Los Angeles Times

Kearney granted second serve

For Chris Kearney, break point will always hold a deeper meaning than the one linked to the context of tennis.

UC Irvine men's tennis coach Trevor Kronemann said Monday that Kearney, a junior transfer from North Carolina, has the potential to legitimately contend for an NCAA singles title.

But tennis is the least of what the 22-year-old has had to contend with since one fateful night in the fall of 2008.

Kearney, then 20, was days away from beginning his third year at UNC, for which he had earned All-American honors as a sophomore. Kearney and then-junior Taylor Fogleman who advanced to the NCAA doubles quarterfinals the previous spring, were expected to be the No. 1-ranked doubles team in the nation.

But after returning home from drinking with friends near the Chapel Hill campus on Aug. 17, 2008, Kearney made a decision that would lead to regret, remorse and, ultimately, to prison.

"I got a call from one of my neighbors, who asked me to come get her," Kearney said Monday during taping of the "Blue and Gold Report," a weekly radio show about UCI athletics. "I got in my car and I think I was in my car for 20 seconds …"

Police reports stated that Kearney's SUV veered off the road, hit a wall, then struck two female UNC students walking on the sidewalk.

Carolyn Kubitschek and Casey LeSawyer, both then-22, were seriously injured.

Kubitscheck, who like LeSawyer was thrown between 30 and 50 feet by the impact, had compound fractures in both legs, and other cuts and contusions.

LeSawyer's injuries included multiple fractures in her pelvis.

Both underwent surgeries and faced months of rehabilitation before they could walk. They had to withdraw from school but have since graduated, Kearney said.

Kearney's blood alcohol level was registered at 0.18, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08. Police said he had two fake IDs. He testified he drank about 12 beers in about an 11-hour period that preceded the accident.

Kearney pleaded guilty of two felony counts of serious injury by motor vehicle, two counts of possession of an altered or fictitious driver's license, and one count each of driving while impaired, consumption of alcohol under 21, driving after consuming under age 21, and reckless driving to endanger.

He was sentenced to 10 to 12 months in jail on Sept. 14, 2009 and taken immediately to Polk Institution in Butner, N.C. Three weeks later, he was transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, N.C.

He said he was not prepared for the severity of the sentence, nor life behind bars.

"It's nothing I can ever explain," Kearney said of his incarceration, after which he is serving three years probation. "You have to actually be there to understand it. It's a completely different world. I told people it was the worst place in the world, but it was also the best place in the world for me.

"The worst was, you're away from everybody and everything is lost; everything you have and take for granted. You have no cell phone, no internet, no nothing. And no family. My family was 3,000 miles away [in Irvine].

"The best thing was, you grow up. I had to grow up so quickly and realize who I was and what I wanted. It showed me that I'm going to be stronger from this, no matter what."

Kearney said Polk was a medium-maximum-security facility for inmates ages 16 to 24. "There wasn't much movement, gang bangers were running around and there were a lot of fights," Kearney said.

"[Orange Correctional Center] was a minimum-security adult facility. I was the youngest one there and I was able to go outside any time I wanted to run and play basketball. It made the time go much easier."

Kearney was quick to express remorse and reached out to the victims, with whom he is still in contact.

"One of the girls, who I met a few months after the accident, actually showed me her scars," Kearney said. "I broke down. It was very emotional. I said 'I did that to you.' She forgave me and I still talk to her to this day. She has been amazing."

LeSawyer recommended no prison time at Kearney's sentencing, while Ken Kubitschek, the father of the other victim, said he thought at least a year in jail would send a message about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Both victims expressed forgiveness.

Kearney said he will always regret the events of that night, but he will try to move on. Tennis, he said, is a big part of the healing process.

"The comeback has been good," said Kearney, who teamed with Fogleman to win a minor professional event in September and won seven straight singles matches to emerge from pre-qualifying to reach the round of 32 at the ITA All-American Championships completed earlier this month in Tulsa, Okla. "There have been some rough spots. I stayed fit in prison, working out every day and lifting weights."

But he did not play tennis.

"I had two months [following his release] to get in shape and get my mind ready]."

The mental aspects have been more challenging than the physical.

"I still have questions about how I deal with this now," Kearney said. "If something goes wrong in a match, am I just going to falter? Just the other day in practice, we were playing challenge matches and it was one of those days when everything just hits you. It's still something I fight. It's part of the process and I'm dealing with it."

Kronemann said Kearney is dealing remarkably well.

"He's very determined and he has very definitive goals he wants to accomplish," Kronemann said. "He has used all the negativity that surrounded him for a positive outcome. He was in a bad place at a bad time, but it's what he does afterward. How does he define his character? He's in the process of rebuilding and he has been doing all the right things."

Among those things has been telling his cautionary tale at an assembly of other UCI student-athletes. And Kearney said he would answer other calls to speak to young adults about the dangers of driving drunk.

"I think he's a perfect example of how a bad thing can turn into a good thing," Kronemann said.

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