In the five years leading up to my late wife’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer, I experienced a period of grief related to my own physical and mental health.
During one of the last years my daughter played soccer, her coach invited me to join an indoor team he organized each winter. That first year we traveled from Batavia to Darien, a forty-five-minute drive in post-rush hour traffic. Games generally started after 7:00 p.m., so we’d leave just after dark once the time changed in October. On the way we’d pick up another player or two, each of them typically saying goodbye to a wife and kids, because most of us were in our late 30s or early 40s.
The Darien field had boards around it, and indoor soccer under those conditions is fast-paced and often rough. Our squad usually had ten to fifteen players minimum so that guys could “sub out” after two minute stints on the field. Even though I still ran quite a bit to keep in shape, and played a fair amount of basketball as well, that first time playing indoor soccer was a harsh experience. All that sprinting caused my heart rate to shoot up, and the first time I came off the field the other guys on the team saw the expression on my face and started laughing. “Kind of intense, huh?”
The other difficult part of indoor soccer was the pressure to improve on foot skills. During all those years of coaching (ten in total) I’d kicked the ball around plenty with kids and juggled the ball for fun, but that’s quite different than reacting to an opposing player trying to steal the ball from you or even knocking you against the boards to make sure it happened.
I adapted quickly enough and found out that I was a better defender than an attacking forward. My foot skills just weren’t quick enough to swerve through defenders on a small field, so I prided myself on making it harder for opponents to get near our goal. I got good at soccer defending just as I’d gotten better at defense in basketball during my twenties and thirties.
My other “skill” was making sweet bending passes to our own forwards. All the years of kicking soccer balls with my older brothers when I was kid paid off as an adult. It felt great to get assists and my teammates began to realize that I played a good role on the team.
But one day I was caught at the midline with a tall and talented player from the other team. The ball popped out from their goal and his teammate advanced it with a quick touch. I saw the ball but not what was coming next. That big guy slammed me in the ribs with an elbow and I bent over as he raced ahead for an easy goal. It looked like I’d given up, but in truth, my ribs were in hot pain. I’d spend the next three weeks recovering from the two broken ribs he gave me.
As it happened, we were playing the same team when I returned from rib rehab. For most of the game I steered clear of his elbows, but with about five minutes to go I saw him pin a ball against the boards and I came in for a spot of revenge. Spinning around as I heeled the ball free, I gave him a shot to the kidneys with my bony elbow and he turned and hollered at me. “What was that for?”
I replied. “You’ve got a short memory. I’ve been out three weeks thanks to you breaking my ribs.”
We switched leagues the following year to a facility without sideboards on the field. The game felt better there, more real without the rebounds and enclosed spaces of the board. Plus, Just For Kicks was closer to home. We played teams from all sorts of nationalities; Greek, Polish, Mexican, and more.
One night our opponent was a tremendously talented team whose members were mostly from England. In warmups, one of their guys launched a shot at the goal while I was standing nearby. The ball sailed so close to my ear that it created a vacuum. I quickly moved away from the goal to avoid getting blasted. That player could launch shots with speed using just one step. I thought to myself, “No way that we beat these guys.”
But we played above our heads all night. Even the Team Hothead stayed cool. He was a great footskills guy just past age thirty but was prone to getting mad during games and frequently “lost it.” But not that night. He played well, scoring two goals to keep us in the game along with a third goal from my friend Dave, who fielded and one-touched a curling lead pass I made from the backfield to tie the game at 3-3 with just a couple minutes to go.
Everything seemed to go into fast-motion in the last two minutes of the game. Even without boards, the ball never left the field and there was no time for substitutions as a result. Both teams tore around the field until suddenly the ball popped out to me on the wing where I was open. Taking a look upfield, I saw no one and took off at full tilt, dribbling madly to keep the ball near my feet. An opposing player swept up beside me but I kept my focus on the field ahead. Nearing the left side of the other team’s box, I swerved out two steps and launched a shot at the near upper corner of the goal. It slipped past the outreaching hands of the goalie and I’d scored with just thirty seconds left to play in the game.
Walking back toward the center of the field, I was greeted by the English team’s coach. He was a stocky, short guy with a big mustache and a thick accent. “Noice styroike on the ball!” he chortled, shaking my head. “Youew wont’ be sleepin’ tonight!”
He was right. I lay awake in bed after getting home to take a shower at 10:30 p.m. My heart was still beating hard from all the running, and I settled under the blankets next to my wife who rolled over and asked, “How’d the game go?”
I smiled in the dark and said, “We won. And I scored to win the game.”
“Mmmm, that’s nice…” she responded. Then rolled back over in bed.
I lay there replaying that shot again and again in my head. The best part about it was not thinking too much. For once, unlike so many other nights on the soccer pitch, I didn’t overthink the moment. Like a kid again, the motion just came from within. It was glorious. I was so grateful to experience something like that given my relatively late return in life to playing soccer.
