Embracing the brace: Kennedy Mills’ resiliency on display for last go-around with Jacks

BEMIDJI -- Before every Bemidji High School girls basketball game, Kennedy Mills has her knee brace ceremonially shined during the starting lineup introductions. When her name is announced, Mills runs through the tunnel, proudly lifts up her knee...

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Bemidji High School senior Kennedy Mills bends to shoot a free throw against Detroit Lakes on Dec. 19 at BHS. Mills proudly wears her knee brace after going through two surgeries to repair her ACL. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Before every Bemidji High School girls basketball game, Kennedy Mills has her knee brace ceremonially shined during the starting lineup introductions. When her name is announced, Mills runs through the tunnel, proudly lifts up her knee for a polish and then jogs to center court for the tip off.

“I just thought that it was a really good idea because last year in the two games I played, when I ran out, they shined my shoe,” said Mills. “So this year, I thought it’d be funny if they shined my brace… I like to embrace my brace and my scars.”

The brace Mills bears on her left knee is for her ACL, which has torn twice in her high school career. But now, the brace is also a testament to the work put into recovering.

“A lot of people probably would’ve hung it up after doing it a second time in basically 20 months,” BHS head coach Steve Schreiber said. “I think that the ability for her to fight through the surgeries, the rehab, the physical therapy, and still come back her senior year and be effective to our varsity basketball team, it says a lot about her resilience.

“We talk to the girls a lot about basketball being something that can translate into other parts of their lives… There’s no reason why (that resiliency) wouldn't carry over for Kennedy into other things in life once she’s gets done with basketball.”


Mills first tore her ACL in March 2015 during her freshman year, when she also tore her meniscus and sprained her MCL. Five and a half months later, she was cleared for full activity with a brace. But when she took the court for Bemidji’s home opener her junior season, the same nightmare became reality once more.

“I got hit pretty hard, and I just went down. I knew right away that I tore it again,” Mills said. “I remember my mom asking me -- when I found out it was torn again -- if I even wanted the surgery. That was super emotional for me to think that maybe I didn’t want it. Maybe basketball wasn’t for me.”

As it turns out, though, that was far from the truth.

Mills is scoring 11 points per game for the Lumberjacks this year, including a season-high 21 against Hibbing in just her second game back.

“Going into this summer, I knew that we were going to get something pretty special out of her,” Schreiber said. “She wasn’t cleared to play or anything, but she was still in the gym every day, getting shots up. She was doing everything that the doctors said she could do. There wasn’t any quit there at all.”

Mills has eclipsed double-digit figures in each of her last four games, returning to be the offensive threat she had been before being sidelined with injury. And she said it’s just in time, too.

“It’s a really special season for me, it being my senior year and that I finally got back,” she said. “I was nervous at every appointment I would go to. I had tears when I found out I wasn’t cleared yet. I think that being worried about not being able to play this season made it so much more important for me that I can.”

Back home to Bemidji The Lumberjacks (3-6) have used home court to their advantage this season, where they’ve posted a 2-1 record. They’ll look to continue their success when returning to the BHS Gymnasium against North St. Paul and Park of Cottage Grove as part of this week’s Bemidji Invite.


First up for the Jacks is tonight’s 8 p.m. matchup with the Polars (2-5), followed by a 5 p.m. test against the Wolfpack (7-1) on Thursday, Dec. 28.

“The past few games, we haven’t showed that we can capitalize. But I think we’re getting there and we fight to the last second,” Mills said. “I’m just trying to help lead the team and push us to the very end.”

Schreiber said the maturity that Mills has had to develop off the court can help the entire team on it.

“When we go through our tough stretches, it’ll be easier for her to stay above that sinking feeling,” he said. “And if she can stay on that high level, I think the girls will have a better chance of staying up there with her.”

And if Mills ever forgets, her freshly shined brace serves as a reminder: any challenges on the hardwood can’t compete with the hardships she has overcome just to get back to it.

“Kennedy is out there playing at a high level after she’s had to do that (recovery) process twice… She’s worked really hard,” Schreiber said. “I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I’m guessing (the pregame brace shining) has to do with the reminder that, ‘Hey, I’ve done this twice, and I’m still here. Nobody’s been able to take this away from me.’”

For Mills, it’s been a long journey back to the court. But now, as she dons the Bemidji jersey for one last year, she’s able to compete for everyone who had a hand in helping her return.

“I’m super thankful, especially for everybody that’s been there for me throughout the entire way, the two rides that I’ve had to go on,” she said. “It’s amazing what people can do for you.”

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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