Long reads: The USA TODAY stories readers spent the most time with in 2021 – USA TODAY

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What a year. We laughed, we cried, we socially distanced and we held our loved ones close. And … we read the news. A lot of it.
As part of our look back at 2021, we’ve pulled together a collection of some of the stories that USA TODAY readers spent the most time with this year.
The selections include a profile of the New Jersey man who became the world’s first successful face and double-hand transplant recipient, the journey of a little girl with a rare disease who was given hope through a medical miracle and the story of one family’s drug ring that was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel and deaths in three states.
There are also stories of redemption, remembrance and faith, including a woman’s tale of escaping Afghanistan and the story of a young boy who lost his mom on 9/11 – and the young man he’s become. 
All of these pieces were available to USA TODAY subscribers this year and we’re making them free this holiday season.
If you want unlimited access to unique, straightforward reporting from around the nation that takes you beyond the headlines, please consider a subscription to USA TODAY.
►Stories of the Year: A look back at the biggest moments of 2021
►Photos of the Year:  See a photo from every day in a life-changing year
►Those We Lost: Hank Aaron, Bob Dole, Cicely Tyson: Remembering notables who died in 2021
►Feel-good stories: From daring rescues to medical breakthroughs, here are 12 of the happiest stories of 2021
A Sinaloa Cartel supplied drug ring is tied to multiple deaths in Michigan, Kentucky and Mississippi, a USA TODAY Network investigation finds.
After a car accident destroyed his face and arms, Joseph DiMeo determined to recover his independence. Now, after complex transplant surgery, he has.
For decades, two lovestruck teenagers made good on a promise to their parents to never talk again. But one day, 51 years later, everything changed.
Five years after then-coach Tyler Summitt was caught having an affair with his point guard at Louisiana Tech, the couple are married and have a son.
When NCAA men’s basketball referee Bert Smith collapsed during the Gonzaga-USC game, some thought he had died. Turns out, that fall saved his life.
A scientific vision for decades, gene therapy is finally becoming more common in the U.S., fueling optimism for the treatment of rare diseases.
In 2001, Tionda and Diamond Bradley left a note and disappeared from their Chicago home. For two decades, their family has fought for answers.
The boy in the yellow raincoat made for one of 9/11’s most moving images. Two decades after the attacks, Kevin Villa reflects on his mom’s sacrifice.
It seems impossible that civilization can regress decades, that your life can collapse before lunch. But it can, and it did as the Taliban took Kabul.
Bishop Sycamore gained national attention when it lost an ESPN-televised football game 58-0 and questions were asked about the school and coaches.


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