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FORT BRAGG — A most unusual thing happens after Fort Bragg Timberwolves kickoffs: The kicker immediately peels off the field and sprints to his sideline.

The other 10 players defend the kick return, leaving themselves one man down and potentially vulnerable to an explosive run.

What the heck? What is coach Roy Perkins thinking? How is this North Coast League I team undefeated?

And what’s wrong with that kicker?

Cadu Whitlock’s story is indeed unusual.

There was a time a few months ago when Whitlock couldn’t walk. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even hold a pencil.

Now he’s the football team’s starting kicker — and the undisputed emotional heart of the 8-0 Timberwolves team.

Whitlock, a 17-year-old senior, is about 95 percent recovered from a near-fatal attack of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that flattened the healthy and athletic young man at the end of last year.

It left specialists at UCSF-Oakland Children’s Hospital flummoxed for days as his body and mind deteriorated, fluid backing up inside his skull and pressuring his brain.

At the worst point, Whitlock became “almost vacant,” said Jill Dunsing, one of his moms, waving her palm in front of her face. “He just wasn’t there.”

His lean, muscular build withered away to a point he couldn’t even wear men’s pants anymore.

Whitlock was hospitalized for 13 days until doctors diagnosed and treated the problem and helped him regain his motor skills.

Teammates Kaylor Sullivan, the quarterback, and receiver Tyler Baker visited their friend when he was recovering. Both young men broke down with emotion.

“It was scary,” Sullivan said. “Cadu is such an outgoing kid. … It was like he was shut off. He wasn’t all there.”

Baker said it was humbling to see a contemporary so weak and helpless.

“It took a piece of me,” he said. “You realize everything could be normal and in a split second, it all changes.”

After months of mental and physical rehab, Whitlock was able to return to school for his senior year and to the football team. In a small town like Fort Bragg, everyone knows each other, and Whitlock has played football with many of his teammates since Pee Wee league at age 8.

“I’ve been on my team for a while now. Why stop now?” he figured. “I can still support my team.”

But doctors warned the young man, who remembers almost nothing of his six-month ordeal, that he was still at risk. No riding a motorcycle, or a bike, no rough-housing.

His brain was — and still is — healing, and remains vulnerable to even minor trauma.

That translated to no football. No contact. Nothing where his noggin could get bumped around and trigger more swelling.

For a young man who has played sports since before kindergarten, that’s a tall order.

Whitlock started as defensive end last year for the Timberwolves and narrowly missed being selected as an all-league player. He’s quick, fearless, agile, aggressive and enjoys the physical aspects of football.

“I just love defense,” he said, his gentle face breaking into a wide smile at practice last week. “Everything about it. Tackling. Special teams.”

Coach Perkins, who teaches kids at Fort Bragg’s alternative school, kids who sometimes need an unorthodox approach to succeed, started thinking: “How can I get this kid in the game — safely?”

“I was racking my brain trying to figure it out,” said the coach of 35 years. “It was so, so sad after the first game. On the sideline, he was there. But he wanted to be involved.”

Perkins knew that anywhere on the field, though, Whitlock could get hit.

“It could cause permanent damage,” said his other mom, Cindi Whitlock. “It wasn’t worth it.”

In the meantime, Whitlock was still practicing, still going through conditioning, running pass routes and participating in non-contact drills. His teammates knew he needed to be treated with kid gloves.

“Several of his football friends were like, ‘You’re not going to let him play, are you?’ ” Cindi Whitlock said.

So, as Perkins was driving one day and still trying to figure out a way to get Whitlock truly back onto the team, it came to him.

“He could kick off,” he said. “He can’t punt or kick extra points because there’s a chance something could go haywire. But he could kick off and sprint off the field. It’s really the only safe thing you can do.”

Whitlock’s standing orders: Kick and make a hard turn. Get off the field. Do not under any circumstances run downfield.

“I’ve told him, one mistake and it’s all over for him,” Perkins said. “It took awhile in practice to get it right.”

Whitlock admits he has to force himself not to do more.

“I want to be out there,” he said. “It’s hard for me. I feel like running down the field. It’s a big change.”

Cindi Whitlock, who adopted Cadu from his native Ethiopia when he was 4, along with his sister, Christina, then 6, and Birke, 9 (and a brother who died of typhoid fever before the adoption went through), is hoping a follow-up scan in January will clear her son for baseball season.

“They tell us it can’t come back, but they can’t tell us why he got it in the first place,” she said. “So it’s still scary.”

It helps to have mom Dunsing at practice — she is one of Perkins’ assistants. She can keep an eye on their son without intruding too much.

“He probably wouldn’t tell you this,” Dunsing said. “But in the Middletown game, people were wondering why he was running off the field after he kicked. He said, ‘I just want people to know I don’t suck.’ ”

His teammates and coach know that. And they are more than happy to have Whitlock in whatever role he can play for them as they seek to win a league championship.

“The whole football thing is good for Cadu,” said Sullivan, the quarterback. “Even though he can’t participate in hitting, he’s still here. We try to score as many points as we can — because (the kickoff) is the only time he can get on the field.”