LOUISVILLE -- Lucas Howard doesn't remember how he freed his right hand from underneath the Yamaha Rhino he and his cousin had just rolled, whether someone helped him or whether the all-terrain vehicle had simply bounced enough that he was able to pull away from the roll bar.
What he does remember is looking down at his mangled appendage -- severed from the middle of the palm on, knuckles bare and flipped back against his wrist, still attached merely by the skin on the back of his hand -- and thinking that life as he knew it was over. No more shooting hoops in the driveway, no more tennis, no more dirt biking, no more rock climbing.
"It's definitely over as I know it, but not in the way that I thought," Howard says now, 81/2 months later. "I thought I was going to lose (the hand) for sure. I didn't believe that I could recover like this."
A 6-foot-5 former basketball player who switched gears and took up tennis for the first time as a junior, Howard is now a senior on the Monarch High tennis team. He isn't in line for a trip to state. He's not even on varsity. That's not the point.
He is back on the court, learning to play left-handed and competing for the JV team. That he and partner Justin Butler are 2-0 is simply a nice little ego boost for a guy who's been athletic his whole life. What Howard knows now is that if he can learn to play tennis lefty, the possibilities only expand from there. Maybe one year down the road, maybe five, he'll be back on his dirt bike. But he's not giving up on any of it.
Just as Howard was devastated by what he'd seen in the moments after his accident, his optimism stems from the sight of his hand when he awoke after surgery. Accompanying his uninjured right thumb were three fingers -- three more than he'd expected, and reason, he says, to be thankful instead of sorrowful.
Only his index finger was too damaged to save. But doctors at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix -- some of the finest micro surgeons in the country -- had given him 50-50 odds prior to surgery that he would be losing all four.
The 50-50 odds had crushed Howard's spirit. Looking back, 50-50 was pretty incredible given the circumstances of the accident.
The Howard family was vacationing in Puerta Peñasco, Mexico, at the northern end of the Gulf of California when Lucas, his brothers, father, cousins and uncle embarked on a day of ATV adventure.
Lucas's cousin was driving their two-seat ATV when he made a sharp turn to the left, flipping the vehicle to the right. Although belted in and wearing a helmet, Howard instinctively grabbed the roll bar for something to hold onto. The road proved unforgiving at impact, leading to the scene Howard describes as "mayhem."
"It was like (the movie) 'Saving Private Ryan,'" Howard said of seeing his bones and muscles hanging out. "I was praying a lot to pass out. I didn't want to be awake because it was just terrifying."
By the time Howard got to a nearby clinic, his uncle, who works in the medical industry, was already calling acquaintances to see where they should go for the best care. One of the uncle's best friends also was able to help make arrangements for an air ambulance to take Lucas to Phoenix. Nine hours after the accident, he finally went into the operating room.
He had four surgeries over the coming days and then three more when he arrived back in Colorado. Blood vessels were transplanted from his arm. There were muscle, bone and skin grafts, not to mention extensive repairs to his nerves. He has two titanium plates and about 30 screws in the hand.
The period was trying not only for Howard but for his family as well. His father, Greg Howard -- a standout tight end for the University of Colorado football team in the 1970s who had nearly passed out when he saw his son's hand after the accident -- said it was about three months before he and his wife could talk about the ordeal without crying.
"By March, though, we could really see progress," Greg said.
Doctors have told Lucas Howard that he should eventually regain most use of his right hand, though he'll never again be right-handed.
Becoming a lefty has presented plenty of challenges, the toughest of which for Howard was writing. (While he does fine now, he dropped two classes last spring because he simply couldn't take notes.) But it was when he announced that he planned to play tennis this season that he raised the most eyebrows.
MHS JV coach Christopher Turner says Howard has worked tirelessly to try and get to the level he was playing at right-handed. And Butler, Howard's partner, says some opponents aren't even aware of his ailment until they shake hands after a match.
"It's pretty awesome because he gets it pretty easily," Butler says. "It doesn't even look like he's using his off hand or anything."
Howard, of course, often still sees the things he can't do. Whereas he could "crush serves" last year, he's playing more defensively this year just trying to get the ball over the net and let the other team make a mistake.
"I manage fine but it's definitely frustrating," Howard says. "My serve's pretty weak. I want to be able to smash it again."
MHS varsity tennis coach Mary Prassa sees a good deal of humility in Howard's efforts.
A natural athlete, Howard was on his way to someday being a contributor for the MHS hoops team when after his sophomore year he got burned out on the sport he'd played since childhood and decided to hang it up. With barely a year invested in tennis, no one would have blamed him for not wanting to spend much of his senior year essentially re-learning the sport, battling just to play in JV meets.
"He was a varsity-level basketball player and here he's playing JV tennis and enjoying himself," Prassa said. "I don't think a lot of people would even bother to do that."
Howard, who hopes to attend college out of state and keep tennis as a lifetime sport, says his recovery has been buoyed by the support he's gotten from family, friends, coaches and others at school.
"I didn't want to give up," he says. "I've made so much progress, and nobody really has told me that I can't do stuff now. It's just (a matter of), 'When am I going to be able to do stuff?'"