Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Long road to recovery for former Sky Sox personality Rai Henniger

By Brent Briggeman Updated: August 4, 2013 at 7:28 am 0

After six years away, Rai Henniger recently returned to the field for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox with microphone in hand.

He was on. The old energy and charm that were on display for the 17 years he served as the team's on-field host and promotions director all came right back to him.

From seats high in Security Service Field, where details on the diamond can't be seen with HD-like quality, the scars on Henniger's face wouldn't have been noticeable. No one would have guessed what he had endured and continues to go through.

And even those who knew his story - how a fireworks accident behind the center-field wall on May 12, 2007 nearly killed him, took his eye and caused severe brain damage - those people would have had no reason to guess that this one-night appearance took everything out of Henniger. That he went home and needed days to recover.

But that's the reality of Henniger's life. His face has been patched back together through 20 operations and he's armed himself with the tools necessary to become perfectly normal in social settings, but that's only what the public sees.

"Living with him is very different than interacting with him for short periods of time," said Henniger's wife, Heather. "If he becomes run down, if he doesn't manage his energy, if there's too much stimulation, if he's not processing his emotions, he can become very, very agitated and angry and just completely become a different person.

"It's still difficult. Even though so much time has gone by, our lives have been forever changed."

***

Henniger's coping mechanism is his humor.

He'll spin his good eye around while the prosthetic remains stationary. A good trick to scare kids, he notes.

He'll joke about his propensity to launch into socially inappropriate rants - the result of the damage to his frontal lobe, which is the last part of the brain to develop and controls the impulse filter that essentially separates children from adults - and note that it would have come in handy if he were a late-night comedian.

It's this disposition that would have left him perfectly equipped to deal with this injury had it solely impacted his appearance, as he can easily laugh off the curious looks he receives.

But he has found he can't will himself past complications that come from a brain injury.

"It is real," he said. "You can't just think positively to overcome it.

It's a long road."

The road became more treacherous when, during a minor two-hour outpatient surgery in 2009, Rai's adrenal glands failed.

He couldn't find the energy to even lift his head for days. His driving force was gone.

"When you're under a tremendous amount of physical or mental or spiritual stress - we've all had those periods in our lives - if it's too much, our adrenal glands kind of sacrifice themselves for you," he said. "They can save you, but it comes at a high price. To recover from it and to feel the functioning of those glands back is a long and sustained program."

Because of that, Rai is on a controlled diet, must have a certain amount of moderate exercise and must get good, consistent sleep.

"Those are the three legs of the stool," he said. "If I don't have those, nothing is going to work."

His family sees what happens when that stool tips. When they recently had work done to their kitchen, the noise, mess and break from routine caused a regression.

"A therapist described it to me by comparing it to a normal person who isn't feeling well, didn't get a good night sleep and they start the day off just not right and then something happens and they don't quite handle it well," Heather said. "That's what he's like every day. "

The humor and spirit - displayed at the recent Sky Sox game - aren't gone.

But they are often masked by emotions that he struggles to control.

"It's a little frustrating," Heather said. "Rai is still a phenomenal human being, so we're fortunate that that didn't change because sometimes it does. But when Rai is in public or with individuals who aren't family, he's on. He has a show to put on. We see the real Rai."

***

Rai's accident occurred when he was packing fireworks in the afternoon for that night's postgame display. One shell inadvertently launched from inches away and struck the left side of his face.

Quick work first by groundskeeper Steve DeLeon and by visiting military personnel helped keep him alive until he was taken to the hospital.

Heather was there for the worst of it, like when his lung collapsed and nearly killed him. Later, when part of his rib cage was taken to help rebuild his nose, he went septic and again nearly didn't survive.

For six weeks she got little sleep as she changed the IV containing his antibiotics around the clock.

She struggles at times with the reality of her situation, but she knows that it could have been much worse.

"I still have my husband and my kids still have their father," she said.

Financially, the Hennigers are surviving.

The family settled a lawsuit with an electrical company that performed service on the firework rack earlier that year, according to Heather. Some changes left a random current running through system and that is apparently what caused the failure, she said.

"It's given us some money to live off of for now while I kind of go back to school and try to figure out what I want to be when I want to grow up,"

she said.

The city of Colorado Springs and the Sky Sox have also contributed financially over the years in various ways and by organizing fundraisers.

"This community has been so amazing," Heather said. "And so have the Sky Sox. We'll always be part of the Sky Sox family."

As for Rai's job prospects, as he explains it, his full-time job is to be a father, a husband, and to recover from a traumatic brain injury.

"It was kind of a hard pill to swallow, but we have kind of resigned ourselves that Rai is, for lack of a better term, permanently disabled,"

Heather said. "So work is out for him. He just can't handle that stress."

He is, however, working as a guest speaker with the Colorado Springs Fire Department in a program that reaches out to juveniles with at least one serious fire-related offense. It allows Henniger to use his abilities as a speaker while quite literally putting a face on the personal price of fire danger.

"There are no mistakes," he said. "Everything has a purpose."

***

The youngest of Rai Henniger's three children, Ben, was only 5 at the time of the accident. So this is the only version of his father he really remembers. That's part of the struggle for Heather Henniger.

"The kids and I need to help Rai monitor," said Heather, who, in addition to Ben, who is now 11, has two daughters, Grace, 16, and Emma, 13. "We sometimes have to say, 'OK, you're starting to get agitated, maybe you need to go into a different room and take a nap.'

"For children to have to do that with their father, it's difficult, especially in maintaining that parent-child relationship."

The marriage has also understandably been strained.

"I've wanted to leave multiple times," Heather said. "There was one time when it was really bad. But I just can't see myself without Rai.

Obviously he doesn't want to be the way he is, and he's working really hard. As long as I see him working, then I don't see why I can't work at it too."

And Rai is certainly working to improve. Shortly after the accident he had to learn to walk again. He has re-earned his driver's license, learned to adjust to monocular vision and has gained an encyclopedic knowledge of his injuries and the function of the brain's frontal lobe.

He also doesn't hold any grudges.

The Sky Sox game in which he made his appearance was July 12, which was a Friday. That meant there were fireworks.

Rai helped lead the countdown to the postgame launch.

"I still love them," Rai said of fireworks. "I have absolutely no PTSD from the accident. I have nothing but warm memories from every second I spent in this stadium."

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