UNCONQUERABLE SOUL

The story of senior Yell Leader Ken Belden’s journey from
Austin to College Station then from hospital bed to Kyle Field
Angel Franco \\ Story
Cassie Stricker \\ Photo
Alexis Will \\ Video 

A little over two weeks after being named a senior Yell Leader, Ken Belden’s world came to a screeching halt when he felt the back tires of his all-terrain vehicle lose traction, sending him down a hill in Colorado Springs, Colorado before losing consciousness.

     Even with a collapsed lung and three fractured ribs making it hard to breathe, Ken couldn’t help but think about the people who helped him achieve his goals.

     “The thing that scared me above all else was that I had finally gotten this awesome position and that by some sort of freak accident that would get taken away,” Ken said. “I wasn’t worried for my own personal reason for being a Yell Leader. What bothered me the most was the fact that there were so many people that had pushed me along the way. To think that they would support me that whole way only to see me not fulfill the role. That was legitimately what bothered me the most.”     

     Before Ken — a first generation A&M student — and his family could experience the power of the Aggie Spirit during his recovery, he first had to learn what it meant to be an Aggie.

LAYING THE FOUNDATION     

     Growing up in Austin, attending Texas A&M was never on Ken’s radar. However, after meeting — as fate would have it — former Yell Leader Keaton Askew, Class of 2006, during his junior year of high school, that all changed.     

     Ken originally planned to join the armed forces after graduating, so when the Air Force arose during the conversation, Keaton took the opportunity tell Ken about the Corps of Cadets. After Keaton explained what the Corps was and what it had to offer, Ken decided to visit Aggieland and partake in the Spend the Night with the Corps program.     

     Once on campus, Ken said he fell in love with A&M, but wasn’t too sure about becoming a cadet because he wasn’t positive about wanting to join the military. However, when he arrived for his New Student Conference, he knew that there was no other place for him besides the Corps. Keaton’s former squadron, Squadron 17, was full when Ken enrolled, so a recruiter within the commandant’s staff placed him into Squadron 2, also known as Gator 2.     

     According to Ken, one of the most significant times in the life of a cadet is earning their Corps brass, a tradition which signifies the completion of their introduction to the Corps.     

     “It was hard man, the first three or four months of my college career were way more difficult than I can even re-imagine or remember,” Ken said.     

     Ken continued to earn leadership positions within the Corps and was named the guidon bearer for Squadron­ 2 his sophomore year. As the guidon bearer, Ken not only acted as a liaison between the sophomore class and upperclassmen within the outfit, he would march alongside the Commanding Officer. 

Ever since Shaquille Gould, Class of 2015, gave Ken a pair of overalls and told him to go lead yells at a basketball game his freshman year, the idea of being a Yell Leader always resonated with Ken.

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     Throughout his junior year, Ken became a member of the Ross Volunteer Company, the official Honor Guard of the Governor of Texas.

     Ken’s experiences with some of A&M’s most beloved traditions fostered a desire to represent Aggies at the highest level possible.  Almost three years later, Ken would have the opportunity to serve the university once more after being selected to run for the position all Aggies recognize — Yell Leader.

 

FIVE FOR YELL     

     Being elected for the official Five for Yell ticket is a lengthy and strenuous process. Each cadet who is up for the position goes through several rounds of peer voting and interviews.     

     After not being named to the campaign his sophomore year to be a representative for the junior class, Ken decided that he truly wanted to be a Yell Leader and decided to go through the process once more at the end of his junior year. So, when he learned that he would be a part of the ticket as the ‘third-wheel’ senior yell candidate, Ken was elated.

     “Having not gotten it and then going through the process again and not really giving up on that idea that I wanted to do it, and I knew that I wanted to do it for the right reasons,” Ken said. “[It] really meant a lot to see that come to fruition … it meant a lot.”     

     Ken, Ian Moss and Cooper Cox would be announced to the rest of the student body as the candidates for senior yell. Gavin Suel and Connor Joseph, were elected as the junior class candidates.     

     On Feb. 24, 2017, almost two months after he began the journey of running for yell leader, Ken heard his name called as he knelt down with the rest of the group in Academic Plaza, directly in front of the Sul Ross statue in the heart of campus.     

