Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
A place to land: Kayla Green overcame rough start in California to star for Arkansas
Arkansas catcher Kayla Green looks for the sign from the bench during the Razorbacks game against Furman during an NCAA softball game on Saturday, April 13, 2019 in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Kayla Green has the typical scars of an SEC softball catcher. She has marks on her hands from the foul tips.
She’s battled eye vision issues because of two concussions caused by direct hits to her face mask.
But there are things you can’t see that are much more compelling. It’s more incredible than finding focused vision to hit .375 to lead the Arkansas regulars during the 2020 season that was shortened by the covid-19 pandemic.
You might say it provides 20/20 vision for a mature young lady well beyond her 21 years.
It’s nothing that anyone would believe, a story of a barely teenage girl forced to become the parent for two younger siblings because the mother was in drug rehab, along with the stepfather.
That’s why it was understandable when it came to picking a college, Green almost chuckled when she said there was little doubt she was going to leave California.
“I wanted to go somewhere small, to a college town and where softball could be the center of attention,” Green said.
Then she paused – probably flashing her awesome smile – as if to say about any place in the world might fit that description after what she went through as a teenager. Basically, she said, “I trusted my gut on Arkansas with my commitment – and got out of California.”
It was almost an escape, more than a commitment.
It was like she did a Houdini from a bizarre set of circumstances and background that few could survive unscathed.
“Oh, I think I do have plenty of (scars),” she said. “I think my first two years (at Arkansas) I probably did have mental issues. I probably swept them under the rug for a long time.
“I finally asked for and got help. That’s what makes this place so special, that it’s a place where everyone cares for you and tries to help you. Arkansas is not like California.”
There’s an understatement. And, to say that Green should have a few scars would be a monumental understatement.
She found herself raising her two younger siblings as a 13-year-old as her mother and stepfather battled – and often lost – to substance abuse. There was time in prison for both.
“They were addicts and were in and out of rehab,” she said. “The bills didn’t get paid a lot of the time. You have to know that our house was close to the biggest casino in California. My mom was a user.
“I’d feed my brother and sister and get them off to school. Usually, there wasn’t any food left for me. That’s how little we had. I’d get to softball practice completely (hungry).
“But I didn’t care because softball was my one place I could forget about all of our problems and just lose myself in the game. I called it my happy place.”
Eventually, Brian Jendro, her softball travel coach with the So Cal Athletics since age 9, and his wife Nicole took in Kayla and her siblings. She calls them “Mom and Dad” now. It was during that time that Kayla found her real mom in an orange grove.
“She was homeless, living under a bush,” Green said. “I took her to rehab. No child should ever have to do that, but I’m glad I did.”
They have established a relationship since. In fact, Kayla’s biological mother recently surprised with a trip to Fayetteville to celebrate her 21st birthday. It was a trip that Jendro applauded.
“I was so pleased her mom made the trip to Fayetteville,” Jendro said. “We are all so proud of what Kayla has accomplished. I wanted her real mom to see that.”
Of course, Jendro and his wife – and his other children – get part of the credit, too.
“They are my parents, Brian and Nicole,” Green said.
Kayla Green (second from left) is shown with Cody (left), Marley (center), Nicole (second from right) and Brian Jendro.
Kayla Green (center) is shown with Brian and Nicole Jendro. The Jendros adopted Green after she began playing softball for Brian Jendro's travel team.
Kayla Green (left) and Marley Jendro began playing softball together at the age of 9.
Brian Jendro said his family looks at Green the same way they do their other two children, Marley and Cody.
“Marley and Kayla were teammates since I started coaching them at age 9,” Jendro said. “They weren’t close and didn’t hang out.
“So when we took Kayla in, we sat down and told them the options, they both started crying and said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
The other option – with the mother and stepfather in prison – was for Green and her two biological siblings to go into foster care.
“They didn’t want that to happen,” Jendro said. “It was an adjustment. But it worked out great.
“Kayla had basically been living on her own, raising her brother and sister. We took them all at first, but then the younger two went with some grandparents. Kayla stayed with us.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Green, but eventually she was adopted.
“He was my coach and was hard on me, just real tough sometimes,” she said. “I didn’t know how that was going to work when we got home. But he kept coaching and being a dad separate. It was wonderful.
“I don’t know where I’d be without Brian and Nicole. She is my mom now and he’s my dad.”
Jendro admits his coaching methods were tough.
“I’ve always been hard on them when we are on the field,” he said. “But at home, that wasn’t me. I’m fun and I joke around. But because of the way I coached, I know she was hesitant to make the decision to come with us.
“It worked perfectly. There was never one issue. Kayla is just like my other two children. She is my daughter and I love them all. She knows that.”
It was around the same time that Green became the target of many of the nation’s top softball schools. Several of Jendro’s top players picked Arkansas when Mike Larabee and Sue Carpenter were the coaches.
“I believe Kayla was 14,” Jendro said. “She had probably 25 offers from all of the top schools. I decided I’d take her to see schools. I don’t know that she’d moved in with us at that point, but I took her to Fayetteville.”
It was love at first sight.
“We landed in Fayetteville,” Jendro said, “and as soon as we got off the plane she said, ‘This is where I’m going to school and I’m never going to leave.’ And, that’s how it’s turned out.”
