Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday. >> En Espanol | Read more Ken Rodriguez Articles

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Jayne Appel carried a secret into the final game of her college career. A secret she kept from the prying media, a secret she hid so well the CIA would have been impressed. For almost the last month of the season, and throughout the NCAA women’s tournament, Appel carried Stanford on her back with a fractured right foot.

Her family knew. Her coaches and teammates knew. But Appel – a 6-4 All-America center – kept the injury from virtually everyone else. Why give an opponent a target?

The Silver Stars’ No. 1 pick began her senior season determined to win a national championship. So when she sprained the ankle on March 2, and tests revealed a stress fracture days later, Appel refused to accept the usual treatment – two to six weeks of rest. Instead she said, "Give me a pain killer," and kept on playing.

In the NCAA championship game against UConn, she came down hard on the ankle, hobbled to the bench and called for a doctor. Appel received an injection, returned and played with searing pain.

"That was the last time I was going to put on my Stanford jersey," says Appel, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, "so I was literally going to leave it all out on the court."

Stanford fell to UConn, Appel went 0-for-12 from the field and lost some shine. The break in her foot – revealed after the game – became a break for the Silver Stars. Once projected as the second pick in the WNBA draft, Appel slid to San Antonio at No. 5.

Coach Sandy Brondello marvels at Appel’s grit and tolerance for pain. "She’s very tough," Brondello says. "It shows a lot about her character."

The final month of the season became a portrait of Appel’s unflinching spirit, an inner strength that carried her through one shoulder surgery, two knee operations, a fractured foot and years of living with a family member who suffers from mental illness.

The relative heard voices, experienced delusions and sometimes erupted in anger. The police, on one occasion, intervened at her house. "As a little kid, I didn’t understand what was going on and I didn’t want to bring friends around," she says. "It used to be a secret thing. The family kept it closed off. But I’m not quiet about it now."

Appel plans to do more than score and rebound in San Antonio. She plans to use her WNBA voice to advocate for the mentally ill. A psychology major who will graduate in June after 3 ½ years, Appel volunteers her time to help law enforcement officers and others better understand mental illness.

She and her father, Joe Appel, work with a police crisis intervention team in the San Francisco Bay area. One job is to dispel myths about mental illness. Another is to explain what it’s like to live with someone who has a disorder.

In the Appel home, it took a while to learn the family member suffered from a chemical imbalance in the brain. It took even longer – "at least 10 years," Jayne says – to find the right medication to treat the disorder.

"Now he’s doing extremely well, has a full time job, is living on his own and has learned to cope," Jayne says. "It took family support, a group of friends, almost an entire community effort to help one person."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than one in four U.S. adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder – roughly 57 million people. A smaller number – six percent – suffer from serious mental illness.

Despite the prevalence of the disease, public understanding remains minimal. The mentally ill are often incarcerated, sometimes unnecessarily for prolonged periods, and comprise an estimated 64 percent of the U.S. prison population. "The country’s largest mental health care facility," Joe Appel says, "is the Los Angeles County Jail."

Joe has watched Jayne grow into a passionate, social advocate for millions who suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other brain disorders. "Every other disease in the world is not stigmatized like mental illness," Joe says. "People like Jayne can help overcome that stigma."

This stigma can be tricky. On the one hand, Jayne proudly points to a relative as a success story. On the other, she doesn't want to disclose the person's name. Still, Jayne is doing what she can. Among other things, she joined a support group for the mentally ill that her parents started out of their church. And she anticipates a greater advocacy role once her basketball career ends.

In the meantime, she's resting her broken right foot. The prognosis is good, just like her future. If Jayne can nearly deliver a championship on one foot, imagine what she can do with two.