It was the eve of the ESPNU softball game, a nationally broadcast event against North Carolina A&T at the Lady Rattlers Softball Complex in April 2011. Florida A&M head softball coach Veronica Wiggins called team-captain Tenisha Dixon to her office.
Dixon had a secret, and Wiggins wanted to expose it.
Wiggins began that night’s questioning with small talk. The coach wanted to comfort Dixon before asking “the big one” – “Are you pregnant?”
Dixon never saw it coming.
“When she asked me, I put on my straightest face and just said, ‘No,’” Dixon said. “Coach kept asking, and I kept saying no.”
Wiggins firmly replied: “Tenisha, I’ve had years of experience. I’ve observed you, and something’s not right. We can sit here all night; the door is locked. I’m not leaving until you tell me the truth.”
At that moment, Dixon’s secret of four months – and her two-hole spot in the batting order – was history. The opportunity to pad her .333 batting average and team-leading five triples vanished with 14 games remaining. Dixon’s junior season was over. She was devastated.
The next afternoon, Dixon watched from the concession stand that following afternoon as her teammates took the field before ESPN cameras and hundreds of passionate fans.
But her hard luck did not end there. Six months later, Dixon experienced the most “traumatic” event of her life. Minutes after she gave birth to a 6-pound boy, Nehemiah, neurologists delivered stunning news. They diagnosed her with Bell’s palsy, a paralysis that caused her face to pull rightward. Dixon no longer recognized herself in the mirror.
To some people, these events were the beginning to a life clouded by shattered dreams and struggle. There was Dixon, a 21-year-old single mother with a numbing disorder and a demanding class schedule. And softball – the sport that paid for her education – was ripped away.
But Dixon viewed things differently and used this misfortune – and Nehemiah’s presence – as motivation for a comeback. Today, she is making the most of her return to the game she loves and is living nearly symptom-free of Bell’s palsy with her 6-month-old.
“All of it was more of a blessing,” Dixon said. “It was a stepping stone toward a harder drive in my education as well as playing the sport. It gave me a drive to finish – a drive to excel because I had someone in my corner. I couldn’t fail because I’d be failing him.”
Dixon, however, had no idea how a baby would change her life – certainly not in March 2011 when she first saw that positive pregnancy test.
The team was in the middle of back-to-back tournaments in Kissimmee, Fla. She took the test; it was after a game and she fell ill. Dixon had taken the test a month earlier. She was hoping for the same result.
Afraid she would lose her full softball scholarship, Dixon hid the pregnancy from most her teammates and her coach. Meanwhile, it did not affect her at the plate. She continued to show the nation why she ranked sixth in triples.
Her plan was to finish the final two months of the season and have a “normal pregnancy” over the summer.
Her petite figure fooled everyone – or so she thought.
“I knew that if I made it this far, I could make it the next two months,” Dixon said. “Everything appeared to be smooth-sailing until coach called me into her office.”
That night during her meeting with Wiggins, Dixon learned that the NCAA’s committee on women’s athletics prohibits discrimination against pregnant scholarship athletes. She was relieved. But that relief turned to disappointment when Wiggins told Dixon she couldn’t play without a doctor’s permission.
The two doctors Dixon visited disapproved, and Wiggins sidelined her for the rest of the season.
The soon-to-be mother was also nursing a pulled groin, which her teammates initially believed was the reason she missed the ESPN game. While Dixon worked in the concession stand, Wiggins told ESPN representatives that Dixon suffered a concussion, hiding the true reason of her absence. Wiggins used a concussion as the excuse because the injury has no outward signs.
Dixon’s teammates were baffled when they heard Wiggins’ explanation and sought the truth.
“Everybody on the team was like, ‘What’s going on?’” Dixon said. “‘At first she pulled a groin, and now it’s a concussion. Something’s not right here.’”
Dixon then knew it was time to confess and waited until the game ended to do so. The Lady Rattlers won 12-4, but the shock of Dixon’s news dampened any celebration. As Dixon timidly explained her secret, her teammates looked at her in disbelief.
“Initially, I was shocked and a little sad because Tenisha was starting left field and was a big impact at the plate,” said Tera Gainer, a senior infielder and friend of Dixon. “But once I took a step back and realized it was a baby, I just wanted her to do what was best for her.”
Dixon was relieved when she heard the way Gainer and other teammates reacted.
“It was something that began as devastating and turned into something very positive,” Dixon said.
Dixon’s teammates, however, were not the only people to hear a confession that day. Before the game, she called her parents, Dexter and Reginia Dixon, who planned to travel four hours from New Port Richey, Fla., to see her play. They took the news much harder.
Dixon’s father refused to speak. After breaking down in tears, her mother demanded she have an abortion.
“I didn’t really know how to take the news,” Reginia Dixon said. “Of course I was disappointed as a parent because you expect your child to go to college and do what’s right. I didn’t expect the news to be what it had been. But once Tenisha said she wanted to keep the child, I knew we had to come together as a family to make it work.”
Dixon initially planned to take her mother’s advice, but then fate intervened. Dixon’s gold 1997 Pontiac Grand Am stalled on her way to the abortion clinic.
“My car broke down, the one I had just bought it the week before,” Dixon said. “I knew it was a sign because it didn’t make sense for a brand new car to break down. I had to run with the sign. I was going to keep the baby.”
Six months later, on Oct. 19, Nehemiah was born after 26 hours of grueling labor. Dixon underwent an emergency cesarean section without complication – or so she thought.
“But when I got back to my room, everyone was kind of looking at me weird,” she recalled. “I looked at everyone and asked, ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ Everyone then asked me, ‘What’s wrong with your face? You don’t feel your face pulling?’”
Moments later, a neurologist entered the room and asked Dixon a series of questions. Afterward, the neurologist ran an MRI scan of her brain for problems. During the scan, the neurologist noticed facial nerve paralysis and delivered crushing news.
“He told me I have Bell’s palsy, which is caused by traumatic stress,” Dixon said. “And when I finally looked in the mirror, what I saw was not my face.”
With the condition came several side effects over six months. Dixon could no longer automatically blink her right eye, which often caused blurred vision and dryness. In order to eat, she had to pull open one side of her mouth, and she had trouble pronouncing words. She looked like a stroke victim.
Dixon experienced many more symptoms. Some today linger today, such as her problem with blinking. But none were more disheartening than the confidence she lost in her softball skills.
“I could barely drive,” she said. “If it was hard to do that, how was I supposed to play softball? How was I supposed to yell in the outfield when I couldn’t even have a conversation?”
Dixon’s confidence returned Feb. 24 against Auburn University, when she hit her first triple since March 20, 2011. That day, no one whispered about her “crooked smile” or her once-hidden pregnancy. The subject was about something greater: How she transcended the most trying period of her life.
“That was a great feeling,” she remembered. “I wasn’t hitting triples when I started, and that’s what I was known for during the previous season. When I hit my first one this season, I was like, ‘OK, I’m back.’”