Feinswog: Lady Tigers' Boykin 'A Walking Miracle'
Editor’s note: Longtime Baton Rouge sportswriter, author and television host Lee Feinswog takes his unique approach to sports to dig deeper into LSU Athletics. Look for these features online and in official athletics department publications throughout the 2014-15 season.
Sheila Boykin stands 6-foot-2 and is, frankly, a big, strong girl.
And there she was, having to be pushed in a wheelchair just to get across an airport.
Which is why LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell says of Boykin, “She’s just been a bright spot for us through her trials and tribulations.
“She’s a walking miracle.
“And if you can’t give your all and you feel tired or like you can’t go, just look at Sheila Boykin and she can be that inspiration for you.”
Boykin, then a sophomore at LSU, two years ago was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. This is the way it’s described on the Mayo Clinic website:
Guillain-Barre (gee-YAH-buh-RAY) syndrome is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your extremities are usually the first symptoms.
These sensations can quickly spread, eventually paralyzing your whole body. In its most severe form Guillain-Barre syndrome is a medical emergency. Most people with the condition must be hospitalized to receive treatment.
Fast forward to today, when Boykin is a key player for the Lady Tigers, now up to 7.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. She started LSU’s last 14 games aas it headed into a Monday-night matchup with Missouri, hitting 58.3 percent of her shots in her last 11 outings.
Which is a far cry from being in a hospital bed 1,800 miles from her Los Angeles home getting an IV treatment that she hoped would let her walk properly again, so much as play basketball.
Two years ago last month the symptoms started on a Monday morning in a week which LSU had no games scheduled.
“I had an early class, woke up early and I did my morning routine and I almost fainted,” Boykin recalled. “I was throwing up.”
She laughed at the obvious question.
“That’s the first thing everyone thinks. Don’t worry, the doctor asked me if I was pregnant.”
Boykin, a big fan of heavy-metal music, said she was so weak she couldn’t get out of bed, so the trainers came to her. A trip to the doctor the next day didn’t reveal much.
Boykin wanted to get back to practice. She did, but knew something was wrong. That week, LSU went to Kentucky and although she made the trip, Boykin played just two minutes.
She said she had trouble wiggling her toes and noticed she was walking slower than usual, most notably taking longer to get to class.
“One day I was like 15 minutes late to class. My walking wasn’t right.”
Even her mom, who was visiting, noticed it.
On February 16, 2013, the night before LSU was to play at Mississippi State, Boykin finally admitted to herself “something weird was going on and I don’t know what it is.”
Practice had been tough. After Kentucky she played in the next four games, but her minutes dropped and her production was almost non-existent.
“Yeah, I was scared,” she said quietly.
At State that day in pregame Boykin realized she bad off. LSU’s regular trainer, Micki Collins, was out having her baby, so Boykin told then-assistant trainer Yuri Jean-Baptiste she didn’t have feeling in her legs.
She actually played a minute in the second half, but had to tell Caldwell she couldn’t go.
“I told Coach Nikki ‘I can’t go. I can’t feel my legs.’ She knows I’m not the type to pull myself out of anything. She knew something was wrong.”
Collins, meanwhile, knew right away. She’d already dealt with it once before when former LSU basketball player Tia Eason had it after her career ended.
Collins got the neurologist Dr. Kevin Callerame in on it right away.
“I was like the lab rat that day,” Boykin said. “You know how they tap your knee and your leg pops up? Mine wasn’t doing anything.”
Boykin went right into the hospital, where she spent the next six days.
“And my crazy mother, as loving as she is, she drove from California. All the way from Los Angeles with my older sister and brother.” Her little sister stayed behind.
Boykin originally was going to stay in her hometown and play for UCLA. But the coach who recruited her, Caldwell, left at the end of her senior year in high school for LSU. Boykin asked if she could follow and got her release from UCLA to become a Tiger.
So here she was.
“The team rallied around her,” Caldwell recalled.
In essence, Boykin got an IV treatment that made her well, although her doctor told her it would get worse before it got better.
“It’s not a cure,” Collins said. “You hope it’s going to slow it down and it’s kind of how we all hear how a virus has to run its course. And that’s what happened.”
Not that Boykin just jumped up a played. Far from it.
“I cried a little bit, especially after I left the hospital and my mom and brother and sister left. I actually had a sigh of relief when I was in the hospital because now I knew what was wrong with me. At least we knew what I had to do. It could have been worse. It was something I had to take day by day.”
Collins said her legs quickly atrophied and had a long way to come back.
The 2013 basketball season continued, of course, and if you recall LSU was down to basically six players and upset Green Bay and Penn State in the NCAA Tournament before giving Cal all it could handle on its home court in the round of 16.
The next summer the team traveled to Spain.
Boykin, even though she couldn’t play, made the trip.
“I was like a cheerleader-slash-mini coach-slash water girl. Whatever they needed.”
Collins noticed her improvement on that trip.
“Sheila, you’re walking normal,” Collins told her.
More from the Mayo Clinic:
The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is unknown … There’s no known cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness. Most people recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome, though some may experience lingering effects from it, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.
“Some people never recover from this,” Collins said.
Finally, when LSU resumed practice in the fall, the kid who had to be wheeled across the airport for a flight back to Los Angeles just a few months earlier was ready to go.
And it’s not like she eased into it nor gets any breaks from Caldwell and her staff. No, Boykin’s first training session in the fall of 2013 was the Marines workout the Lady Tigers were doing. Boykin hadn’t run in nearly nine months but was happy to brag that she did it all, from carrying the ammo cans to dragging a teammate.
“I cried after,” she said, “because I did it.”
Her biggest struggle, she said, has been with balance.
“And since then I’ve always been a step slow. So say we have to do a punishment sprint on the line and Coach says go and the team will take off and I’ll be like a second later.”
She has 100 percent feeling in her legs and feet and no pain. She doesn’t have to take any medications and keeps getting stronger and stronger, as her basketball stats prove.
“She was a player with a high basketball IQ,” Caldwell said. Al”though she was undersized she played with a lot of heart, a lot of passion, and did those little things, whether it was taking a charge or getting on the offensive glass. She always made things happen.”
Last season Boykin was one of five LSU players to appear in all 34 games, averaging 1.6 points and 2.3 rebounds. That included scoring two points and grabbing a couple of rebounds in LSU’s NCAA Tournament win over Georgia Tech and then getting three boards and a block in the second-round NCAA win over West Virginia.
“I’m not big, big, like that big,” Boykin said. “I have to show my bigness through my tough plays and my big heart.”
This season she’s been a rebounding machine and has occasional big games on offense, like when she scored 14 against Kentucky. In LSU’s rout of Ole Miss last week she had six points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“She’s playing the game up here,” Caldwell said, pointing to her head, “but that mental preparation and her mental toughness makes up for that.”
“I’m very proud,” Boykin admitted. “It was hard to get through and even when I was doing it I didn’t think I was going to make it this far and contribute to the team this much.”
Boykin, majoring in Interdisciplanary studies with minors in leadership, sports administration and communication studies, comes from a hoops family. Her parents met at junior college and her dad, Shelton, played at UTEP and mom, Ruth, at Cal State Northridge. Her brother, Shelton, plays in junior college.
Her older sister, Mia, is into music, and her little sister, Leila, is the light of her life.
“One thing I took from it was to appreciate the little things in life,” Boykin said. “I have an 8-year-old little sister who was 6 at the time. I love to chase her and play with her and to think that it was possible for me not to be able to do that with her again, I think of that. And it showed my little sister you can get hit from any angle. It’s all about getting right back up and hitting it back.”