CORTLAND, N.Y. — The heat is what Kyle Richard remembers most clearly about the night that changed his life. He would eventually come to think of what happened that night as a gift, but that was a long ways off. In the moment, he could feel only the searing, consuming heat.
It’s creeping past 2 a.m., and the small house party on the outskirts of a college campus on Long Island is starting to break up. It’s late July 2017, a few weeks before Richard would report upstate for the first SUNY Cortland football practices of the year. He was a junior, a linebacker, a captain.
The house belongs to a high school friend. Richard and the guys who grew up with him 10 minutes down the road are trying to help shepherd the crowd to the door. Some unfamiliar faces have wandered in, and it is growing late anyway.
Someone passes by and says they thought they heard something in the bathroom. Richard turns to see one of his closest friends, Sulaiman Aina, knocking on the door. Richard starts to walk toward him. Aina is banging now. Richard walks faster. Aina is wedging his foot against the base and throwing his shoulder into the door. Richard can hear the noise now. It’s a girl. She’s yelling for help.
Aina pops the door loose, and two strangers spill out. The male is sweaty and unkempt, like he has just been in a struggle. People start to yell. Confusion sets in. Richard spots the girl. She’s crying.
The male is gone now, and Richard turns to find him. He strides through the house to the front door and finds him in the yard.
“Yo, what are you doing here?” Richard hollers.
“Chill,” the stranger replies, backpedaling through the front lawn.
“What are you doing here? What were you doing to her?” Richard is closing the gap between them.
“Chill, man. Chill,” he’s turned away from Richard now, looking back over his shoulder.
Richard picks up his pace. His heart is thumping, body buzzing. The stranger turns. Before Richard can finish his next lengthy stride, he sees the flash. The gun is up by the stranger’s head, and time freezes for an instant. Richard is looking down on the scene from above. This can’t be real, he thinks. His brain is racing. And that’s when he starts to feel the heat.
The first bullet rips into his right quadriceps and out through the hamstring, leaving a tunnel of fire and torn muscle in its wake. Instincts turn Richard’s legs back toward the house. The second bullet flies through his left thigh. The third zips past his head.
Richard makes it back to the threshold of the front door. A blur of a dozen screaming friends spin past him, around him. They’re yelling, “Sit down, sit down!” Richard realizes they’re yelling at him. He’s too wired to sit. He looks down to see the blood leaking from his thighs. He flops backward onto a couch. The heat is radiating now through the rest of his body. The adrenaline slows for a second, and his body feels hotter.
“It feels like somebody putting a knife in an oven at the hottest temperature and then just sticking it in your leg and leaving it there,” he’ll say later. “It just lingers. It gets hotter and hotter.”
Chaos erupts anew. Another chorus of shots rings out from the front lawn. Seconds later, Michael Abiola, another close friend of Richard’s, stumbles through the door. Blood is pooling under his arm and matting his shirt to his skin. Abiola is guided to the couch and crashes next to Richard.
“We’re good. We’re good,” Richard says, trying not to think about the source of the red stain on Abiola’s shirt that is growing larger and darker.
Friends dial 911, speaking frantically into cellphones. Another friend is tearing fabric to tie around Richard’s leg. Aina stands above his friends and recites a Muslim prayer. Just beyond the chaos, Richard spots the girl from the bathroom. She’s still sobbing as she meets his gaze.
“Yo, it’s not your fault,” Richard calls out across the room as someone cinches tight the tourniquet around his leg. “Someone tell her it’s not her fault.”
Sandra Richard is sound asleep when her cellphone buzzes a little after 3 a.m. The alarm isn’t supposed to ring for another 90 minutes, but this is not unprecedented for a sergeant in her 28th year with the Nassau County Police Department.
She knows the paramedic on the other end of the line. He has called with bad news before. It’s a warm Saturday night in the summer. She assumes one of her officers has been hurt in the line of duty.
“No, no,” the paramedic tells her. “It’s your son. Kyle’s been shot, but he’s OK.”