Then we joined another league at Sportsplex in St. Charles, and given the number of age groups from youth to adult using those two fields, sometimes our games wound up being played really late at night. Arriving at 10:30 p.m. to start a soccer game at 11 p.m. is not the most inspiring situation. Even worse was the fact that only six of our guys showed up. We had no subs.
By halftime, I was completely gassed. Even as a defender, I would up running steady for all twenty minutes of the first half. And then, just as the last minutes of the first half was winding down, I found myself at the top of the box wide open for a shot because we’d pressed up field and our best forward had the ball on the wing. He sent a direct rolling pass my way and my reaction time was even slow. The ball rolled right past me because my legs were too tired to get into position to shoot. He was livid, throwing his hands up in the air. I’d just fulfilled every doubt our team ever had about my ability. At that point, I did not care. All I wanted to do was sit down for five or ten minutes and gather some energy for the second half.
During the winter soccer season I also played basketball in open gym. But at the age of forty-five years old in 2002, I’d begun to experience new kinds of pulls and tears playing that sport. My basketball game was always a slashing, attacking kind of approach, driving to the rim for acrobatic layups. Then during a Sunday pickup game, I jumped from one side of the lane to land with a twisting hop and something popped under my pelvis. Instantly I was out of action.
Our medical plan was with an HMO at the time, and I was just getting to know our family doctor. Showing up at his office, I explained the injury and how it happened. “Maybe I need some physical therapy,” I suggested.
“Oh, that stuff’s a bunch of fluff,” he replied. I sat there aghast. “But if you want to go, I can write you a referral.”
The only physical therapy practice in our plan was a thirty-minute drive away. The offices were plenty nice, and I was optimistic that I’d get some good advice. But the physician poked around a bit and said “There’s nothing we can really do unless you want to consider surgery.”
I left that appointment angry as hell. Going under the knife for what was likely a pulled tendon was a ridiculous recommendation.
It took a month or two for the pull to heal up, but it only hurt when I jumped and landed. That meant I could largely manage to play soccer, but then I pulled a groin muscle warming up because my pelvis was all out of whack.
That series of injuries convinced me that it might be time to add alternative sports to my training regimen. If basketball was going to be out of the picture someday, I wanted to find other pursuits. For a decade or so I’d been interested in getting into cycling, and my brother-in-law gifted me an old Trek 400 road bike he was no longer using. I’d already purchased a Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike for banging around forest preserves, so the instinct to get on a bike felt natural at that point.
The Trek had shifters on the down tube, which took some practice to use. I owned some mountain biking shoes and put clip pedals on the Trek to start riding the roads. At one point I even entered the Four Bridges bike race criterium that I’d sponsored as Marketing Manager for the Daily Herald. That experience was a rude shock. What looked so easy from the sidelines with bike racers whirring past was humbling when I got dropped immediately. Watching the pack roll away on the first hill made me both angry and sad. I vowed to get better at it somehow. But I wondered what it might take? I’d shaved my legs like an actual cyclist, experiencing razor burn for the first time in my life. How does one get better at cycling, I wondered? That answer would be years in the making.
Triathlon and transitions
At the same time, I got thinking about the sport of triathlon, so I signed up for swim lessons at the Norris Recreation Center. The instructor was a relaxed woman who taught me some stroke basics. But during that first lesson, I popped a contact out while removing my goggles and couldn’t make the next session, so it all fell away. It would be years before I sought the triathlon thing again.
Playing pickup soccer at the Sportsplex was still possible, and I’d gotten healthy enough to regain all my speed. One night a guy turned to me in the bench area and asked, “How old are you again?”
“I’m in my forties,” I replied.
“Well, you don’t run like it,” he said as a compliment. “You’re one of the fastest guys out there.” That made me feel good. But a couple weeks later, that relative speed would cost me dearly.
Toward the end of an evening of soccer, I was playing midfield because I’d gained confidence in my foot skills. When the ball came out of the backfield and I sprinted over to collect it. A guy tumbled in front of me and I jumped over him, planted my foot on the artificial turf, and went to turn. My left knee couldn’t handle the torque. I felt it disassemble from within. Rolling to a heap on the field, I grabbed my knee with both hands and rolled around on the ground. Guys gathered around to see what was up and one of them muttered, “Torn ACL, I’ll bet.”
Hobbling to the bench, I took off the soccer cleats I’d been wearing that night. They were “hand-me-ups” from my son’s soccer-playing days, a set of Red Nike cleats with reflective swooshes on the side. They used to flash in the sun when he was playing outdoor.
I set the shoes in the bag and limped out of the gym that night dreading the reality of what I’d just experienced. During all my years of sports from early baseball and sliding practice to thousands of hours of basketball on all kinds of surfaces, and even running steeplechase in college, I’d never hurt much of anything but a couple ankle ligaments.
Arriving home, I told my wife, “Well, I really did it this time.”
“You’ll be fine,” she tried to console me.
“No. This is a bad one.”
