“My name is Prichard Colón,” a robotic voice says.
Another question follows. Then another.
“I was a professional boxer from Puerto Rico.”
The women on either side of him are smiling. So is Prichard. But now the exercise gets tricky. How old are you? His dark eyebrows furrow, and the circle fills.
“I am 26 years old,” the voice says, and this means that he’s having a good day, that he might truly be getting better more than three years after that night outside Washington, D.C. The next question will confirm those hopes or inflame persistent fears.
Prichard’s mother, Nieves, squirms in her chair. She hates this. Alisha Russell, a speech and language pathologist at Brooks Rehabilitation, celebrates.
“You are 26. You are!” she says, and Russell’s elation masks the dread of her next question. “So if you’re 26, what year is it?”
They wait as his eyes explore the tabs. Minutes pass.
“It’s two thousand and what?” Russell asks.
Finally, the voice answers.
“Nineteen,” it says, and just like the old days, his audience is cheering.
Nieves and Russell squeeze into this stuffy office three times a week, go through the sequence and hope. Prichard indeed was a boxer, a talented and promising one, but during a match in October 2015 — just a mid-card super-welterweight bout, unmemorable but for tragedy — he suffered a major brain injury that nearly killed him before leaving him in a coma for seven months. Specialists predicted he would spend his life in a vegetative state. But somehow he kept defying the odds, surviving and waking and eventually communicating, and at the center of this little room is a young man trying to rebuild himself.
As complicated as that is, the two women in here with him are the architects of that reconstruction.
Nieves, still angry about what happened that night at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena, pleads with him and coaches him and challenges him. Russell, highly trained and experienced in using knowledge to overpower emotion, tries patience and positivity and incentives.
Some days, Prichard believes it’s 2015 and he is 23 years old and healthy. But then he looks at his legs. Why are they folded, resting in a wheelchair? Then the bulge under his shirt. It is a feeding tube. And so, not for the first time, mother and therapist take a breath and begin a story they’ve told many times — but in these moments, Prichard is hearing it for the first time.
There was a fight, Prichard, against an opponent named Terrel Williams. You were hurt that night, but you’re getting better.
“Mah,” he says, twitching his head left; this is how he says no.
Sometimes he’s defiant. They show him pictures from his hospital bed and offer photos of a 3-year-old girl he doesn’t recognize. It’s his niece, but in his mind, he has no niece.
“Mah,” he keeps saying.
A few months ago, Russell asked a question she never had: Do you want to see?
His eyebrows widened, and his head twitched downward. This is how he says yes. So Russell navigated his monitor to YouTube, found the fight and hit play. Nieves turned toward a wall.
Prichard watched himself, handsome and nimble, and at one point Russell saw his eyes widen. His face trembled. Russell, so skilled at silencing emotion, felt her own eyes flooding.
At some point before the seventh round, Russell asked if Prichard had seen enough. He twitched his head left, but she turned it off anyway.
A calamitous turn
Nieves and Prichard share an apartment, and like most nights, the colorful former boxer wants to watch himself. Amid all the changes, he never lost his vanity. Nieves has mixed feelings on watching her son, so lively and vibrant, but the videos automatically play, and he’s transfixed enough that she can tend to other things.
Here comes the one with Prichard’s interview, his high-pitched voice blending confidence and humility. Next is a documentary in which he wears garish Prada sunglasses. Then a montage of Prichard sparring and running on the beach.
A few days ago, Nieves was tidying her son’s room when she heard something familiar. She raced in, and there was Prichard trading blows with Williams. Nieves reached to play something else.
“Mah,” he said, and she let it play but left the room.
The bout is largely unremarkable until the fifth round, when Prichard punches Williams below the belt. Referee Joe Cooper penalizes Prichard, who points out Williams has been using “rabbit punches,” an illegal strike to the back of the head.
“I’m just saying, watch it,” Prichard can be heard saying.
“You take care of it,” Cooper says.
Late in the seventh round, Williams hits Prichard on the left rear of his skull. Prichard crumples, covering the area with his glove. Cooper again pauses the match, though Williams jaws at him before the fight resumes. Prichard continues protecting his head, and by now Nieves, who used to dread her son’s fights for this very reason, can be heard shouting from near Prichard’s corner. Williams knocks Prichard down in the ninth round, the first time he’s been sent to the canvas in 16 professional fights, and moments later Cooper stops the match and declares Williams the winner. Prichard looks distraught but not injured, but Nieves will recall later that he complains of dizziness. “I can’t see,” she’ll remember him saying, his last sentence, and moments later he’ll collapse in the dressing room before being rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery.
