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When hundreds of students graduate during York College’s spring commencement Saturday, among the sea of caps will be one featuring a turtle and finish line with the phrase “Slow and steady WON the race.”

For Jennifer Hindley, the race toward graduation took eight years, after a traumatic brain injury during a college rugby match changed her life.

“I never thought it would happen," the Springettsbury Township resident admitted.

Hindley came to York College in fall 2009 from New York. The Long Island native had the highest GPA in her class, an interesting feat given the already high academic standards at the prep school she attended.

She said she visited three schools before settling on York College, where she enjoyed the small-town feel, the nice people and the slower pace.

Hindley said she always had a competitive streak, and along with her perfect academics she played flag football, soccer, volleyball — anything that had an opponent.

At York College, she was soon introduced to another sport by her friends: rugby.

“Oh, that’s cool,” Hindley recalled thinking, and she started playing rugby for the college in her second semester.

Injuries: On April 17, 2010, she and her teammates faced the West Chester University team.

She was in the team’s B-side, which usually includes rookies such as herself. The A-side team played first, and York College was getting destroyed on the field.

“Girls were getting clotheslined,” Hindley said. “It was bad.” The final score was 89-0.

Given the shellacking, the coaches said the B-side shouldn’t play. Even after watching the brutal match, the B-side teammates, including Hindley, insisted on playing.

“How many stupid decisions can you make?” she asked in hindsight.

Hindley and her teammates took the field, but she says she doesn’t remember much else. She has been told a player from the opposing team tackled her to the ground from behind.

“My friends say my head dribbled like a basketball,” she said.

Hindley said her competitive nature made her shoo away the concerned coaches, but she had trouble speaking after the tackle.

“If I’m hurt, I’m not going to show it,” she said.

She continued playing, and after the match, she went to her room. Soon, she noticed her pupils were much smaller and her speech was slurred. She was then taken to York Hospital.

After a checkup and a painkiller prescription, she went back home, but she returned to the hospital five days later.

Doctors ran several tests and concluded she had suffered a severe concussion.

Hindley said she told her mother the results, and her mother responded, “You’re coming home.”

After returning to Long Island, Hindley spent years recovering from her injury.

In June 2012, Hindley’s fortunes took another negative turn when she suffered a disc rupture in her back that left a portion of her left leg paralyzed. The new injury left her with a new condition: drop foot on her left leg.

The news was difficult to take, but Hindley would not sit still.

“I didn’t want to wear a brace for the rest of my life,” she said, so she committed to finding a way around it.

While she was recovering, Hindley conducted research into surgeries to help with the condition in hopes of finding talented doctors to cure her condition.

She found a surgeon 15 minutes from her Long Island home who had a 100 percent success rate in a procedure that would transfer a portion of muscle down to her foot to greatly restore its movement.

Hindley had the procedure in December 2013, and it was successful.

Coming back: With her mother at her side, Hindley moved back to York in 2014 to return to the college she loved so much.

During her time away, Hindley had found a love for writing and rhetoric, and she changed her major to professional writing.

She continued her academic streak upon returning to York College, heading toward graduation on Saturday with a 4.0 GPA.

Still, she faces challenges.

“I’m still in the process seven years later,” Hindley said of her recovery. She occasionally suffers from seizures and severe headaches, and her mobility is not what it used to be.

“You recover to an extent," she said, and that becomes the new "normal."

Regarding the fateful April day, Hindley said she doesn’t dwell much on the incident, including who hit her.

But several months ago, her mother was telling a coworker about the injury, and the coworker gave an interesting response.

“She said, ‘Oh I had a friend who played Rugby at West Chester and hit this girl really badly and never found out what happened to her,’” Hindley said. "You can’t make this stuff up.”

She said she confirmed the woman was the West Chester player who tackled her back in 2010 and heard that she feels remorseful about the incident.

Hindley said she doesn’t think she’ll meet the player. While she’d like an apology, she said, “knowing she feels bad is sort of good enough for me.”

Graduation:

Hindley said she is now looking forward to the future. She hopes to work at an online publication and looks forward to spending more time with her dogs, Simba and Nala.

Over the past seven years, Hindley has faced the greatest challenges of her life, including depression and self-doubt.

“There were a lot of tears,” she said. "There were a lot of ‘Why me?’ moments.”

Still, Hindley remains resilient and positive about the future.

“Because of all the deficits, I have to work twice as hard,” Hindley said. “But I always find a way.”

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