It was a long drive to the WAGS soccer tournament out in the Washington D.C. area back in the Fall of 2001. My oldest daughter had just come off of a solid high school soccer season, as a freshman on varsity, along with a successful prior summer camp experience with her club team out in North Carolina.
I will never forget the excitement in her voice, as she prepared to come home, when she called me from N.C. and said she thought she had done very, very well. Her coach thought so too as he expounded on the comments that one very special college coach had made about noticing her play that one summer.
So off to WAGS we all went; me, some friends, their athletic offspring (who played for the same club team as my daughter) and my young excited sophomore athlete. One who knew that there would be college coaches roaming the sidelines looking for talented players, and who had expressed solid interest in continuing her soccer career at the collegiate level.
Sure seemed crowded in that oversized conversion van as we racked up those 650+ miles. Not much to do during the trip but watch movies, eat, talk, eat, sleep, and, oh yea, eat. I probably gained a good 5lbs just on the trip out.
The first game was played in terrible weather. A cold drizzle had chilled us to the bone as the wind blew so hard it actually turned my umbrella inside out, about took it right out of my hands (friends and I still laugh about that). Those of you who have struggled through some pretty tough weather conditions to watch your kids play soccer know exactly what I mean.
The next day the weather broke; sunny, warm, but not too warm. It was a great day for a soccer game. Our team was pitted against a team of equal distinction and talent, and all were looking forward to the game as it had a lot of meaning with regard to advancing through the tournament.
Little did I know that my daughter was in store for a pretty tough turn of events. Her path toward continued success in soccer was about to undergo a drastic change; all in a split second. It was certainly not something I was prepared for, but what parent is?
In fact, it was not too long before this (maybe a season or so earlier), after watching my oldest start to play this game she loved with what looked to me like reckless abandon, that I took it upon myself to explain to her that she might want to spend a little time strengthening her body. At least if she was going to continue playing as if she was indestructible. As a former athlete, I knew better.
More specifically, she seemed to play as if her body was constructed out of some yet-to-be-discovered interplanetary metal, able to withstand unheard of punishment. She actually seemed to enjoy, even thrive on the physical contact and nature of the game. Heck, I was a gymnast. The only contact I was privy to was with my feet and the floor or mat, unless of course something went terribly wrong. And, at times, it did.
The game started with a fair amount of tension in the air as both teams anticipated a tough match. Skilled they were, players for each team, and my daughter seemed to relish the challenge as her efforts were certainly not lacking.
Her position: she played both sides of the ball (offense and defense) as an outside midfielder for her club team.
It was only about 10 or 15 minutes into the game when a loose ball came rolling toward the sideline very near where I was standing. I saw my daughter and the opposing team’s midfielder race to the ball, each trying to out-position the other, in order to gain control, as they grew near.
My daughter got first touch on the ball as the girl closed in immediately behind her, trying to step to one side or the other to get a foot on the ball. She pinned my daughter against the sideline, not giving much room for her to maneuver; smart play.
As my oldest tried to cut the ball in order to create space to make a pass or move up the open sideline, the opposing midfielder did get her foot on the ball and was able to gain the edge. Once gaining control, her counterpart cut the ball into the field, giving her a little space, and prepared to move down the sideline.
Not to be outplayed, my daughter immediately challenged her for the ball, and as her opponent changed direction, so did she, bumping shoulders as one tried to gain the advantage while the other tried to keep it.
My daughter had this uncanny ability to defensively mirror any opposing player’s change of direction. Normally, there is a slight lag time between the action of an offensive player cutting the ball and the defensive players challenge to follow that movement. Action usually precedes reaction, however, not in this case. My oldest looked as if she was able to move in tandem with the action of the offensive player, no matter which direction they went.
The opposing player noticed my daughter’s challenge and cut the ball back the opposite way. However, as my daughter followed suit, again, laterally changing direction with her opponent (no twisting or turning, just a simple right to left), something she had done countless times, I suddenly heard a distinctive “pop”. And not just any pop, but a kind of “snap” that a rat-tailed wet towel might make as you snap the narrow end against a floor or cabinet, only a little bit muffled.