Sandra is speeding toward the hospital, calling anyone she knows who might be on duty in the middle of the night. She is panicked, but she knows Kyle isn’t. The second of her three sons is cool under pressure. She remembers Kyle coming home from high school and telling her that the football coach singled him out as the one member of the team who had to learn to use the sideline defibrillator in case it was ever needed. She asked the coach why Kyle had to do it, and he told her it was because “Kyle didn’t know how to panic.”
She lives 40 minutes from the emergency room. She’s there in 20. She arrives as Kyle is being wheeled out of the X-ray room, and she sees the bandages around each of his legs. She liked to joke with her boys that all three of them had her to thank for their thick tree trunks for legs.
She is trained as an EMT, though, so she knows what lies behind the layers of muscle and skin. She has witnessed the problems of a broken femur. She knows just a nick to the femoral artery can increase the chances of bleeding out by 90 percent.
“Mom, don’t worry. Please don’t worry,” Kyle says. “I’m fine.”
“What happened?” Sandra says with a shaky voice. “How did this happen?” Kyle touches her arm and tells her that when she hears the whole story, she’ll be fine, too.
The doctor tells her the X-rays show good news. Both bullets missed his femurs, one by just a few millimeters. She learns that Abiola is in the room next to Kyle’s. He’s stable, too, but the wounds in his back will cause nerve damage.
Sandra knows Abiola from her role as “team mom” for the Malverne High Mules football team. She was a staple around the team for a decade, as all three of her sons matriculated at Malverne. “Miss Sandy,” as she was known, was a loving mom but not a woman to be trifled with. She taught her boys to “bully the bullies.” When she had to explain her job to them when they were young, she told them there are people in the world who need to be protected and there are people in the world who need to protect. She left no doubt as to which category the Richard family fell into.
“Mom, I would do the same thing again if I had to. I’d do the exact same thing.”
Sandra is piecing together bits of the story as she waits through the night for more news on Kyle’s status. She checks with friends in the precinct next to hers to make sure the detective working this case is a good one. He’s a good one, they tell her.
Before the weekend is over, police will find 17-year-old Ahkhazyah Wright and arrest him. Eventually, he’ll be indicted on charges of attempted murder, wrongful imprisonment and attempted first-degree sexual assault. (Wright is due to appear in court next week as his case continues making its way through the legal process.)
The next day, Sandra drives past the college house with Kyle in the passenger seat to see the quiet, unassuming neighborhood where it happened. She sits at the foot of his bed after he naps, and he finally fills in the last pieces of the story.
“Mom, I would do the same thing again if I had to,” he says. “I’d do the exact same thing.”
She swells with pride.
“He did exactly what I expected him to do,” she’ll say later. “I wouldn’t have expected any less from him.”
Kyle Richard is wincing. Every muscle in his body is clenched to keep him from making a sound.
The physical therapist is rolling an unforgiving, blunt metal-pronged wheel over Richard’s thigh. He can feel the small bits of scar tissue break free and roll like little stones across the tender muscle fibers in his leg. It has been less than 48 hours since the bullets carved through his muscle. The doctors told him he might be able to play by midseason. Richard is determined to be back sooner.
Max Jean is a cornerback on SUNY Cortland’s defense. He is Richard’s teammate, his childhood friend and, when they return to campus to start another year of training camp, his roommate. Jean watches Richard flop onto his bed at their apartment on another warm August night. After two daily sessions of therapy, Richard’s bruise-covered legs are rubber. His wounds are still not completely closed. His body is drained.
Richard refuses to say a negative word. He has asked his teammates not to discuss what happened to him with people outside the team. Jean tries to avoid the subject when they’re at the apartment. He knows Richard doesn’t like to talk about it.
It’s the day after Cortland’s first game of the 2017 football season. Richard decides he can’t wait any longer. The athletic trainer who has worked with him every day clears him to try running. Head coach Dan MacNeill stops practice to watch his captain jogging down the sideline. Maybe it’s time to get him some reps.
