TAMPA — The moment that changed the Joyer family’s life a year ago was accompanied by a seemingly familiar sound.
Kirsten Joyer heard a pop in her head, similar to the sudden crack of a starting pistol at a track meet, which she had heard countless times at her two oldest sons’ meets and after school as a Pasco County middle school principal.
What Kirsten didn’t know is that she had suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was in a race for her life — and later a marathon of a recovery. But the Joyers are well known for their fortitude.
Wesley Chapel senior Hunter Joyer, the middle child of Kirsten and Jack Joyer’s three children, was a fighter from Day 1, when he developed a serious respiratory infection shortly after he was born. Doctors said he’d likely be small and frail.
They were wrong. As a 9-year-old, Hunter could do 100 push-ups in one sitting. He would compete with his older brother, Kamran, in every athletic endeavor. He won a state weightlifting title as a freshman at Wesley Chapel. Before his junior season, he transferred to Tampa Catholic, where he was a two-way starter on the Class 2A state finalist football team. Then the 6-foot, 240-pounder won a state shot put title that spring.
Amid all his athletic feats, the teenager helped lift his family on his broad shoulders.
“People who know me know I’m never going to be the same person,” Kirsten said. “One look at (Hunter) and I know that he loves me unconditionally despite everything.”
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Jan. 28, 2010, began as a normal day for Kirsten, then an assistant principal at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel. She was completing work after school when she heard that sound. A headache ensued, but she didn’t think much of it.
But when she looked down at her cell phone to call her husband, she suddenly didn’t know how to dial the number. She lost vision in her right eye. She knew she was in trouble and walked through the school’s empty hallways in a haze until she found a coworker.
An artery in Kirsten’s brain had ruptured. She was rushed to Tampa for a craniotomy to clip the aneurysm. A few days later, she had an eight-hour brain surgery.
“Those were the toughest times,” Hunter said. “The reality set in that I might lose her.”
At the time of his mother’s illness, Hunter was just coming off a football season in which he played fullback and linebacker on a TC team that reached the state final. Division I-A college letters started rolling in.
“He never showed any outward signs that it was affecting him,” TC coach Bob Henriquez said. “If anything, I think it gave him more resolve and he worked harder. He showed that life is fragile.”
Hunter’s mother could no longer read or dress herself. She couldn’t recite the alphabet or put a puzzle together.
“I went from this high-functioning adult to someone who maybe would read at a first-grade level if I was lucky. It was very scary. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is that I have amazing kids. Hunter has been great. He’s such a wonderful kid. He’s so compassionate and so patient.”
Hunter took a lead role in taking care of his mother while helping tend to his 9-year-old brother, Chandler. Hunter’s older brother, Kamran, a football and track standout at Wesley Chapel, was at Louisville, and his father had to work. Hunter drove Kirsten to therapy sessions, went grocery shopping and made sure Chandler was picked up from school.
“Usually it’s my older brother who would do that stuff, but with him at college it was up to me,” Hunter said. “I wanted to take the stress off my mom. And I wanted to help my dad. I felt I owed it to help for everything he helped me with. And I wanted to be a role model for my (little) brother.”
“He really stepped up,” Jack said. “It was all on him. He did a great job.”
• • •
Last March, Hunter received a scholarship offer from Stanford, but once Florida offered in June, he committed to the Gators, who play just 1 1/2 hours from the family’s home.
The month before he signed, a teary Kirsten told her son they had to withdraw him from Tampa Catholic after his senior football season. With Kirsten on disability, the family could no longer afford the private school tuition.
“Telling him that just ripped my heart out,” she said. “When I saw him in the (school) parking lot, tears were streaming down my face, but he hugged me and told me don’t worry about it.”
Hunter gained eligibility to participate in the spring sports season at Wesley Chapel after the Florida High School Athletic Association approved the family’s hardship exemption request.
On national signing day Feb. 2, Hunter officially signed with Florida.
“To have her there to be able to share in that moment was amazing,” Hunter said. “I couldn’t imagine how upset I would be if she wasn’t there. Signing with Florida was one of my lifelong dreams, and she was there to share it and take pictures with me."
Hunter is participating in weightlifting and track this spring — and his mother has been able to attend more meets. She’s slowly getting back to what she calls “the new normal.” She needs daily mid-day naps. Sometimes, her boys will have to tell her stories more than once. Her vision still isn’t back to normal.
Meanwhile, Hunter recently reached a personal-best 59 feet in the shot put and has a shot at breaking the state record of 65 feet, 8.25 inches.
And this fall, Kirsten plans to be at every Florida game.
“I will be the loudest person there,” she said.
“I almost missed all of this,” she added. “That’s what I thought about in the ambulance, that I might never see my kids again. I started praying, ‘Please let me see my kids realize their dreams.’ That’s every parent’s wish.”
-- EDUARDO A. ENCINA (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EddieHometeam)