Thursday, September 18, 2008
He was playing hard – harder than usual.
This game was important, as it was already semifinals, yet the competitor in him was forcing the issue. He wanted a D, not just any old block, but a play that would spark the team, fire up his teammates. A brief stoppage yielded an opportunity to scan the field and yell to his teammates, “We get this D!”
And the opportunity was waiting, just beyond his instincts. “Just throw it, throw that under,” he mentally thrust at the other team. He was hungry to make a play. And finally, the other team obliged to give a chance, sending a disc into a closing window. He could tell it was coming before the cutter even knew – he could sense the space, the timing, the force, and all were pointing to the same place on the field. The defender was always first to know, for he was anticipating the cutter’s every mental synapse. “He wants the under, he wants the under,” he repeated ad infinitum in his head.
As the thrower pivoted for his release, it was go time. It was time to make a play, to disregard his body and the unforgiving fields; it was time to get sick nasty. Already visualizing the tantalizing layout D, he dug in to accelerate faster, put his head down into drive phase, and planted 260 lbs. of strength into the ground on that first explosive step. If he pushed hard enough, if he wanted it bad enough, the opportunity would not skirt by. But the cutter was choosing his angle well, shielding with his body as his cut flared to the sideline. The defender was ready for this and as he planted, he chose a new angle, one that would provide a necessary shortcut to the open side, an angle to disappear behind the cutter before reappearing in a sudden blur of athletic prowess. As he turned and planted, pushing all of his soul into the play, it suddenly went terribly wrong. All of that force, all of the desire to make a play, turned against him.
His cleat tied too tight, his heel cup too unstable, the ground too hard, and the bones in his foot too weak. That horrible sound reverberated up his leg, up his spine, and then into his mind’s eye and it was the first indication that the D would have to wait. Despite the defender’s sheer willpower to succeed and tenacity to compete, his steps were taken from him. The “pop” was omnipotent and he fell to the ground immediately, as if downed by a sniper in an open meadow. The movement was so sudden that no one seemed to notice, or else thought he slipped in the lane. For two whole seconds of blinding realization, he waited and held his breath.
“It will be fine, it will be okay,” he gritted to himself, struggling to find his footing. But this white lie was not going to go unnoticed.
“Just get up, there is still time,” but his empty words missed their mark, and he couldn’t fool his mind, which was grinding to a halt, clearing engulfed in fear. It took two attempts, as the word stalled in his throat. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity of laying on the field, he bleakly announced, “Injury,” for fear the further play would disable his teammates. Moments later, the mark and thrower acknowledged a stoppage and paused to take a look. He rolled off his stomach and curled into a protective sitting position, as if patiently waiting on the playground for recess to begin. The marker flung him a skeptical look, as if to say, “Why the hell are you just sitting there?”
He could offer no answer. The pain felt varied and unnatural, like it hadn’t really happened if he just didn’t move it. But he would have to attempt to stand and despite how he masked it behind his pursed lips and furrowed brow, the pain would get him. He attempted to force weight on it again, renewed with the sense of uncertainty. This time the pain was real, relentless, and overpowering. It was done, it was over. With a flood of despair, he motioned to the sideline, which brought the nearest teammates to his side.
“Are you okay?” with a look of deepest concern all over his face. The words again caught in his throat, and unable to speak, as if his dry-mouth rendered him muffled and inaudible, he motioned again. But the question remained, and soon he was forced to shake his head ever so slightly from side-to-side while biting his lip hard. The disappointment on his face and imploring gaze towards his closest teammate was notice enough that needed teammates to come to his aid. Their looks of distress meant little to him now, and with the greatest effort he could muster, he mumbled almost faintly, “Help me up.” It wasn’t far to the sideline now, but everything was blurring. Soon there was a pair of hands upon him, grabbing his arms, pulling him to his one foot. Their support was well intentioned, but awfully inadequate. It took less than a step for his full weight to fall upon their shoulders, and he was being carried off.
A smattering of applause was also well intentioned, but likewise, fell awfully inadequate. As he was taken to the middle sideline, his vision burst back into focus. His substitute was entering the game, and the only hands to him moments later, would be the fill-in sideline mother, gravely troubled by his every need. But he wanted no help; he wanted to lie down and die; to feel nothing; to wake up from this dream and escape his current nightmare. He couldn’t tell what hit him first, the physical pain, or the emotional meltdown. His season was over. It took only minutes to reach that conclusion, but it was inevitable. The tiny “pop” seemed to reverberate through his body and head, all over again. His eyes were closed tight as he lay on his back, elevating his leg, but it appeared that his eyelids were now only semi-permeable, for the tears began slipping through. They ran past all of his defenses. He stalled the overwhelming feeling of loss as best he could, but these tears were far too inevitable. He couldn’t stop.
