When I was 15 years old I walked away from the beautiful game, the sport that I had been in love with since I was a young child. I had been on a great club travel soccer team with a great coach for 5+ years, and I had another 5 years of rec league experience before that. Soccer was my life. I played year-round, even playing indoor soccer during the winter. Most of my Collierville Lobos club teammates were on the high school team. Some would go on to play in college, which was always my dream. However for me, God had other plans.
I still clearly remember that life-altering September night almost exactly 18 years ago. My club soccer team was playing a game at the May Soccer Complex in Memphis, TN. Like many of my teammates, I had multiple pairs of soccer cleats. I had recently gotten a pair of Adidas screw-in cleats that were meant for playing in wet weather and soggy, muddy terrain. We gave a teammate a ride to the game, and he had fatefully forgotten to bring any soccer shoes. I had 2 pairs with me, so I let him borrow my regular cleats. It had rained recently, so I opted to test out my new screw-in cleats that night. The field was much more dry and the ground more hard than I expected. I am not sure if what happened next was the result of wearing the wrong cleats for the terrain, or if it was just a tough break that would have happened regardless of what shoes I wore. I played sweeper (rear middle defender), and I had moved forward to challenge an opposing player dribbling toward me. He cut to the right and moved past me. I planted my right foot, turned quickly to chase down the ball-handler, and then fell to the ground in overwhelming pain. There was a pop, and a pop in the knee is never good. I could not even walk off the field without people holding me up. I was 14 years old and had experienced sprained ankles, calf cramps and plenty of strained muscles from playing soccer, but nothing had ever hurt like this. The next day when my dad took me to an orthopedist, I literally broke down and cried for hours after the doctor told me I had a torn A.C.L.
At the time I did not know much about the injury, but I remembered a recent high school football star who tore his A.C.L. in his final game and lost the chance to play college football. I simply knew it was bad, a really major injury.
KNEE SURGERY #1
I had arthroscopic surgery a month later in which the orthopedic surgeon removed the middle 3rd of my patella tendon and screwed it in place where my Anterior Cruciate Ligament once was. I spent most of my 1st semester of high school on crutches, and I still remember, just days after surgery, spending Halloween laying on the couch at Nani and Pop’s house listening to the doorbell ring all night. My brother was running college track and cross country at the time, so my parents were out-of-town at one of his cross country meets.
I remember clumsy teachers and other students painfully stepping on or tripping over my outstretched leg that was locked in an immobile brace. I remember going to the rest of my soccer team’s games that fall season, even traveling to watch them win a tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas without me on the field to help. My parents could have saved their money and not paid for a hotel that weekend, but they knew how important that team was to me.
After sulking for a few weeks, I started to become motivated again. High school soccer workouts would begin in January and official tryouts in February. I had 3 months between major knee surgery and high school soccer tryouts, and the doctor probably should have told me it was too soon. I knew the odds were not in my favor to do well at soccer tryouts, but I was determined. I went to physical therapy several days per week, and as soon as I was able to walk half-way normally again, I started running every night to get back in shape for soccer. I had a 0.75 mile loop around my neighborhood that I would just run over and over again, as fast as I could, as many times as I could. If I got cut from the high school soccer team, it would not be due to an inability to run longer than everyone else at tryouts.
All the running paid off with a remarkable A.C.L. surgery recovery, and I could already outrun most of the people on the varsity soccer team. What had not recovered well was my soccer touch. It was one thing to run long distances and even fast sprints, but it was another thing to dribble a soccer ball with agility, making cuts, changing directions quickly. My soccer skills just had not come back yet because my body was not ready yet. I got cut from the high school team that spring, and the game I loved broke my fragile 14-year-old heart one more time.
