PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- There are still brief glimpses of his presence.
For Robby and Paula Boring, it's when they step inside their son's bedroom that has gone untouched for nearly two months now. For Kasey and Colton Boring, it's when they see their younger brother's Toyota pickup truck, with mud flakes on the tires, parked next to their house.
For his friends at Cold Springs Baptist Church, it's saving the chair he always sat in for Sunday school, usually after arriving just a tad late so all the girls' eyes would be on him as he walked into the room.
For his classmates and football teammates at Bledsoe County High School, it's waiting for him to come into a room or the football field house and exclaim, "Dude, you got to listen, I was in beast mode at practice!"
But for everyone who knew Kainen Boring, the reality eventually sinks in.
It was a tragedy that resonated not just through the Sequatchie Valley, but the entire Chattanooga area -- the death of a 17-year-old boy after a head injury he suffered at football practice. Kainen later was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a tangling of arteries and veins near the base of the skull that alters blood flow and usually is formed before birth.
"The first thing I want to make clear is that football didn't kill Kainen," his father said. "We never knew he had AVM until after his accident, but it could have happened by him doing just about anything.
"Kainen loved football. He loved being a part of that team, and this wasn't anybody's fault. We don't even question God as to why this happened. It's not for us to understand right now. We're just grateful for the years we had him and the fact that he was such a great kid and touched so many people."
As shock continues to grip his family and friends, those closest to Kainen say their Christian faith, along with how the community wrapped its arms around them, have helped temper the pain of his death. And as the season progressed, the way Kainen chose to live his life has been an inspiration not only to Bledsoe County's football team, but for those whose lives he touched after death.
Kainen was an organ donor.
After eight days of lying unresponsive in an intensive care unit at Erlanger hospital, Kainen died Sept. 16. His family already had made the decision to allow him to be an organ donor and, because of that choice, five strangers were given a second chance at life.
Although the family is not allowed to know the names of those recipients, they know the list included a 63-year-old mother of three in Tennessee who was dying of liver failure, a 53-year-old military veteran who had undergone dialysis for more than five years, a 44-year-old single mother of a young son who had been ravaged by kidney failure and dialysis, a 63-year-old Ohio man who has four daughters and four grandchildren, and an 18-year-old Georgia girl who was dying of heart failure before she received Kainen's heart.
"I hope all of those people are doing well now and realize what a gift Kainen gave them," Paula Boring said. "The one I really would like to meet is the 18-year-old girl. I want to meet her so badly.
"I want to put my hand on her chest and feel Kainen's heart beat one more time."
'YOU NEVER WANT TO LET GO'
Diagnosed with ADHD when he was in kindergarten, Kainen was even more rambunctious than typical teenage boys. He had broken his left wrist twice -- once while jumping out of a swing when it reached its highest point, and again when he crashed a friend's dirt bike that he had been told not to ride.
From the time he was a toddler through his teenage years, photos were an opportunity for Kainen to make a silly face and force his mother to sigh and tell everyone they had to redo it because "Kainen was acting like a clown again."
It wasn't out of the ordinary for Kainen to finally go to bed well after 1 a.m. because, as his father explained, "It was like he was afraid he might miss something in life."
"He was just always in a hurry and wanted to be a part of everything that was going on," Robby Boring said. "He loved life so much and wanted to pack as much into it as he could in 17 years."
Kainen grew several inches and gained more than 15 pounds between his sophomore and junior years, and at 6 feet and 195 pounds he was convincing Warriors coaches that he should be doing more than just handling the kicking duties.
"He was a very confident kid and he had progressed in practice to the point that we knew we were going to have to start playing him more in games," Warriors coach Jason Reel said. "He was playing linebacker in practice and coming downhill at our runners and making plays against our first-team offense a lot."
Kainen made his mother take pictures of the bruises on his arms and back from all the extra contact at practice and send them to his dad, who was working out of town.
"He loved to tell everybody how tough he was," said his oldest brother, Kasey. "If he got a scratch, he would exaggerate it and make you think he needed stitches.
"Once he started getting bigger, you'd catch him flexing his muscles in front of the mirror or even just sitting on the couch watching TV. I guess since he was the baby brother, it was a big deal for him to be bigger than Colton and me and for us to know how tough he was."
After grabbing the peanut butter sandwich his mother made him every morning, Kainen left early on Thursday, Sept. 8, to work out with his uncle before school.
"I said, 'Be careful' because that's what I always say when one of my boys leaves," Kainen's mother said. "But I never thought that my baby would never come back home. That was the last time we spoke to each other, and I wish now I had held onto him longer."
As he left school for practice, Kainen hugged his girlfriend, Abby Adams, and the two exchanged "I love you's" before she went on her way to work at Scottie's Restaurant.
It was near the end of practice when a collision left Kainen shaken up. According to teammates and coaches, he walked back to the huddle, took a couple of steps back and said, "Something ain't right."
Saying he felt dizzy, Kainen collapsed to the turf, catching himself with his hands before rolling over. He spoke with Coach Reel for several minutes, passing along his mother's cellphone number before losing consciousness.
By the time his mother arrived, Kainen was on a stretcher, being loaded onto an ambulance. She was told the Lifeforce helicopter would fly Kainen to Erlanger, but that she would need to make the one-hour drive there to meet him.
"That drive was awful," his mother said. "I couldn't get the image out of my mind of him lying there on that stretcher, struggling to breathe and the veins popping up in his forehead. I called Robby and told him that Kainen was hurt pretty bad and he had to get home right away. I didn't tell him anything else because I didn't want to worry him too much yet.