Six days later, Richard adjusts the small gauze pads over his scabs before he slips a pair of red pants and thigh pads over his legs. He has yet to tackle someone in practice, but today, 47 days after a pair of bullets scorched tunnels of fire through both his thighs, Richard is playing in a Division III college football game.
Richard stands at middle linebacker with a swirl of massive bodies flying around him. He sees the lineman coming out of the corner of his eye. He watches his shoulder pads drop for a cut block. It’s too late for Richard to get his hands extended for protection. The lineman’s helmet crashes into his left thigh. A jolt of electricity courses through his body. He sucks his teeth and swallows the urge to scream. He limps back to his spot and hopes no one notices the trickle of blood on his leg.
It’s November now, late in the 2017 season. Richard is sitting on the couch next to Jean, passing back and forth a video game controller. Jean decides he has to ask about it. Richard is now Cortland’s leading tackler. He was named to the Div. III national team of the week days earlier, thanks to a 15-tackle performance. The write-up made no mention of why Richard played sparingly earlier in the season.
“Yo, you went through all this, and no one knows anything about it,” Jean says, fiddling with the controller. “Why haven’t you said anything about it?”
“It’s not about me,” Richard says. “I don’t want to be a distraction.”
“Hmm, all right,” Jean shrugs. That’s that.
Richard is standing in front of a podium on a stage looking out at a room full of middle-aged faces waiting to hear what he has to say. He is at Turning Stone Resort Casino, an hour north of Cortland, for a Kristin’s Fund gala to raise money and awareness for domestic violence prevention.
His face is warm. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other. He’s still uncomfortable sharing his story. He recoils whenever he hears the word “hero.” It still makes him a little angry. He wasn’t the only person who did the right thing that night. He wasn’t the only person who was injured. He was just doing what he was supposed to do. No need to make a fuss about it.
He’s here to accept the charity’s Next Generation Award. After months of asking if Richard wanted to tell his story, MacNeill, the football coach, got Richard to begrudgingly agree to be nominated for the honor. MacNeill told him the family who started the fundraiser after their daughter was murdered by an abusive husband thought maybe Richard’s story could help raise money and awareness.
Richard scans his notes. He has decided to speak mostly from the heart, but he wanted to share some numbers rather than spend too long talking about his own experience. He researched the realities of bystander intervention in assault cases. He was shocked by how infrequently those in position to help a victim actually do something.
He finishes. The room stands to applaud. A stranger approaches after the ceremony to thank him. She tells him that no one stepped up to help her. He is gutted, but he feels something he didn’t expect to feel. He wants to tell his story. He wants to be louder.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories where people tell me no one helped them,” he says later. “Those are gruesome. It’s tough to hear, but it makes me think this is important. Maybe I can change someone’s mind. Maybe they’ll be in a spot one day where they can intervene.”
So Richard keeps speaking. He fine-tunes his message while accepting the Biden Courage Award for bystander intervention. He is selected as the only student among more than 400,000 in the SUNY school system to speak at the new chancellor’s inauguration. He tells the new chancellor he is looking forward to working with her to make their campuses safe.
He joins a student group aimed at stopping sexual violence. He notices he is one of the only men in the room. He marches at a “Take Back The Night” event on a nearby campus. Then another march on his own campus. He notices his voice is different. He tells his story. People stop to listen.
His friends notice, too. Jean tells Richard that he has never seen his old friend filled with so much passion. Richard tells him he thinks this is more than a college hobby. He says he might have found a calling.
“You can see how much it means to him,” Jean says. “You can see how it affects him. You can see what happened that night in his face when he’s speaking at a podium.”
Kyle Richard will likely play his final football game on Saturday. His 7-2 Cortland team lost last weekend in the final seconds of a battle with No. 3 Brockport, narrowly missing a conference title and a guaranteed playoff berth.
On Saturday, Richard will place small pads over the soft skin on his thighs and slip his pads over them for Cortland’s annual rivalry game against neighboring Ithaca College. He’ll man the middle of a defense allowing only 17.4 points per game and lead his team onto its home field one last time.
Then he’ll walk away and lead on elsewhere. There is a new fire burning through him now, and he’s consumed by its heat.