He balled his hands into fists and squeezed hard, willing the pain somewhere else and feeling his blood pulse. But the sounds around him suddenly thrust an imaginary environment inside his head; he could see his teammates, working on the field, trying to make a play, and overcome with the thought of a lost teammate. Without warning, as if jumping into a cold swimming pool, he forced himself back into reality. With a great effort, he opened his eyes to the blinding day, and watched as player after player zoomed by. He hadn’t told a soul yet, barely answered a question, although many had been asked. He knew what it felt like to break a bone. The first bone he ever broke was in third grade, and it took 3 days for him to admit to his parents that it hurt too much. This break was different. It wasn’t like he collided with pavement or any other solid object; instead it was random, ironic, and mocking. Finally he acknowledged the questioners, but not before screaming an uncountable number of choice swear words into the air. He looked her in the eyes and plainly stated, “It’s broken.” As if admitting those words to another person would peel away the pain. The fill-in mother’s initial look of shock vanished, replaced with trepidation, “Let’s get some ice and elevate this,” but she wouldn’t take his words for truth just yet.
He repeated, “It’s broken. My foot is broken. I felt it.” And with another great effort, he slipped off his cleat and attempted to move his toes. He might have just tried to touch the sun it was so impossible and his toes disregarded the command. With forced determination, rising from a source of anger he tried again, “Flex!” The shooting pain rendered his imperative pointless immediately. He clutched his foot and fell back to field, eyes welling again. The next few minutes passed without incident, as he was allowed to wallow and wait, but it did not matter. He needed no condolences at the moment, he knew his fate. There was nothing to do, but wait anyway, why rush to the trainer to discover a truth he already knew? As if denial would help, he pushed himself into a sitting position to watch the game. He might have been staring at a blank wall, for nothing registered. His mind was now oddly blank as he pondered the obstacles mounting his path. After seconds of contemplation, he pushed them away; he was traveling with teammates, with friends, and they would assist him. Suddenly, as revelation after revelation hit him across the face, he concluded several facts quickly.
He could not reenter this game, he couldn’t even walk. As if God himself had blasted off his foot, he was being forced to sit and wait. It took many deep breaths before he could even see the trainer, and sure as the sun, he knew what the prognosis would be. This was a setback, a test, an obstacle to overcome, but it was more than that. It was a sign that changed needed to happen, too ironic to show itself plainly. It wasn’t losing part of the season anymore; it was losing the heart of the season, the final months. He was gulping and grasping for air now, needing a lifeline as his team faded down the stretch.
His mind seemed to go into standby for several hours, days, perhaps weeks. It was like his world had evaporated right in front of him, and he was helpless to do anything. He was injured, in the worst way, and was powerless to right the situation. It would take time, infinitely frustrating seconds, minutes, and hours. The x-ray only confirmed his suspicions; it was a Jones fracture and would need to be non-weight bearing for several weeks.The groan escaped his lips before comprehension dawned. This will be brutal. It will not be fun; it will not be over quickly.
The boot and crutches were his constant companions now, evermore reminding him of his predicament. In his mind’s eye he could see the x-ray, see where his bone was almost broken clean through, and see where his foot had been broken 5 years earlier by a teammate. This time is was different. There was no 4th year captain to kindly break the news that his season was over, but that he was still allowed to come to practice and even Nationals if he wanted. It was a crushing blow then, and his grades suffered that semester as he stopped going to both class and practice. But that didn’t matter now – nothing seemed to matter. This season, which took his time, his money, his energy, his emotions, had been unwillingly snatched away from him again. It wasn’t like a broken finger, a fractured face, or a bleeding rib, all which had been played through, this, was a cracked foot, and something he would need in the future. There would be no more running workouts, no lifting before practice, no practice. Opportunities slipped through his fingers as his limited mobility thrust him into the world of surviving handicapped. His mind longingly remembered the days when he could have gone running, when he could have lifted or tossed, and then chose not to. He surely had better ways to spend his time that day. But now, when he couldn’t run, when he couldn’t as much as walk, he wanted nothing more in the world than to run, to feel the chill night air as he pounded on the track. Instead, it would be several weeks of hand bruises, armpit shoulder abrasions, and an exhausted left leg.
His time was spent in deep reflection, assessing the damage and the future options. As if ironic karma had found him hiding, it sneered in his face, “Everything happens for a reason.” So, he was supposed to break his foot? It has taken longer than a month to understand, but the answer remains simply, “Yes.” A serious injury can be one of the biggest emotional and mental setbacks around – just ask Vince Young’s mom if you don’t think it is psychologically taxing. It was incredibly frustrating, to sit and wait on an indeterminable timeline, for nothing – for his season was surely over. He wondered out loud, how to overcome this dilemma? It has taken patience, time, and acceptance. It has taken good friends and long nights. However, this broken bone has caused him to discover, devise, and develop into something new. It provided a fresh path and different outcomes – albeit not athletic alternatives, but alternatives none the less. He could still help the team, even if he wasn’t playing. He could observe, yell from the sideline, be supportive, and watch from an outside perspective. And at the next tournament, it was like someone had removed a barrier that caused closed-mindedness. He saw the game from a different point of view, an enlightening, exciting, wholly different point of view. With nothing invested personally, with no attachment to the team as a player, he could see the big picture. And without even comprehending, he knew this break had been no random occurrence. It had been a blessing in disguise, a chance to take a step back, rest his weary body, torn and worn from 5 straight years of full time college and club ultimate, and just watch.
He watched hungrily and took in bits and pieces, things he would have never noticed in the past. The answer was waiting for him as soon as he repeated his question. What can I do? And then, as if the steps in front of him shone his path lighting up, he finally knew why he had broken his foot – because it was time to coach…