HIGH SCHOOL TRACK TEAM
Literally the day after I got cut from soccer, I picked myself up and said, “I’ve been running my butt off for months. I will not let this hard work go to waste!” So I showed up at track practice and asked to join the track team. I went on to have a fantastic track season for a freshman. I ran on the varsity 4×800 relay team all season. I finished 4th in the 800 at the Memphis freshman track meet. I ran what is still my personal best time of 2:11 in the 800 at only 14 years old, while my body was still recovering from a torn A.C.L. My dad and I both knew that I had the potential to build on that and one day run sub-2:00. For Tennessee high school track, 1 minute 59 seconds or faster for a half-mile was the key to being an all-state middle distance runner. I just knew I had it in me. My brother Ryan had just been a major high school running star and was currently running in college. My sister Lauren held the school record for the 300-meter hurdles. My dad had once been a very fast runner in high school. Running was in my blood, but I was still hung up on an old love.
Freshman track ended. I turned 15. Despite the torn A.C.L. I was in the best shape of my entire life. I was faster than I had ever been, and I was only getting faster each month post-surgery. I could have spent the summer preparing to join the cross country team as a sophomore, but I still had something left to prove on the soccer pitch.
As summer began, I returned to the field after a long hiatus. My club soccer team was having its annual tryouts for the upcoming fall season. I had been on the team for years, and it was basically a given that I would make the team, but everyone must tryout. I might have spent the spring on the track while the others were on the soccer field, but I was in incredible shape and ready to prove that I could make a comeback to the sport.
KNEE SURGERY #2
The 1st day of tryouts, before I ever even kicked a soccer ball, something popped in my right knee while running ladder sprints. It was an odd moment because the pop was not like it had been that previous September night. My knee hurt, but it was not the kind of crippling pain that left me on the ground unable to move. Something had happened. It was not good, but it was not like before when I tore my A.C.L. I left tryouts without ever showing what I could do. I had torn my meniscus.
All the speed and fitness I had gained from spring track was gone when I had my 2nd knee surgery that summer. My dad would joke that we were trying to buy my orthopedic surgeon a new Cadillac. My club soccer team got a new coach that summer, and he still offered me a spot on the team that fall if I was able to recover from surgery in time. I was flattered, but I declined. The surgery to repair the meniscus was not nearly as major as A.C.L. reconstruction, but I was scared to hurt my knee again until I absolutely knew my body was ready. That torn meniscus cost me the chance to play soccer or run cross country that fall, but I once again became motivated to finally, really come back and be a great soccer player. I went through all the physical therapy again. I started running again. I got myself back into shape again. I was going to tryout again for my high school soccer team sophomore year.
KNEE SURGERY #3
To help get ready for sophomore soccer tryouts, I joined a winter indoor soccer team with some of my old club teammates. I played one game. Well really I played less than one game. I did fine for awhile. My fitness was mostly there, and my soccer touch had started improving again. I played well enough, right up until that dream-shattering moment where something in my right knee popped yet again. It was once again the meniscus tearing itself into shreds. I remember trying to run with all the meniscus shrapnel floating around in my knee. I would feel fine one minute and then something would lodge itself in the wrong spot and make my knee lock up in pain. My knee would squeak loudly like a door-hinge in need of WD-40. This was sometimes rather embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as being the kid who spent half of high school on crutches.
This time the doctor didn’t even bother repairing the meniscus. He said it was too torn up, so he just cut out all the pieces and basically said my knee would never quite be the same again. He was right.
My heart had broken enough times for the game that I loved. I never played on the high school soccer team, and I never played in college. I put my cleats in the closet to be forgotten as a remnant of my youth. It hurt… badly… but it was time to move on with my life. I literally prayed to God and said, “God I give up. Obviously you do not want me to play soccer anymore.” Maybe soccer had become an idol for me. Maybe my genetics just gave me a bad knee. What I do know is that God did have other plans for my life, and soccer just was not in the cards any longer.
I do not want to live life with regrets, and I will never regret pursuing the sport of soccer with everything that I had. However sometimes the “what-ifs” still haunt my memories. Thanks to my 3rd knee surgery in 18 months, I could not even run track my sophomore year. I rejoined the team, but I was basically just an equipment manager/cheerleader that year. I was not able to compete. I joined the cross-country team for 1 season my junior year, but my drive to excel at sports left with the pieces of my meniscus the surgeon threw in the trash. I gained weight, and I was terrible at cross country. My best time was 23:13 for 3 miles. My junior and senior track seasons I was mediocre, and I was never as fast as I was as a freshman. Senior year I only ran a 2:16 for 800-meters. I did not even receive a varsity letter my senior year. I was pissed off and upset, but my heart was never in it again after that 3rd knee surgery.
