Parenthood: UMass style
Two UMass athletes and their story of love, dedication and patience
March 2, 2023
Back home in Amherst, Mass., Kya felt a contraction. Two of them, 15 minutes apart — “ok wait this is real life,” she thought.
Pregnancy teas and repeated movements on an exercise ball stopped. Kya knew one thing; she wasn’t having this baby yet so the next option was self-induced bed rest.
Noah Fernandes was on the road with the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. UMass prepped for Fordham, an Atlantic 10 matchup that brings nothing short of pure competition between the two schools. Noah, while there physically, wasn’t suited up for the game. The senior who led the Minutemen was sidelined, battling various injuries.
The couple thought they had more time. Feb. 23 marked the beginning of a bye week so their son’s due date of Feb. 24 felt perfect.
Noah’s late-night return from his game in the Bronx preceded an early wake up for the bus ride to Philadelphia, and as he got on the bus, Kya’s contractions increased. Her thought process: I’m just not going to move for 24 hours.
The continuous unknowns interrupted Noah’s road trip recovery, laying awake by Kya’s side through every contraction, putting sleep on the back burner entirely. Around 1:30 a.m, contractions speeding up put Kya in the hospital’s care. Contractions then six minutes apart, their parents eager to embrace the new role of grand-parenting making the two-hour drive down, hoping to arrive before it was too late.
Super Bowl Sunday, roughly 46 degrees in Amherst, the couple spent most of their time in the hospital, but once contractions fizzled around 3:30 p.m. it was back home they went. Patrick Mahomes hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the city of Philadelphia was speechless, and the couple didn’t have their baby yet. Hours later, they went back to the hospital.
Kya made a comparison. When you’re a student, studying so hard for a test you know you are going to ace so you walk in, you tackle the test head on and you leave. That comparison, the 21-year-old made to giving birth. Anxiety vanished at the hospital doors, squats and walks around the hospital room.
“I just knew I was going to be good and do it so I thought no need to stress about it, it’s going to be great,” Kya says.
Theo Joseph Fernandes entered the world on Feb. 13 2023 at 7:41 p.m., hours before the day of love, to two parents feeling every ounce of affection for their new child and one another. Kya put her son on her chest, looking at Noah above her, tears flowing from his eyes, warmth radiating from her smile.
On the phone, just days into motherhood, Kya reflected. “When I was pregnant, I knew there was a baby inside of me, I had a friend for life but you don’t realize it because you haven’t met them yet,” she explains.
“If I knew in July what I know right now, I would do it all over again 100 percent without crying, complaining, being so mentally distraught, it was all worth it. It is surreal to look at him,” she continues.
July 2022 was nothing like the start of 2023 for the two college seniors. For the better now, but at one point, life seemed a little too big to understand, complicated to grasp the overwhelming unknowns.
Kerry Thames heard her first daughter singing twinkle twinkle at 18 months. Smart, she described her as but shy as well. Always needing that little push from mom to break outside her shell. Her younger sister signed up for cheerleading, so Kya did, too. By age 10, competitive cheer was everything. An alter ego emerged as Kerry described, applauding the natural born leader Kya became on the mat, a role model for teammates and others to follow.
Kerry saw value in sports. They taught responsibility, hard work, discipline and showing up even when you don’t want to so naturally, she encouraged her daughters to give athletics a try. Flash forward to fall, 2019, Kya arrived on the large, daunting UMass campus. Cheerleading tryouts seemed intriguing but never part of the plan.
For a moment, it looked like becoming a physician assistant; that was her plan. However, when asking herself in this transitory period of her life, what she wanted to do, she looked to who helped Kya be Kya, realizing that her saviors have always been guidance counselors. She switched her major to psychology, added education along the way, and by the end of December, as she answered questions at a bagel shop 10 minutes from campus, she was basically finished with her degree.
Outside of intense academic commitment to the school, Kya’s decision to try out for the UMass cheerleading team turned into a three year career at the Division I-A level, donning maroon and white on the sidelines of football and basketball games. Minutewomen cheer became her family, her niche at school that provided her a community, teaching responsibility. At the end of the day, UMass quickly became the hub of Kya’s greatest opportunities.