     Surrounded by friends and family, Ken had finally achieved one of the milestones which he had worked for so tirelessly.     

     A few weeks later, the accident 900 miles away in Colorado threatened that vision of running onto Kyle Field for his first Midnight Yell.

THE ACCIDENT

     Ken and his Corps buddies decided to spend their spring break in Colorado. The day of the accident, the group was exploring supply chain management senior Connor Jones’ grandfather’s ranch in Colorado.  As they drove through the property, Ken found himself behind the majority of the group but ahead of Connor and Aaron Puente, community health senior, who were the last two of the group.

     Connor and Aaron were the first to find Ken after he lost control of his ATV. As they moved closer to Ken, they realized something had gone wrong and quickly rushed to his side and began calling the others in the group for help.

     “When we first got there, his eyes were kind of rolling all over the place,” Aaron said. “There was blood coming out of his nose. He was rolling around on the ground, so he was completely out of it — he wasn’t conscious. Then he came to and he was in a lot of pain. It looked pretty bad.”

     Due to their isolated location, it was harder for first

Ken, Connor Jones, Jacob Arth and Aaron Puente rode ATVs to the top of a point.  Puente said the accident occurred on their way back down.

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First responders arrived approximately two hours after the accident and prepared Ken to be airlifted to the nearest hospital.

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responders to reach Ken. While they waited, Aaron tried to call Ken’s mom, Danielle, to tell her about the accident, but due to their location and poor cell service Danielle only heard part of an explanation before being left in the unknown.  

     Once paramedics realized that taking Ken to the hospital via ambulance would be impossible, they called in the helicopter to lift him out. He was in the air within two hours.

     Back in Texas, Danielle and Brian Belden, Ken’s parents, were left helpless as they waited for an update that would allow them to get to Ken as soon as possible. Danielle said those hours in between the initial call and the call from the hospital were some of the toughest hours she has ever had to endure.

 

ROAD TO RECOVERY     

     Ken suffered a concussion, three fractured ribs, a separated shoulder, a collapsed lung, three pelvis fractures, a compound fracture in the L1 and a burst fracture in the L4 vertebrae in his spine.     

     “I’m writing down, punctured lung, broke his pelvis, tears were falling down my eyes and I was writing on this little sticky note and the sticky note was too small,” Danielle said. “I had to turn the little sticky note over and write on the back and write all the injuries and I’m crying and I’m looking up at my husband saying, ‘Oh my God.’ It was horrible, but he was alive and he was moving. All the rest of it I got through.”     

     Less than 12 hours after they received the call about the accident, Danielle was in Colorado by Ken’s side. Due to the injuries suffered in his back, Ken went through an eight hour spinal surgery.  The burst fracture in his L4 vertebrae caused bone fragments to come close to his spinal cord, prompting immediate surgery to repair the injury.   

     Miles away from her family, Danielle encountered an unexpected group of women who selflessly showed up to support her and Ken through the toughest part of their time in the hospital.     

     While Ken was in the intensive care unit, nurses told Danielle that they had visitors. She said she was confused considering they had no friends or family members in Colorado. When she walked out to see who was visiting, she found a group of women clad in maroon. Members of the Pikes Peak Aggie Mom’s Club were standing in the hospital waiting room bearing gifts, blankets and much needed support.   

     “I broke down and was like ‘Oh they’re here … they’re family,’” Danielle said.  “As soon as I walked around the corner, it felt like seeing my family standing there waiting for me.”     

     Karen Schiller, Class of 1992, was one of the moms who instantly connected with both Ken and Danielle. That instant connection not only helped the Beldens emotionally, it helped Karen was well.     

     “When I had the opportunity to meet Danielle and Ken and support them in their time of need, I felt like maybe that’s why we moved to Colorado Springs, was to be there in that moment,” Karen said. “It was just very special to get to know their family and the great people that they are and I’m just glad that I was able to be there in their time of need and that I have them as lifelong friends.”

     Once Ken was cleared for rehab, he began this journey to being fully recovered with an optimistic attitude. Ken was given a back brace, walker and other tools to help get him up and moving.     