Family photo of Kainen Boring, a 17 year-old football player at Bledsoe County High School who died after a head injury sustained during football practice. His organs were donated afterwards.Photo by Contributed Photo
"That whole drive, I just kept thinking, 'I should've prayed harder for God to watch over him.' Maybe then God would know how important Kainen was for me. You hear about it happening to other people, but never dream it would happen to you. When I got to the hospital, the emergency room doctor told us, 'All I can tell you to do is pray.'"
Kainen's father and brother Kasey travel with their jobs and were working in Canton, Miss., at the time of the accident. They made what typically is an eight-hour drive in less than five hours.
"After I got the call from Paula, I just panicked," Kainen's father said. "I tried to convince myself it wasn't as bad as I worried it was, but in the back of my mind I knew. You're always excited for your kids to be on their own, doing things like driving a car. But once they're out of sight, you start worrying. That's just being a parent.
"When I walked in and saw him and all the tubes sticking out of him and a huge incision on the side of his head, I nearly swallowed my tongue."
Robby and Paula were told after Kainen's surgery that he likely would not live through the night. But for more than a week, his parents insisted to doctors that, as long as test results showed there was blood flow to his brain, they would not take him off life support.
"Every time I would walk into his room, I would see this big, strong-looking boy filling up the whole bed," his mother said. "I would think, 'Get up, son. You're too strong for this. You'll get to brag about another scar, but you'll be fine.'
"Right up until the day they found matches for him to be a donor for, we prayed, 'God, it's not too late for a miracle. He's still with us.' But when they wheeled him down the hall and onto the elevator to take him away, I kissed him one last time and just went numb. I didn't want to leave him. You never want to let go, but I'm at peace now knowing I'll see him again some day."
The crowd filled both sides of bleachers and more than 150 chairs on the floor of Bledsoe County High's gym for Kainen's funeral. Even the football players from the nearby correctional facility, Taft Youth Center, were brought in and, one by one, they filed past the family car, offering their condolences.
"Nearly all of those boys were crying when they would speak to us," Kainen's father said. "I couldn't help but think that they were just kids like Kainen, only they hadn't had the positive family support he did growing up.
"You don't know how your children act when they're out away from you, but you try to teach them respect, manners and right from wrong. And when you hear people that you don't even know tell you that your son treated them well, it makes you proud. You recognize what kind of kid he was and what kind of man he would've been."
The Friday evening of Kainen's death, Bledsoe County's football team hosted Notre Dame. Kasey and Colton Boring, both of whom now have tattoos on their arms to memorialize their brother, led the team onto the field, and even the opposing Fighting Irish wore stickers with Kainen's No. 7 on the backs of their helmets. It was the first of what became a flood of tributes and emotional comfort from surrounding communities for Kainen's teammates and family.
Administrators, students and parents from other schools -- Grundy County, Marion County, McMinn Central, Sequatchie County, Signal Mountain, South Pittsburg and Sweetwater -- either called the school to offer their condolences, made signs of support or painted Kainen's initials or his jersey number on their cars.
Alcoa coach Gary Rankin sent a card signed by the entire team with a personal note to Reel and the family that he and his team were keeping them in their prayers.
Robby, Kasey and Colton haven't missed a Friday night game this season. Paula missed the Notre Dame game but has been in the stands every Friday since.
"That first game back was awful," his mother said. "I kept looking for him on the sideline. He loved playing so much, and it was such a big deal for him to be out there with everybody watching. Kainen wasn't an angel. He was just a regular teenage boy who loved so many things in his life.
"I still have a ringtone he recorded for me with his voice saying, 'Mom, answer your phone, it's Kainen.' That's what I would hear whenever he would call. I play it over and over just to hear his voice sometimes."
As the days turned to weeks and people outside the Bledsoe community turned their attention from the tragic story, those closest to Kainen turned to each other for strength in dealing with a void that will never be filled.
His girlfriend began writing in a journal each night, saying on paper the things she wants so desperately to tell Kainen.
"I started it as a way so I could tell him all the things that had happened once he woke up," said Adams, a sophomore. "After he died, I just kept doing it so I could feel like I was still talking to him. It still feels like it's not real. I can't wrap my mind around the fact he's gone."
The football team, with Kainen's parents cheering from the stands and his two brothers wearing his No. 7 jerseys each Friday night, has won all seven games since his death. If the Warriors beat Meigs County tonight in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs, it will be their first postseason win and first 10-win season in 16 years.
"You have so many emotions, you really don't know how to put them into words," said Reel, a 32-year-old father of two daughters who has led his alma mater to three straight district titles. "My dad died from a heart attack while playing golf when I was in the eighth grade, so I took some of my personal experiences and tried to talk with the kids about dealing with it. I look at how the kids have handled this, they grew up from boys into young men this season. They have dealt with something nobody is ready to deal with.
"We put the season on hold for a while and just helped the kids cope with it as much as we could. But eventually we knew that this would either bring the whole season to a halt and bring the program down or we could rally around it. We decided the best way we knew how to honor Kainen is to play the game the way he lived his life -- go as hard as you can for as long as you can."
While his teammates have remained focused on accomplishing the goals they set before the season and before the death of their friend, Kainen is still very much a part of the team's success. Players and coaches hold up seven fingers before taking the field and before the start of the fourth quarter of every game. His No. 7 is painted onto the field each game and, even now, Reel said he can see the desire in each player to make this a memorable season, not only for themselves but for everyone affected by the tragedy.
"People's concern went beyond the competition of Friday night football," Bledsoe County Principal Linda Pickett said. "The kids here, our players and coaches, had to deal with a life situation way too early. But it allowed all of us to reflect on what's important.
"I still hear kids in the hall talking about Kainen. His presence is still at our school, and it's still with everybody who knew him."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...