Nieves doesn’t need a video to remember the details of that sequence.
Searching for keys
About 18 months ago, Prichard began therapy at Brooks and began working with Russell. She wondered what everyone does: Is Prichard, once composed of so much humor and flash, still in there?
Of course he was, she decided, and Russell began by following a script: yes-no questions that he used his eyebrows to answer. Furrowing was no, widening them was yes. He answered 80 percent correctly, Russell will say later. Time passed, and her fascination with Prichard grew. She experimented with more unorthodox methods: playing Marc Anthony and seeing Prichard’s head bob, teaching him to make a “pick-up-the-girls face,” noticing he’d pedal faster if she taped a picture of Jennifer Lopez to his recumbent bike.
“I feel like he has more to say,” Russell would say, and by now she believed recovery depended on not just knowledge and science but also a personal approach.
Two decades ago, Russell’s parents threw a party, and she noticed no one was playing with her cousin Shane, who was nonverbal and often uncomfortable around strangers. She brought him into a quiet room, gently offering one toy, then another, then another until — eureka, his face brightened, out came a Shane almost no one knew, and in that moment Russell realized her cousin had a personality that, with the right key, had been unlocked. She never wondered much about what she’d do for a living.
“Everyone deserves a voice,” says Russell, 30.
When she met Prichard, Russell researched him and watched his videos. He liked the beach, so if Prichard was tired one day, she talked about someday going with him to the boardwalk and then watched him liven up. He enjoyed an audience — Prichard used to wear those ludicrous sunglasses and answer mock interview questions in the shower — so if he was frustrated, she’d invite a group of colleagues into her office and see him refocus and perform.
As the months passed, Prichard accomplished feats that surprised even Russell: nodding, then making verbal sounds, then using his eyes to let the monitor speak for him.
But who was Prichard, at his core? It was simple, Russell decided: He was a competitor, so she set out to find Prichard a challenger.
He’d met Drew Kohn months earlier when their mothers pushed their wheelchairs together. Drew had played high school football before a 2017 motorcycle accident left him with brain damage. He liked Nikes, and Prichard wore only Adidas. “What are guys like in a locker room?” Russell asked herself, so eventually she tried it.
While working with Prichard to retrain himself to swallow, she learned someone had recently brought brownies for Drew. Was Prichard really going to let Drew eat all the brownies? If they were on their bikes together or undergoing the same therapy session, Russell sometimes pointed out Drew was “winning,” just to watch his eyebrows furrow and his mind refocus.
Not long ago, Prichard was undergoing an agonizing physical therapy session. He’d been attached to a large walker, and the specialist was challenging Prichard to take a step. He was exhausted, and his brain just wouldn’t tell his legs to move.
Then Russell, standing nearby, caught Prichard’s eye. Didn’t he know Drew already could do this? Prichard took a breath, leaned forward and took one step, then two, and with Russell among the day’s audience, Prichard noticed his face in a wall mirror and blew himself a kiss.
While Prichard and Drew undergo therapy and compare footwear — “I only wear Adidas,” Prichard’s monitor now says for him many times a day — their mothers tell stories.
Usually they laugh. Sometimes they don’t.
After Drew’s accident, caused in part by another driver’s illegal U-turn, his family neither sued nor pressed charges. Yolanda Osborne-Kohn didn’t see the point. Nieves, though, cannot understand this. The driver caused so much pain, so many burdens.
“Forgiveness is for you, not the other person,” Yolanda has told Nieves many times.
This is often when Nieves’s eyes flood. They have so much in common, but not this.
“Every time I see that guy hitting my son,” she says of the nonstop cinema in her mind. “Every time . . .”
Two years ago, Nieves and her family filed a $50 million lawsuit (though she admits it may never be settled) against the ringside physician and the two promotions that organized the fight. She dispatched her ex-husband, Prichard’s father, to protest Terrel Williams’s weigh-ins before matches in Michigan and Philadelphia. She would, years after the fight, refuse to say Williams’s name, because in her mind one person was responsible for this pain, these burdens.
She’d blame Williams when her minivan overheated, when her three credit cards hit their spending limits, before calling her mother in Puerto Rico to ask for another $500 loan.