Approaching junior year, Kerry Thames joined every mom in posting a celebratory and sentimental picture on Facebook. A certain comment now sticks out more than one, with an uncle of Noah Fernandes suggesting the two meet, since his nephew plays basketball and Kerry’s daughter was approaching year three on the cheer team. Noah, a native of Mattapoisett, Mass. grew up just a few towns away from Kya, who hails from Fall River. It made sense the two had mutual friends prior to their arrival in Amherst.
Ironically, at the time of Noah’s uncle’s subconscious cupid behavior, the two already knew each other. Previously, they exchanged snapchats, Generation Z’s version of a phone number or handwritten letter. Casual hellos at parties caught Kya’s eye since no matter how laid back the situation, Noah always made sure to stop and say hello, always including a “how are you?” Eventually, the two athletes competing respectively at the Division 1 level began a real relationship on Dec. 5, 2021, by way of Noah’s question. Nothing special but entirely heartfelt, he looked at Kya, asking what she was waiting to hear. Mom approved.
“I love him,” Kerry says. “His demeanor, I could tell immediately that this kid was a great kid. He has goals, on the same path as Kya, I was all for it. He comes from a great family … I can’t say enough good things about Noah, he is such a great kid.”
Practice ended around 2:30 p.m., Jan. 27, 2023, and Frank Martin headed off the court in the Mullins Center to the press room, with journalists waiting for mid-week media. Noah remained on the court, throwing up extra shots, while others disbursed for the remainder of their afternoon. He walked over knowing he’d been requested for a one-on-one interview, he declined the offer to keep shooting, saying he was more than ready to get started.
The Minutemen managers took the free court space as an opportunity to take shots of their own. Noah sat in a chair normally meant for fans on game day, to begin talking while basketballs echoed in the background, dressed in his practice gear. Noah’s Friday was atypical compared to his teammates, his off the court life differed greatly. He was expecting a child in just a few weeks, in the height of his senior season.
“Right now I have been trying to focus on one thing at a time,” Noah says. Since his arrival in the 413, Noah’s dazzled on the court, leading the UMass Minutemen, proving the transfer from Wichita State could thrive in his home state, going from buzzer beaters at Tabor Academy to multiple in a UMass uniform.
“Enjoying today, getting through today and trying to do the same thing the next day and that’s probably been the biggest thing for me mentally,.” Noah explains.
He had wrist surgery in July, he’s been sidelined with an ankle injury, in addition to leadership duties and fatherhood on the horizon, all while completing his degree so the present remained the focus.
A lot was unknown, but what never was in question: Kya as a mother. He smiles, she is nurturing, he explains. Hard working, dedicated, using the cold experiences from the past as nothing but fuel for future warmth, a funny, intelligent individual who has mastered support and accountability.
When Kya looked down at her pregnancy test on July 7, 2022, there wasn’t much she could say, but the first thing Noah did say was that the next move was her choice. “I guess that is my character, how I was raised. My parents, that is how they would want me to respond, whatever she wanted to do.” Noah smiled lovingly at his girlfriend. Kya says now that immediately she knew the father Noah would be, based on how he responded to the potentially life-shaping news.
Phone calls were next.
Kerry raised her kids a specific way, she claims it might not be traditional but recognizes who is to define tradition with parenting. She doesn’t want to be naive, she wants her daughters to feel comfortable telling her everything. No fear of punishment, just a foundational understanding of honesty. An unwritten rule of the household from Kerry’s perspective is that she can’t help her daughters if they don’t tell her.
Sitting at her desk chair, finishing up work for the day, Kerry answered a phone and given Kya’s choice to bury the lede, Kerry thought she was in a car accident or something of that negative energy. “Is there anything else you can say besides oh my god,” Kya pondered. So her little sister was next. Kassidy, a recent high school grad, was gearing up for her freshman year at Boston College — UMass’ arguable enemy school — when her sister called her. Like mother, like daughter, those same three words just spilled out repeatedly in response to Kya’s news.