What if I had focused all my attention on running after my successful freshman track season? Could I have been a cross country star like my brother? Could I have been one of the top 800 runners in the state? Maybe I could have run in college too? How fast could I have been if I had never torn my A.C.L. in the 1st place? I will never know the answers to those questions because on the flip-side I would not have been able to live with the regret of giving up on my soccer dreams too quickly. I knew when I was 5-years old that soccer was my sport. I was a natural, like I had a special God-given gift to do great things with a soccer ball. A few bad breaks in life might have taken that away from me, but at least I could live my life knowing that I did everything I possibly could.
After high school, I was over competitive sports, or even keeping myself in shape. I largely gave up on exercise for a decade, eventually becoming obese before I felt God leading me to get off my butt and take better care of myself. That is when I started running again 3 years ago, and I fell in love once again. I lost 60 lbs and have run almost 6,000 miles in the last 3 years, including 3 marathons and countless 5Ks that are several minutes faster than what I ran in high school cross country. It’s like running was a part of me that lay dormant for many years because of the trauma I went through during my long, drawn out breakup with soccer. Now running is a huge part of who I am.
I am still a fan of soccer, and I still love to watch the beautiful game. As a father, soccer has re-entered my life after all these years. My oldest son Will is almost 8 years old, and like me he was born with a gift to play soccer. As soon as he could walk, he was dribbling the soccer ball around the front yard. He is usually dominant on the soccer field, and this year we had to make a tough decision. His September birthday is just after the age-group cutoff date. If he played in the U-8 age group that he played in last year, he would be one of the oldest kids, and since he was already always one of the strongest players on the field last year, we thought putting him back in that age group again could make him bored or even arrogant about the sport. I went back and forth, but finally decided to request for him to be placed in the older age group. So now he is the youngest kid in the whole U-10 league, which should be plenty challenging for him. Will’s younger brother and sister are also playing soccer this year, and they are both on a U-6 team together.
The soccer league was really struggling to get coaches this season, so I offered to coach both soccer teams. After 17 years as a spectator of the sport, a sideline photographer of my own kids, I have coached 8 practices in the last 2 weeks. It has been fun, and I do remember why I always loved soccer so much. This new experience has already given Will and I a great memory together. Last Friday night the soccer league canceled our practice after we were already at the field because a storm was coming in quickly. Since we were already there, Will and I got together with a few others for an unofficial practice. That lasted 15 minutes before the storm hit, but as everyone else left, Will asked if we could stay. It was pouring rain, but there was no lightning. So we stayed out there in the storm practicing together for another 45 minutes. We took turns being goalie and taking shots on goal. We were both drenched, covered in mud and grass, but we had the best time. For several days Will kept telling me that was one of the best days of his life, playing soccer with his dad in the rainstorm!
I had such a good time playing that this week I brought my old soccer cleats to practice. After sitting unused for 17 years, they still looked nice. The leather was not too dried out or cracked. They were a little tight, but it still felt pretty good to kick the ball with these shoes. I tried them out 15 minutes before practice would start on Tuesday, and it went well for about 5 minutes. Then I looked down and my cleats literally fell apart on my feet! The bottom, plastic panels where the cleats are located on both shoes just fell off and crumbled apart for absolutely no reason.
Perhaps they just broke because of their age? Whatever glue held the cleats to the leather might have lost its strength. Or perhaps it is something more. Maybe it is God’s way of reminding me that my soccer playing days are behind me and that playing the sport again will only bring me further injury and heartache. I already lost my high school running career to knee injuries from soccer, and I really do not want to lose my current fitness and running progress to another soccer injury. I hope coaching soccer brings me more beautiful memories with my kids, but I guess I am still not meant to play the beautiful sport myself anymore.