AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Air Force senior defensive back Garrett Kauppila wears No. 22 in honor of the 22-month age gap between him and his older brother .
It's a bond forged through basketball games in the family's driveway as kids and fortified last year through hardship.
Kauppila's brother, Kyle , was thrown from his motorcycle during a Sept. 17 accident in Northern California and hit his head on a rock. A day later, Kyle suffered a stroke. A few days after that, Garrett broke his collarbone while blocking a punt.
His brother needed him. He needed to be home. So Garrett de-enrolled from the academy for a semester to heal and help take care of his brother.
No. 22 is back on the field this season. His big brother — his No. 1 fan — is steadily recuperating from the brain injury.
Their relationship is closer than ever.
"It's been a crazy emotional roller coaster, but those two have gotten through it so strong," said their mother, Andrea. "Because whatever hits you, you tackle it right back."
The Kauppila brothers' relationship was built around competition — and basketball was their game of choice. Their games were spirited. Just ask the neighbors, who heard all the shouts, cries and screams.
"We were always at each other's throat," Garrett said. "But our bond grew so tight because of growing up so competitive."
Before his sophomore season, Garrett switched his jersey to No. 22 to show how much Kyle meant to him.
A starting defensive back last season, Garrett had the best game of his career on Sept. 16 at Michigan, with eight tackles and a forced fumble. It was even more special because his parents had flown out to see the game as part of their anniversary celebration. After the game, even Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh congratulated Garrett on his performance .
"One of my best days," he said.
Followed by one of his worst.
Garrett was at a Cowboys-Broncos game in Denver that Sunday when he received a text from his brother's ex-girlfriend from middle school.
Call this number, the message read. It concerns your brother.
So he called from the stadium.
His brother was riding his motorcycle through the foothills of California when he crashed and hit his head on a rock. He was airlifted from the scene. The phone number Garrett called belonged to a member of the riding contingent and the news was sobering: The accident was bad.
He couldn't call his parents, because they were flying home from the Michigan game.
"I had a 45-minute window where I didn't know if Kyle was alive or not," Garrett said. "Finally, I got a call from my uncle confirming he was alive."
Kyle had a fractured back, broken ribs, collapsed lung, lacerated spleen and a concussion. Still, he was "for all intents and purposes himself," Garrett said.
What no one knew at the time was that he tore his carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain.
"For 30 minutes that evening he was telling me about his ride, and how he watched my game and how proud he was," Garrett said. "It sounded like any other conversation we had."
Just then, Garrett received a phone call from an Air Force coach and told his brother he'd call him right back.
In a hurry, Garrett didn't say the one thing he always tells his brother: I love you.
During the night, Kyle suffered a stroke that left him unable to swallow and talk. It also paralyzed the right side of his body.
It happened on the eve of Kyle's 22nd birthday.
Garrett began the necessary paperwork to leave the Academy for a few days. He wanted to leave immediately, but his mom convinced him to stay.
"I said: 'Garrett you've worked too hard. You have to stay. Your brother would want that,'" Andrea said. "You could hear the confusion in his voice, the angst. It was tough."
Garrett played against No. 22 San Diego State that weekend. In the fourth quarter, he blocked a punt to set up a score. On the play, he snapped his collarbone. He still took the field for one more defensive series before telling anyone.
"Because I was playing that game with my brothers for my brother," Garrett explained.
A few days later, Garrett had surgery. His season was over.
That made the decision even easier to take a temporary leave from the academy. The academy has a program that affords cadets the opportunity to be away for one or two semesters in order to resolve a hardship.
"When he broke his collarbone, we knew he needed to come home," Andrea said. "There's nothing like getting a straightforward answer."
His mom picked him up at the Sacramento airport and they headed to the hospital. Garrett walked into the room, went over to the bed and gave Kyle a big embrace.
Kyle's eyes lit up.
"That," Garrett said, "is a moment I won't ever forget."
Kyle was eventually transferred to a rehab center in Vallejo, California. Garrett and his father, Bob, parked a trailer on a friend's property to be closer to the hospital. That is, until having to evacuate because of the California wildfires and eventually relocating to an RV park. Meanwhile, Andrea made a two-hour commute from their home every day after starting a new job.
The family became another set of physical therapists for Kyle. And when he could, Garrett would use some of the hospital's equipment to rehab his collarbone.
Kyle moved back to the family's home in Rocklin, California, where football friends and neighbors made sure the family had enough food and support. With his parents back at work, Garrett's tasks included feeding Kyle, bathing him and driving him to appointments.
"I was with him 24/7 for just over three months," Garrett said.
In January, Garrett returned to the academy.
"Unbelievably difficult. But he was 1,000 times better than when I first got there," Garrett said.
In early March, he received a heartwarming video from his brother: "I love you, Garrett."
A few weeks ago, Kyle and his parents traveled to the academy for Garrett's 21st birthday. After a practice, Garrett's defensive back buddies came over and gave Kyle a hug.
"Kyle felt special," his father said. "I know I enjoyed the heck out of it."
It's coming up on a year since the accident, and Kyle is talking again. He is walking with the assistance of a cane, but his right arm remains paralyzed. He will be at the season opener Saturday against Stony Brook with his parents to support Garrett.
"Kyle knows how much he means to me. He knows it every single day," Garrett said. "Because I tell him every single day."