It wasn’t a quick conversation between the couple but the details are between them. Ultimately, Kya says now that “I knew it was going to happen eventually, I knew I was going to be a mom, it’s just happening now.”
The decision to become parents was at one cost, Kya’s cheerleading career. A cost that felt harsh, bleak, and daunting for the early moments. Kya took to Instagram on Aug. 9, a day after publicly announcing a pregnancy, with a photo captioned “goodbye to my first love, hello to my forever love.”
Behind the positivity on Instagram, sat a harsh reality: her body was changing. Her life was too and her norm now disrupted one year before graduating. Kerry, Noah and Kya sat in their car and just cried, they cried with and for Kya. The cheerleading team was picking up new gear, fresh uniforms and backpacks. What has always been preseason for cheer was now the first trimester of pregnancy.
Kerry takes a deep breath on the phone, “that was the toughest part of this entire thing, I cried with her every time.” Football season beginning, cheerleaders in motion, Noah in pre-season, Kya sidelined. Most of her peers spent the weekends partying, participating in typical college festivities. Noah could, but both Kya and her mom emphasized just how much he didn’t.
“He’s literally been beside her this entire time, if he’s not there he is at basketball or in class, and that says a lot about who he is,” Kerry says. “He is not pregnant, he could go out, he could do everything and anything he wants but he’s sacrificed as much as I have and he isn’t carrying the baby,” Kya adds.
Just two months before giving birth, Kya finished up her best semester yet grade-wise, not allowing the sadness of her cheer career ending to road block other aspects of her life. Plus, showing up for Noah helped.
“I put all my energy from being sad about myself into supporting him,” Kya says.
Back to Jan. 27. Noah takes a deep breath, he says it broke his heart. “I might cry thinking about it, I still have the opportunity to do this so I just try to make the most of it … it was her last year to do everything and I have my opportunity to do everything so I try to make the most of it on the court.”
Loyalty to cheer subconsciously meant Kya lost track of life heading into senior year. The routine didn’t necessarily mean clarity as real life approached. In the bagel shop, she says that she promised herself she wouldn’t cry.
“I needed this more than I understood … I just thought I was meant to be a mom. This is exciting, this is what I’m here to do.”
Kya reflects, noticing that before this life-changing experience, she was just a college student going through the motions, purposeless. Kya is now praised for small things like, “I didn’t have my hospital bag packed a month in advance,”by her mom, which would feel so little months ago. Now, hospital bags packed, safari nursery organized to perfection, represent the large, transformative nature this process has had on her.
With graduation months away, Kya will finish off her last few credits remotely. If she still decides to go to graduate school, she knows it’ll be within the year, she was sure she didn’t want to take more than a year off. Noah’s season may end in a week, with the future of his college basketball career in the hands of how UMass plays in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Kerry knew all along this would be ok knowing her daughter, “I know she still has her path, I know she is dedicated, smart, responsible and I knew she was going to be successful, she is smart,” she says.
UMass had a game a day after baby Theo was born. Noah’s coaches told him to take the day off, stay in the hospital with his family. The three of them watched the Minutemen on TV from the hospital room, with cards and flowers from supporting friends and family scattered all over. Kya jokes that after the first few days, “You’d think he was a dad from a sitcom in another life,” about Noah in his fatherly duties.
Kassidy, now an aunt, is credited for picking out Theo’s name, since Noah really wanted a daughter, the couple put a lot of energy into girl typical names before the gender reveal. Noah wanted his son to be his own person, so he rejected the idea of a junior. The couple googled the name Theo, finding that Theo “from the Greek words theos, meaning “God”, and doron, meaning “gift.”A gift from God.
Life is good for the two at the moment. Theo sleeps peacefully in his bassinet three days after an initial early struggle. Every bedtime is preceded with a book, a sound machine, a routine filled with love, nurture and care.
One final question for Noah ended with laughter. “It would be cool to play some 1-on-1, it is what it is, I hope he plays basketball but it doesn’t really matter.”
Lulu Kesin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Lulukesin.