Williams was the reason she’ll never graduate from caring for her son full time and why so many of Prichard’s friends and relatives stopped calling and visiting. He’s why, so often, she feels helpless and desperate; all she can do in those low moments is prop those Prada sunglasses on Prichard’s face, shape his beard the way he used to like it and spritz him with an old bottle of Nautica Blue, and sometimes Nieves wants to open her eyes and have it be 2015, too.
“She’s broken,” Yolanda will say, though she’s hopeful Nieves someday will change her mind.
On this day, though, the battery that powers Prichard’s bed lift is dead. Before she heads next door to ask a neighbor for a loaner, she has a question.
“Prichard, do you forgive the guy that hit you?” she asks.
“No, you don’t forget that. No, because he did it on purpose.”
Nieves leans forward and kisses Prichard. In her mind, they’re in this together — alone, just the two of them, a couple of fighters against the world.
“So he’s a loser, and my son is a winner. Who’s the champion? You,” she says. “Who’s the champion?”
The other side
There is one more person tied to Prichard, and some days he feels like October 2015 will last forever.
Williams’s last fight was in April, against Justin DeLoach, but when he stepped through those ropes, he also saw Prichard and the events of that night outside Washington. He says he can’t enter a ring without considering the worst; feeling invincible before a fight is a thing of the past.
“It affected his life forever,” Williams says. “And it affected my life forever.”
Williams is 35 now, living in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons. Williams has never told his boys he’s a professional boxer, let alone spoken the name Prichard Colón. He knows he’ll never let his sons become boxers.
He speaks softly when discussing Prichard. He doesn’t explicitly apologize, saying more than once that he took no malice into the match. When he’s asked if he feels guilty anyway, he pauses for a long time.
“I just don’t like the situation,” he says. “I don’t. I think about it every day. I never could put my — prior to this happening, I could never see myself in this predicament.”
In the months after the fight with Prichard, Williams couldn’t get booked for a fight. He suggests he “had a few years of my career taken from me,” though he refuses to outright say he was blackballed. Regardless, he went 25 months between bouts, and after fighting three times in 2015 alone, he has fought three times since. He believes he’s still capable of winning a world championship.
Williams says friends keep him updated on Prichard’s condition and recovery. He knows Nieves posts frequent updates to her social media feeds, but Williams shut down his accounts amid the backlash of the Prichard fight. He knows Nieves hates him, though he tries not to think about it. He wonders if she knows he tried to visit Prichard in the hospital — Williams and Prichard were managed by the same promotion company — but was advised against it. Or that he prays for Prichard every day. Or what he’d say to Nieves, if they ever have a conversation.
One discussion, though, is inevitable. Someday three boys will learn about their father and what happened in 2015.
“When they figure it out,” he says, “I’ll talk to them about it. And I’ll be honest.”
Long road back
It’s a new day in Russell’s office, but Prichard isn’t answering her questions. She’s wondering what year it is.
He stares at a tab, and the red circle fills.
“I am the boss,” the voice says for him, and the women at his sides recognize defiance as a marker of 2015.
“Papi!” Nieves says, as always using force of will as her preferred tool.
Russell, though, looks to the corner and a whirring fan. She knows even a mild hum can be like a siren to a healing brain, and though he’ll never relearn to ignore ambient noise if there’s none to tune out, she reaches over and switches it off.
A new tab fills on Prichard’s monitor.
“You are in charge,” it says, and Russell smiles and thanks him. Nieves leans back and sighs, and finally the session begins.
As time passes and Prichard recovers, it’s impossible to know what he thinks of all this. He gets tired and impatient like anyone, and some of his days are better than others. What’s clear is that he’s made it this far, beyond where anyone thought he would, because of good coaching. Nieves and Russell offset frustration with hope, or try to, and that much they have in common. Maybe that’s where it ends.
Nieves believes that if she pushes her son hard enough, prays passionately enough, lets her anger burn hot enough, Prichard might someday live independently or even hold a job. Russell, using experience and feel as much as the black-and-whiteness of her training, has more modest goals. If Prichard can do a little better than he did yesterday and continue retaining memories — if he can just remember where and when he is — then that’s progress, and soon 2015 truly will be a thing of the past.
On this day, Prichard stares at a tab as the circle fills, and each time the voice answers correctly.
“All right,” Russell says. “What year is it?”
Nieves fidgets in her chair. Russell stares into Prichard’s eyes. They wait as he searches the tabs, considering his possible answer and what it’ll mean. Seconds pass, then minutes. They encourage him, cheer him, worry for him. Then he finds the right tab, his eyes locking on the one with “19” on it, and everyone waits for the red circle to fill.
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