How does she do that?
It is a question Chartiers-Houston High School girls basketball coach Laura Montecalvo has asked herself a number of times along the sidelines this season.
What 14-year-old freshman point guard Za’Layah Edwards is accomplishing on the court begs the question.
Za’Layah was born without a fibula in either leg. She has clubfeet that turn inward. Her feet are webbed, with three toes on one foot and four on the other.
Montecalvo could not order Za’Layah’s game shoes with the other players because Za’Layah wears a kids’ size 2. The coach had to go to a store to purchase Za’Layah’s shoes.
She faces physical struggles in her everyday life, let alone on the basketball floor. But for Za’Layah, how she does it is easy.
“I definitely have a lot of pain, but I just push through it,” she said. “I love basketball.”
Za’Layah’s passion, exuberance, character and will push her beyond her physical and medical limitations. She outworks others and embraces the challenges.
“It has to be a battle for her each time just to come out and play,” Montecalvo said.
Dr. Jan Grudziak, a pediatric orthopedist at Children’s Hospital who has treated Za’Layah since she was born, said it’s remarkable that the teen is playing basketball, let alone at a high level.
“Honestly, I don’t know how she’s doing it,” he said. “In order to run, you have to have cooperation between your joints and feet. Her feet are completely stiff.
“The ability to jump and run is severely limited if you lose the motion of the foot. Her motion is so limited – there is no sideway motion, no ability to absorb the shock. It’s amazing. She’s one tough cookie.”
For children born with fibular hemimelia, Za’Layah’s medical diagnosis, one of the options is amputation and prosthetics. But her parents, Clarence and Shatavia Edwards, instead chose surgeries.
“I couldn’t see myself making that decision for her,” said Shatavia Edwards.
“If we had made that decision, would she be playing basketball today? Would she have limited herself and the things she is capable of?”
Thirteen surgeries later, Za’Layah has worked her way into an important role with the Bucs, who qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs. Through 21 games, Za’Layah scored 144 points, averaging seven points per game. She led the team in scoring three times and has scored in double figures six times. She started 11 of the first 21 games.
Za’Layah can shoot the three-ball and is a solid ballhandler.
“I honestly feel like I’m like the other players,” she said. “I feel like I can shoot and dribble and drive, and I love shooting threes.”
She’s a force opponents have to reckon with.
“She’s got this special way about her,” Montecalvo said. “Her positive demeanor and character and the way she carries herself is remarkable.
“Za’Layah could be sour and bitter. She’s just not. The girl has worked tirelessly on her ball skills. She’s a good shooter from the outside and has good three-point range, especially when she has space. I credit a lot of this to her incredible will.”
Za’Layah plays in constant pain, and game action creates fatigue. She uses ice packs and takes ibuprofen following games.
Grudziak said he wouldn’t advise Za’Layah to play basketball because the sport increases her risk of arthritis and other complications, but he supports her decision.
“She may or may not pay the price later on, but she is having fun, she is doing well,” the doctor said. “She is highly motivated, bright, always upbeat, and I’ve never heard her complain about anything. It’s really hard not to support her and root for her. We should all support her and her family.”
No one understands and appreciates that more than Montecalvo.
“Za’Layah never looks for a way out,” Montecalvo said. “She doesn’t want to come out. We watch out for her. She’s added so much to our team. She was a big contributor to our middle school team last year. I am a little surprised at how much she has contributed this season. But she’s always smiling and working. She’s created issues for our opponents.
“Sometimes I wonder why the hell she’s so open on the three-point line. Then you see her go inside and somehow work her way to the basket, make the shot and get fouled for a one and one. I just look at her sometimes and really do wonder how she does it.”
Hard to imagine
Clarence Edwards, Za’Layah’s father, has been an assistant coach for Chartiers-Houston’s boys team for seven years. He admits that what his daughter is capable of on a basketball court “is hard to imagine.”
He believes she is here for a purpose.
“I believe God put Za’Layah on this earth to do big things,” Edwards said. “I’m so happy she’s here because she inspires so many people.”
Basketball has always been part of Za’Layah’s life.
“My dad’s been a coach for as long as I can remember, and so when I was younger, we would go to all of his basketball games,” Za’Layah said. “It ran in the family, and I knew I was going to be a basketball player.”
It has never been easy, but her father never let Za’Layah use her physical challenges as an excuse.
“When she was younger, she’d get knocked to the ground,” he explained. “She took her licks and she would cry. She’d get up and I’d ask her if she really wanted to play. ‘If you do,’ I said, ‘wipe off your face and don’t use anything as an excuse.’”
Za’Layah said her father’s tough love has helped her mental toughness.
Said Clarence Edwards, “I actually started believing she could compete when she was in fourth grade. Za’Layah would actually play up (in age) and she did OK. I didn’t doubt that at some point she would play the high school level.”
Montecalvo marvels at her freshman surprise. She still wonders how Za’Layah is doing all these things.
But she’s come to rely on her, as has the team, which includes Za’Layah’s sister, Za’Mierah, a junior guard.
“I constantly check with her on dead balls, timeouts, and quarter breaks if she is all right,” Montecalvo said. “The answer is always the same, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’m good.’
In the spring, Za’Layah is scheduled to undergo another surgery, this time to remove a bracket in her knee. Doctors had inserted the bracket to slow growth to even out a discrepancy in leg lengths, which causes her hip pain and discomfort.
A desire to help others
Za’Layah, who also excels in the classroom, wants to become a nurse.
“I feel like I’m good with kids and with people in general, and I want to make people feel like they’ll be OK and that they will get better when they’re sick or have a physical problem,” she said. “I like to help.”
Shatavia Edwards tells her daughter often that she is amazing and strong.
“Through all of her trials and tribulations, she perseveres,” Shatavia Edwards added. “She has a kind heart.”
Za’Layah credits her parents for helping her feel comfortable with herself – her mother used to show people the little girl’s legs and feet and explain why they looked different, which built Za’Layah’s self-confidence.
Za’Layah said she wants to encourage people to never give up.
“I feel that people should not be afraid to just try, because they never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Keep pushing, even if it hurts, just push and you’ll see positive outcomes will happen.”
She recalled her game earlier this season against Bishop Canevin.
“I was in so much pain,” Za’Layah admitted. “But it was in the fourth quarter that I started making my shots and scoring points. So, don’t give up. You have to believe in yourself and you have to believe you can. Because you never know what’s possible.”