     Ken’s sister, Courtney Hohnecker, who currently serves in the Air Force, was able to get emergency leave to join Ken and Danielle in their road trip back home once he was released from the hospital. Due to Ken’s condition they were forced to stop every 45 minutes for him to walk around and stretch. One of those stops included a local Amarillo attraction — Cadillac Ranch. 

     Upon arrival to the ranch, both Danielle and Courtney were concerned the distance from the road to the cars was too far for Ken to walk and tried to convince him that it was better off that they should continue their long journey home.

     Ken, however, was not having it. The perseverance and determination to complete a task once he had set his mind on doing something which Ken was known for helped him walk the quarter mile to the cars and back despite his mother and sister’s dismay.

     “Seeing the cars in Amarillo was a really interesting experience,” Courtney said. “At first we were like well maybe we shouldn’t go to it, cause we pulled up and it was quite a walk from the edge of the route to the cars themselves, but he insisted so he drug the walker through all the rocks and everything just to see the sunset over the cars.  It was really something.”

GALLERY: Ken's hospital stay

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GALLERY: Road trip back home

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     While Ken, Danielle and Courtney were in Colorado Springs, Ken’s Father, Brian Belden stayed in Texas working to make sure Ken would not skip a beat when it came for him to return to school. In that time, Brian received hundreds of emails, calls and letters from Aggies all over wanting to offer their help. 

     Brian, who is not an Aggie himself, was overwhelmed with the outpour of support. For years, Ken struggled to describe the spirit that comes with being an Aggie to his parents. Brian, who served in the military, thought back to all the Aggies he came in contact with in the past and remembered that when there was a person in need, Aggies were the first to offer help. 

     “I didn’t think much of it until I looked back at it,” Brian said. “The outpouring of support from students, the alumni, the families. It was amazing. There was so many people reaching out. It was just like a giant extended family. You can’t describe it to people … you just can’t.”

Out of the night that covers me, 

      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

      How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate, 

      I am the captain of my soul. 

Invictus

By William Ernest Henley

Ken, Ian Moss and Cooper Cox patiently wait for the first Midnight Yell of the season to begin as Connor Joseph and Gavin Suel do push ups in the middle of Kyle Field. Ken said in an interview he struggled to contain his emotions in that moment.

Photo by Cassie Stricker

LEADING THE 12TH MAN     

     Almost six months after his accident, Ken was able to make full recovery and fulfill his dream of running onto Kyle Field for the first time at the Midnight Yell practice before the Nicholls State game. Senior Yell Leader Ian Moss spent the majority of the summer with Ken and was able to see first hand what Ken did to be ready for that first midnight yell.     

     “It was cool, because the previous time we had him out there, he actually still had his back brace on for the spring game Midnight Yell,” Ian said. “To be able to see the progress that he had [made] ... To see the joy it puts on his face and how much fun he has out there. He was meant for this position … To see the hard work he put in over the summer and have him out there with us has been an absolute joy.”     

     For Ken, the Yell Leader position has always been to serve those who are impacted by the position. Ken said there aren’t many people who get the opportunity to impact such a vast group of individuals the way Yell Leaders can.       

     “Through the course of your life you have an opportunity to impact a small amount of people in a big way or a large amount of people in a small way,” Ken said. “But there are a few times in your life where you’re presented the option to impact a lot of people on a very large scale … In the role [as a Yell Leader] I’ve discovered the big thing behind being a Yell Leader is perpetuating the Aggie Spirit. For me, a lot of this job has been just trying to help people understand that feeling of walking out in public, seeing an Aggie Ring and being like ‘Okay that person is family to me in some way.’ As a Yell Leader I think a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to continually remind people what it means to be a part of the Aggie Family.”     

     While the bright lights of Kyle Field shone down on him for the first time, Ken said he couldn’t help but feel the emotions of the last few months hit him all at once and struggled to contain them. He couldn’t help but think back at the time he was struggling to breathe as he walked down the halls of the hospital in Colorado Springs. He remembered all the times he recited his favorite poem, ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley, when he needed strength to get through the tough parts in his life. Ken remembered that all that transpired in the last few months can now be simply looked back as a bad nightmare.

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Photos by Cassie Stricker

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