Served A Second Chance

SOFIA PANUELOS/New University

Over 2,500 miles away and two and a half years ago, Chris Kearney made a mistake: he thought he was invincible. It was Aug. 16, 2008. Kearney and his teammates on the University of North Carolina tennis team were celebrating their last weekend before the fall semester began. About to start his junior year, Kearney had been a Freshman All-American and one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most impressive tennis players — but all of that was about to come to a crashing halt.

Over a span of nine hours, starting in the late afternoon and ending around 1 a.m., Kearney drank 12 beers. Kearney was an occasional drinker who had two fake ID’s in his wallet. However, he tended to focus more on maintaining his body for a potential professional career than on his proficiency in shot-gunning beers. But in a night of celebration, he put one of the fakes to use at La Residence Restaurant & Bar before walking home at the end of the night. After a 30-minute stroll, he received a call from a female friend who begged him for a ride at 1:30 a.m.

An inebriated Kearney figured he was in good enough condition to drive: he was wrong. With a blood alcohol content of .18, he was over twice the legal limit of .08. And at his age of 20, he could get arrested for any traces of alcohol consumption, but Kearney took the risk.

While driving his Nissan Murano, Kearney lost the handle of his cell phone. When he reached down to retrieve it, he lost control of his car as well.

Two 20-year-old female UNC students, Casey LeSawyer and Carolyn Kubitschek, were walking along the sidewalk on Martin Luther King Boulevard when Kearney’s SUV veered off the road, crashed into them and hit a wall as the car’s airbag deployed.

Shaken up, Kearney had no idea he had just hit the two women. He stumbled out of the vehicle before being jumped and pinned to the ground by three witnesses. When the police came, they handcuffed Kearney and took him to North Carolina’s Orange County Jail, where he was held on a $50,000 bail.
While at the police station, Kearney finally realized there were victims involved as he overheard a policewoman say that the two girls he had hit were “(expletive) toast.”

Following his arrest, Kearney enlisted in a 30-day out-patient program before returning to his hometown, Irvine, in September 2008. As he awaited trial, he received word that the victims’ injuries were not life-threatening. However, LeSawyer and Kubitschek were forced to withdraw from school. Kubitschek suffered two broken legs that required three operations, while LeSawyer had a broken pelvis, a broken leg and needed stitches in her head.
No longer a UNC student, a year passed as Kearney awaited trial. He often woke up to nightmares of the crash.

LeSawyer and Kearney met before trial, which was an emotional experience for both parties. LeSawyer bolted to her room when she saw the man who had hit her. Then she composed herself and spoke to him. He couldn’t believe the injuries that he was responsible for.

Kubitschek, on the other hand, did not want to meet Kearney. In court they finally came face-to-face where she told him that “the pain was relentless” before saying, “I hope you remember our story and find a better path for yourself.”

“I am so, so sorry for getting behind that wheel,” Kearney remorsefully told them.

Kearney pleaded guilty in September 2009 at the Orange County Criminal Superior Court in Hillsborough, NC to reckless driving, driving while impaired, driving after consuming while under 21 years of age, consumption of alcohol while at the age of 19 or 20, two counts of obtaining fictitious licenses and two counts of causing serious injuries by a motor vehicle. He was sentenced to 10-12 months in prison, followed by 36 months of probation.

Kearney spent his first few weeks at what he refers to as a brutal prison, Polk Correctional Institute in Butner, NC before being transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough.

The difference between the two was “night and day,” Kearney said.

At Polk, Kearney stayed in a dorm of 40 where guards shadowed him for safety precautions. Often unable to leave the room or his bed, bathroom breaks were minimal and the food was unbearable.
“There were fights every day,” he said. “No cell phone. No In-N-Out. It was the worst food possible,” Kearney said. “At Orange, it was minimum facility. I took cooking and carpentry classes and actually built a gazebo. I lifted a lot and got stronger and I didn’t have to worry about my safety.”

Prison gave him months to think about not only what he had done, but what he hoped to accomplish in the future. Kearney served 10 months in prison before returning home to Irvine. He was surprised with a welcome back party on his second night by 100-150 friends at the Palisade Tennis Club.

In September 2009, when he was still awaiting trial, Kearney received a call from UCI’s men’s tennis assistant coach Rob Nelson, who told Kearney to come hit with his team. Kearney barely knew Nelson. As a high school standout at Mater Dei High School, Kearney remembered playing against Santa Margarita High School, a team Nelson had coached. But the two were unfamiliar. Now a coach at UCI, Nelson had recently suffered a family tragedy of his own and reached out to Kearney.

“We helped each other out,” Kearney said.

After receiving a warm feeling from UCI, Kearney explains, “I wanted to be an Anteater.”

Days after his release from prison, Kearney was on the courts working out with UCI after being without a racquet for nearly a year.

“Hitting a tennis ball was like riding a bike. I hit the ground running,” Kearney said.

Head Coach Trevor Kronemann was impressed by his newfound tennis talent.

“People didn’t think he was going to be ready. Chris was ready,” Kronemann said.

In his first tournament back in September 2010, Kearney won seven straight matches at the ITA All-American Tennis Championships in Tulsa, Okla. before falling in the round of 32.

Kearney entered the spring tennis season as the No. 33 ranked player in the nation and has dazzled thus far, already posting a six-match singles winning streak. He and senior teammate Stephen Stege have also established themselves as a potent Big West doubles tandem, en route to the Anteaters’ 8-4 start.

“Chris has been given a second chance,” Kronemann said. “He is getting back everything that he lost. There are some days where he struggles. Many haven’t seen that side of him. I can only imagine the emotional baggage that he carries.”

Kronemann continued to praise his athlete’s reemergence and offered insight into what it’ll take for Kearney to progress.

“Chris is a special person. He learned from his mistakes,” Kronemann said. “I see flashes of brilliance and just go, ‘Wow! Imagine if that could improve 40 percent.’ I’ve been on the big stage and I can tell you, he has every weapon there is to have. The question is can he keep the thing between his ears at bay. It’s going to be tough. But Chris has the ability to win a national championship.”

Kearney still thinks about the girls and the accident every day. LeSawyer and Kubitschek returned to college and graduated. According to Kearney, they are now able to run.

Despite their recoveries, Kearney no longer drinks and checks in with a probation officer monthly. He is unable to leave the state other than for tennis tournaments.

“How do you forgive yourself for that?” Kearney asked. “Everyone has the right to be mad at me. I want to help others with my experience and I have to live life pretty perfect from now on.”

As for the dangers of drunk driving, Kearney said, “No one is invincible. If you have a dream, don’t worry about being macho and having pride. Do the safe thing. Too many bad things can go wrong.”