She was no more than 5 or 6 feet away from me and I heard it clear as a bell. Simultaneously, I saw her leg wobble at the knee as if something holding it together had come undone, it looked as if her knee was going to dislocate. It was subtle, but very apparent to me. As a former gymnast, we are taught how to look for fine detail and analyze even the slightest of movements.
To say that my heart sank into the pit of my stomach would have been a complete understatement as I heard my daughter utter the most unnerving, gut-wrenching, scream. It was the kind of sound that pierces one’s ears, especially a parent, searing into memory forever a moment in time I would much rather have forgotten. She then, simultaneously, collapsed to the ground in obvious, agonizing pain.
I felt sick to my stomach, nauseous. I wanted to throw up as I watched this scene play out before my eyes, like a movie in slow motion. It was awful. I felt so helpless as I saw her crumble to the ground lying there writhing from side to side.
It is truly difficult for me to put into words my feelings, as my body seemed to duplicate, at least in my chest and stomach, the pain my daughter was displaying.
I am not a doctor, but I knew what had happened; been around sports too long not to know. I heard the snap of the ligament, saw the knee wobble, vibrate almost, watched her leg muscles lock up to protect her knee as she started to collapse. I saw her reaction, the movement of her body as she fell. I heard the sound in her voice, it was undeniable; a sound that continued as she rolled to her back holding tightly to her knee.
Now I am not one of those baby my kids kind of guy, but man, I so badly wanted to run to her side (even though I knew I shouldn’t), to hold her, hug her, pick her up and tell her everything was going to be OK.
However, I instinctively knew that (at least for the short-term) it wouldn’t.
As I watched, frozen in time, hoping for the best, but knowing the worst. My daughter’s coach rushed out to her and, with the support of her teammates, helped her to her feet. She stood up, put a little weight on her injured leg, and limped off the field walking very tenderly in tears (and she does not cry easily) with only a little bit of help for support.
Several parents came to me as she hobbled away and said, “look, she is walking on it, it’s not so bad, she will be fine.” I dropped my head, focused my attention on the ground transfixed, I couldn’t bear to watch anymore, let alone make eye contact with anyone else. I replied in a low painstaking voice trying to ease the pain I felt inside, “no, she’s not fine, she tore her ACL.”
My stomach churned the rest of the game. Thoughts rushed through my head, “how bad was it, was it the terrible triad where an athlete tears multiple ligaments and damages cartilage, will she be able to come back from something like this, will she want to (the rehab is very difficult), will it crush her goal of playing in college?”
Keeping my true feelings bottled up, I walked over to her after the game, and simply asked how she was doing. She wanted to know what I thought had happened and how bad I thought it was. She trusted my experienceere. I helped her up and put her on my back with her arms draped over my shoulders reluctant to answer her question so immediately.
As I piggybacked her to the van I began to, as matter of fact as I could, explain to her the possibilities, knowing inside what she likely had done. I then, without batting an eye, went into my “positive” parenting mode telling her how capable, no matter what had happened, she was at overcoming this obstacle. That, sometimes, in life we are thrown a curve that challenges us just to see what we’re made of, and I assured her that she was made of the “right” stuff. It was tough holding back my emotions as I uttered those words.
How difficult it was to see her sit the sidelines watching her teammates play the rest of the tournament. I could see in her eyes that she wanted very much to be out there, but that, at this point, was impossible.
In the end, she did tear her ACL; however, there was no other damage to her knee. The injury was now behind her; reconstructive surgery, and the long hard road through rehab to complete recovery, lie before her.
As it turned out, she was a pretty determined kid, with perseverance to match, bringing herself back from a tough circumstance to solid competitive form. It took almost a year before she was actually 100%, even though she was playing again in 6 months. She would eventually realize her goal of playing DI soccer in college; however, not before a terrible, more serious ankle injury, much worse than her knee, would sideline her from playing for another good year. But that is another story.
Special Note: Reported statistics show that women are 2-3 times more likely to tear their ACL than men. And soccer, because of the continuous change of direction in the game, puts girls at higher risk than do some other sports. In fact, there was a time on my daughter’s club soccer team that 6 out of the 18 high school age players had torn one of their ACL’s. Of those 6, four eventually tore both, and that was just during their high school years. I do not know what happened to them, or the rest of the players, once they moved on after high school. It does seem to be a more common injury in female high school age soccer players.