she rehearsed all those last-second shots in the driveway of her Westford home. BC went to the Sweet Sixteen last season and Deveny believed the team could go further this year. This was the season the Eagles had a chance to surpass their rival, a rebuilding Connecticut team, in the Big East standings.
Yet those goals hinged on Deveny, the core of the team. The other players derived their strength, swagger, and solidarity from her. Now, as she struggles to come to grips with her shattered dreams so, too, must the team cope with its loss.
"My heart goes out to Jess," said coach Cathy Inglese. "After all she's done for this program, to have it end like this . . ."
The coach pulls out a stat sheet and tries to articulate Deveny's worth. She circled her 17.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, and her 51 percent 3-point shooting.
"But beyond that, she is just so tough," Inglese explained. "If someone put a box-and-one on her? So what. She didn't care. She'd generate offense with a steal or some other kind of hustle play."
Deveny's love affair with BC is well chronicled. She was first exposed to the Chestnut Hill campus as a champion baton twirler, where many of her regional competitions were held. She thought she might end up at The Heights on a twirling scholarship, until she burned out after 900 trophies and top-three national finishes. Looking for something different, Deveny picked up a basketball. She hasn't put it down since.
She long ago learned to play through pain. As a high school sophomore, she ripped open her fingers in preseason when a ball got stuck between them. Her stitches came out in time for the first game against Acton-Boxboro. The wound opened up halfway through the game; Deveny, merely stuffed it with gauze and kept going. She's played through a stress fracture and a sprained ankle, and, during much of this season, pain in her heels and Achilles'.
"I definitely did something against West Virginia [Jan. 20]," she said. "I was out there and I made a quick move, and at one point I felt a sharp pain. It felt like my heel was ripping off the bone."
Deveny came out of the game, but kept her graphic descriptions of her agony to herself. Trainer Donna Bennett iced the injury and gave her some pain medication. Bennett was surprised to discover very little swelling, which would indicate a chronic problem. There was also the absence of crepitus, the grating sound heard, or sensation felt, when two rough surfaces rub together. Still, Deveny was ordered to sit out practice, and played only sparingly three nights later against Providence. The rest helped. Deveny felt better, and proclaimed herself fit to play against Rutgers Jan. 26.
She experienced another jolt of pain against Rutgers that temporarily sent her to the bench.
"But then two minutes after that, I was fine," she said. "The pain subsided."
Inglese did not play Deveny against Pittsburgh, and Bennett stabilized Deveny's foot in a boot as a precaution. Two weeks had passed since BC's top player had practiced, but with a Feb. 2 date against Notre Dame looming, Deveny was determined to get back into action.
"The coaches were telling me, `Jess, we don't need you to play,' " she said, "but I was feeling good. They put me through some tests. They had me leap on one foot. They had me jump side to side. I passed everything. I had no pain. I had no swelling. It was the best I had felt in weeks."
Because she had not practiced, Deveny began the game on the bench. She was on the floor less than 50 seconds when she penetrated to the middle of the key, where Jacqueline Batteast was waiting.
"I went down," Deveny said. "I thought that she must have tripped me. Then I start feeling the pain. It was so awful. I started yelling, `She kicked me! She kicked me!' I was crawling around on that floor trying to blame somebody. But the truth was, I knew exactly what had happened."
So did her coach and trainer, who silently helped her off the floor and into the locker room.
"When she started saying, `She kicked me,' I knew," Inglese said. "Nobody had touched her."
BC alumna Amber Jacobs, who was in South Bend, Ind., watching the game, rushed to the locker room to comfort Deveny. Bennett fought back tears as she felt Deveny's calf, which was, according to the player, "like mush."
Two days later, team physician Diane English operated to repair the torn tendon. Recovery time will be a minimum of six months.
Asked why Deveny did not previously undergo an MRI to gauge the severity of her Achilles' injury, English explained, "Jess's situation was weird in that she never had any swelling. She had some initial inflammation by the heel, but not the tendon. Usually if you are in danger of a torn Achilles', you would have chronic swelling. You would be experiencing significant pain.
"Jess said in the two to three days before the game she felt the best she had felt in weeks. She was jumping on one leg. She was pain free. That doesn't add up to the injury that eventually occurred.
"If she hadn't played that day and waited two weeks, would she have avoided this injury? Absolutely not. If she had rested it over the next three months would it have gone away? No. This was going to happen at some point."
Deveny, it turns out, had been experiencing "aches" in her Achilles' for more than two years. Her old stress fracture had built up scar tissue. She was a time bomb waiting to go off.
Neither Deveny nor her parents have second-guessed what happened or why.
"My family believes strongly everything happens for a reason," she said. "I can't dwell on what we should have or could have done. I have to look ahead."
Some days that's easier than others. In the first few days after her surgery, coaches and teammates remarked on how well Deveny was handling the disappointment.
"I surprised myself," she admitted. "I was the one going around and picking everyone else up."
But that changed Feb. 9, when the Eagles went to Storrs, Conn., to play the Huskies in Gampel Pavilion.
"I wanted to be part of that game," Deveny said. "It's the type of game I worked so hard to play in."
She brushed back tears at the team shootaround. She cried during the game. Two days after that, Deveny crashed. She couldn't get to class. She couldn't maneuver the cafeteria. She couldn't stand to watch her team practice without her anymore.
"I just felt depressed and sad and exhausted and left out," she said.
She retreated to her Westford home and found solace among her parents, her brother, Jim, and sister-in-law, Pam.
"She was suffering," her mother, Janice, said. "I told her, `Jess, you can do anything you set your mind to. Now you can hang your head and feel sorry for yourself, or you can hold your head high and stay positive and go on.' "
Jess Deveny has gone on. She has weaned herself off the painkillers that made her so nauseous. She has learned to let her teammates help her through the lunch line. She has learned to take a shower without hurting herself.
The outpouring of support has helped. The UConn players sent her flowers, and the Huskies' fans a host of get-well cards. Megan Duffy, who plays for Notre Dame, sent a heartfelt e-mail. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw have gone out of their way to acknowledge her fine career.
"When I was down at UConn, both [coach] Geno [Auriemma] and [associate head coach] Chris Dailey came up to me and said, `Nykesha had this, and she's doing great now,' " Deveny said. "It was nice. It gave me something positive to hold onto."
As the Eagles make their final rounds, Inglese reminds opposing coaches not to forget her senior when it comes times for All-Big East honors. Batteast is the favorite for Player of the Year, but Inglese says fiercely, "I'll take Jess any day."
The future is uncertain now. Deveny probably won't be drafted by a WNBA team because of her injury. She hopes to recover in time to go to Europe next fall and reestablish herself as a force.
In the meantime, she will rely on someone to help her hand her parents a bouquet of flowers on Senior Night.
"I think it will probably be a little less emotional than it would have been," Deveny admitted. "I've already stopped playing. It's done. I've already mourned that loss."
The loss she can't quite get her hands around is her chance to lead her team one more time, to places it had never been.
"We were good, but we hadn't even reached our peak yet," she said. "We won't ever know now what could have happened."
Boston College soldiers on without its captain, top scorer, and heart and soul.
She won't wear her Eagles uniform again, but please don't forget Jess Deveny.
Her career is one worth remembering.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.