Green committed to Larabee, but has played all three seasons for Courtney Deifel. It has turned out to be a great learning experience. Like Green, Deifel was a freshman starter behind the plate at California, where she grew into an All-American and won two national championships.
Green said she’s got two more years at Arkansas. The NCAA restored her junior year because of the pandemic.
“I’m going to get my Masters and I’ll be 23 and I don’t think I will leave,” she said.
Her undergrad degree is in criminal justice and social work. She’ll go for a Masters degree in counseling. Her early days with mom and stepfather will give her unique perspective.
“I’ve taken some courses in substance abuse (counseling) and I think that’s what I want to do,” she said. “It will probably seem like I’ve been here forever when I’m done, but these first three years have flown by.
“The things I’ve gone through are going to help me with what I want to do. There are things that no one should have to do – like pull their mother from under an orange bush. But I did it.
“I can talk about it and sometimes I can do it without crying.
“I know what the statistics say about what my chances were to make it through what I did. I beat the statistics.”
Jendro knows that’s true.
“What I see now is a mature young adult,” Jendro said. “When I start them out as a coach, I tell them all my goal is that we learn about life. Yes, I teach them softball, but what I really want is from when they are 10 to 18 that they turn into strong independent women.
“That’s all I care about. I want them to be able to handle any issue that comes their way.”
It’s interesting that continues to be what Jendro talks to Green about, including when there are softball struggles.
Green struggled at the plate her first two years at Arkansas, but some of it was related to the vision issues caused by concussions.
“I took a shot against Florida State that knocked me cold out,” she said of a Feb. 29 game. “I’ve still got the video of that foul ball, straight to the mask. It was brutal. I was out when (coaches and trainers) got to me. I went blank.
“I had two and they definitely affected me. I didn’t know why I couldn’t hit like before.”
After her sophomore year eye doctors gave her some vision focus drills.
“That was crazy,” she said. “But they definitely helped.
“What I found this year was that I could see (pitches) again. I didn’t really understand those two years that it was the concussions causing my struggles.
“I talked to Brian about it and he was kind of hard on me. I was hard on myself, too. Why couldn’t I hit? Softball had always been my happy place and now I was struggling.”
Jendro recalls the phone calls.
“I just listened most of the time,” he said. “She was too hard on herself. I got on her for that.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, with what you’ve been through, you are going to let something on the field get you?’ I just don’t think she had ever struggled on the field before. She was surprised success wasn’t easier.”
Eventually, it all fell in place.
“I knew it would,” Jendro said. “She is a very humble kid and had survived so much. Obviously, she is a lot more mature than most and she is very skilled on the field. I told her to just keep working harder and that’s what she did.”
While her offense was a bit off her first two years at Arkansas, the defense was always spectacular. There was an obvious connection with pitcher Autumn Storms, a high school and summer league teammate from Temecula, Calif., who was All-SEC last year.
“Autumn and I are more like sisters than teammates,” Green said. “We didn’t hang out growing up, but now we are inseparable. I guess I’ve played with her since middle school.
“I can talk to her in a way that no one else can and she can do the same to me. My teammates say I speak a Storms language. I know what she’s going to do next before she does it and she is the same with me.
“It’s funny, there was a time in high school that I went to the mound to talk to her and she grabbed me by the face mask. We can get after each other and not take it personal.”
The message is often the same.
“I’ll tell her to stop thinking and just do,” Green said. “She’ll tell me the same thing.”
That’s the way the season was falling for Arkansas when the pandemic hit. They had won a game at No. 9 Alabama. And, there was a doubleheader sweep of Kansas with Green hitting a walk-off homer for a 1-0 win in the nightcap on March 10.
Green By the Years
Year (Games), Avg., RBI
2020 (23), .375, 13
2019 (55), .214, 25
2018 (58), .237, 26
That was the final pitch of the season. Ranked No. 19 and with a 19-6 record, the Razorbacks appeared to be in the middle of a big year, perhaps similar to Green’s freshman season when Arkansas hosted an NCAA regional for the first time and lost to Oklahoma in the super regional round.
Now there’s no softball, hardly anything.
“I take a daily walk with two dogs,” said Green, who is in Fayetteville. “That’s all there is. I keep saying this is good preparation for my next stage in life, when college is over and there is no more softball for me.
“I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve got a broomstick that I pretend is a bar with weights and I put it behind my shoulders. (Sophomore outfielder) Sam Torres and I have thrown a little. But for the most part, softball has been completely taken away. It sucks.”
It’s not the worst thing to ever happen. Green knows that.
“No, this isn’t like having to take care of your siblings,” she said. “You learn who you are and what you can do pretty quickly.
“I kind of laugh when some of the freshmen get to school and they’ve never washed their own clothes before. No, this is pretty easy. I learned to do for myself.
“There was a time when I was about 7 when we lived in such a bad area that my mom had to walk me to school. I could hear gun shots. It was just tough.
“I wouldn’t call where I lived a home. It was just a place to sleep. I can remember charging my phone in a car because there was no electricity because the bills were not paid. There was no TV. I had to grow up.”
She’s thankful for everything she’s got now.
“I committed to the previous coaches,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but (new coach) Courtney Deifel welcomed me and is like another mom. She took a chance. I guess she saw something in me, like Brian and Nicole did. I can’t repay them enough.
“I absolutely love it here. You can ask for help and you are going to get it.”
And the only time the lights go out is every once in a while on a foul tip.
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