GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- The bright lights transform the football field from a sea of darkness into a bubble of daylight.
It's hotter than it should be for a fall game, and Kayla Mulling pushes her hair behind her ear, tugging at the navy blue chin strap. The call comes, and the sea of blue marches towards the field.
A person dressed all in black comes up behind Kayla. Hands move to her shoulder and her hip, and the whispers start.
"I want to sit up and shout, 'That's my kid!' But I don't," Hope Mulling said.
The crowd goes silent, and the show starts.
Inside the incubator, May 19, 1999
Kayla was one girl in a set of triplets. They came too early. Kayla was just 1 pound, 10 ounces. Hope lost one of her premature babies, and the other two were born blind. After surgery, Kalya's twin brother was able to see. Kayla was not.
"It was scary, the first time they said she wasn't going to be able to see," Hope remembers. "We weren't even sure if she was going to survive."
While Kayla was in the incubator, struggling to survive, her mother played music. Constantly. And, maybe, that's where her love of music started.
It definitely wasn't inherited.
"I was in the church choir, and I just moved my lips, if that tells you anything," Hope said with a laugh.
Behind the idea
Kayla can't read music either, and she doesn't need to. "I learn the music by hearing it," she said. She started on percussion, but "that was just banging on different things." She went in search of a true music love. She found the trumpet.
"The flow of the sound, and how the valves work, what you can make it do to sound vibrato," Kayla talks about the trumpet in her slow, southern voice, a music all its own. “It sounds beautiful."
Band Director D.I. Brunson said Kayla will listen to a song once, then she'll play it. By the third time, "she has most of the notes right." By the fifth time, she has it down.
"It's a language to her," he said.
Kayla tried to join the marching band. It didn't go well.
“Freshman year, I tried to march, but I kept colliding with other people," Kayla said with a smile. The band director suggested she play from the sidelines. She did, and she played her heart out.
But this year, something changed. Her name is Keely Zeitlin, the person dressed all in black.
Zeitlin is Kayla's teacher. She helps guide Kayla as she navigates her education and her teenage life without sight. And, back onto the football field.
“I told her, if you want to do it, let’s do it," Zeitlin said.
"We know that this has been done before," Brunson said. "We know it can be done, so how do we do it?"
Brunson said he had some "hesitations." If someone turns left instead of right, stops instead of goes, "it's easy to knock a tooth out."
"But I didn't want those hesitations to be inhibitions," he said.
The two teachers did research, calling other band directors and students. They uncovered a mostly non-verbal way to communicate on the field. Zeitlin guides Kayla with a hand on her shoulder, and another on her lower back or hip. An occasional whispered word helps.
"Kayla has amazing spacial orientation," Zeitlin said. "She can do the fundamentals on her own. She can hit a line every time."
The system works...as long as Zeitlin knows the routine as well as Kayla. "I've never marched before, so that was definitely a challenge," she said.
Zeitlin said there were concerns about the hours she would have to put in to make it work. "Central office told me I would be doing this out of the goodness of my heart," she said, explaining she wouldn't be paid for that time. "Kayla’s success on the field is the only compensation I need."
Under Friday Night Lights, 2016
"Whenever you go out there on the field, you feel this rush of energy from you to the crowd of people," Kayla said.
That Friday night football energy has an extra buzz when Kayla is playing.
"It's our last away game," Zeitlin whispers as she takes the field beside Kalya wearing a block hoodie. "You better get it." She said she wears all black because she's like a stage hand, not meant to be seen.
And they start.
The two weave an intricate dance through the mass of marching, playing teenagers. A hand here, a gentle touch there, a whispered verbal reminder sprinkled in.
And the whispers start.
"I hear them at every single game," Hope Mulling said. "Why is that girl out there with the band? What is she doing? Is that girl blind?" She listens as confusion turns to amazement. And then, cheers.
"I was in tears. It's amazing," Hope said. "We didn't even know if she was going to survive at first, and here she is in the band, playing her heart out."
It's a heart full of determination and simple wisdom: “If you feel like you can’t do something, Just put yourself out there and take a step forward.”
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