Surgery and rehab
Sure enough, once the swelling went down after a week I met with an orthopedic surgeon, as our medical plan at work had changed by then, and we scheduled surgery. “You have two options,” he told me. “We can take a bit of your patellar tendon or we can use a cadaver part. The first option takes longer to heal,” he warned. “But it’s a bit more likely to hold.”
For some reason, mostly vanity I now believe, I chose the cadaver part. I wanted so much to get back in action that I chose the less desirable option. My decision was affected by a sense of grief, a realization that the carefree physicality of youth was disappearing. Fearing some weird loss that was hard to express, all I wanted to do was get the knee fixed and prove that I could come back.
The doctors actually told me that people often get stronger overall thanks to physical therapy after surgery. That made me think back to our HMO doctor and his claim that PT was “fluff.” Now I’d have the opportunity to find out what actual physical therapy could do.
Lying on the bed waiting for surgery, I wasn’t nervous, but when a nurse walked in to check on me, I had to laugh. There I was, naked from the waist down, and the nurse attending the surgery prep was the mother of one of the youth soccer players I’d coached. “Oh, hello,” I managed to say. She chuckled and said, “Let’s get you ready.”
Rehab from surgery was painful and hard. The knee was thick and swollen. They gave me a machine that slowly bent the leg back and forth. I took a week off from work to recover, then wore a tall brace and used crutches. My daughter was still playing soccer with a different coach, so I attended one of her tourneys and walked all over the place on crutches, gaining raw armpits and a sore Achilles tendon on the opposite foot in the process.
Eventually, the PT helped. I loved the creepy-crawly sensation of the electro-stimulation they used on my quads. However, one of the therapists dialed it up too high one morning and my leg started jumping around like a science experiment. “Heyyy,,,, Heyyyy,,,,,,” I called out. They turned it down.
The wounds were weepy at first, draining down the compression socks I wore to work. My foot also stung from swelling, and I’d elevate the thing after driving thirty miles to work at the Daily Herald Arlington Heights office.
Then came the long road from walking with the brace to going without it. That took a month or so. Running was still not possible, so I walked the three-mile loop around the Fox River Trail and back. I could ride the bikes but had to be careful getting on and off, for fear of tearing the repaired ACL. I called it “Jake” after the guy that donated his “organs” and such after death.
For six months I patiently engaged in rehab and strength work. One benefit of the treatments was ridding myself of chondromalacia, a condition in which the patellar tendon rubs on the knee bones as a result of muscle imbalance and misalignment. PT cure that, and I was glad. After a few months, I dared a few steps running. I’d walk a ways then jog a little. It was all coming back together again.
A friend that I’d met through soccer gave me a sweet deal to join a chain of physical therapy facilities. That enabled me to work consistently. He prescribed even more exercises, and I did them. The company had a working agreement with the Chicago Fire soccer team, and I met the World Cup player Chris Armas and trained in the presence of others as well. One day a Fire player left a set of his uniform shorts in the locker room. I considered keeping them but decided that was a bit creepy, so I turned them over to my friend that ran the gym.
Returning to the pitch
After a year of rehab, and wearing a brace to stabilize my knee, I returned to playing soccer again. At first, I took it easy, but as time wore on my confidence in the knee grew. Our team was still functioning and I was invited to join the outdoor crew for the summer season.
But first, they asked me to help them out in a basketball league. I’d gone back to playing some pickup ball on weekends, so I accepted. However, their team was terrible. Most of them were decent soccer players, but they sucked at basketball. We had one decent other guy, our goalie in soccer, who was 6’5″. We lost every game all season by margins of 10-20 points. By the last game of the season, I’d had enough. I was determined to win at least one game. I told the team, “I know we normally sub on rotation. But I’m going to be honest, I need to stay in the game to keep it close at all.” They agreed.
For most of the first half, I kept us close, racking up points on jumpers and layups. Then the other team started to key on me and I got exhausted. We were down one point with two minutes to go in the first half when I subbed out and sat down. We went down seven points in the next minute, and were down twelve by halftime. At that point, I didn’t give up. But I was furious at the other team for mocking me when I got back in the game.
My competitive sense always treasured fairness. When teams acted like that in any circumstance, it made me crazy. Yet there’s only so much you can do. I was glad that basketball season was over.
Then came the outdoor soccer season, where I quickly found that my running ability was a massive advantage in an over-30 league. Most guys were fit enough to cover the field with any consistency. But I was. So I started at forward, a new sensation for me. In the first game of the season, I broke free on the wing and was heading toward the net when the goalie came out. I tried dribbling around him but he got a hand on the ball. A teammate came over to instruct me on the right thing to do. “When that happens, just chip it over him.” My apprenticeship as a scoring forward was just beginning.
Had our family not moved to Illinois when I was heading into eighth grade, I’d likely never joined cross country in high school. My brothers both played soccer and it’s more than likely that I’d have followed in their path. As a speedy kid with great endurance and a scrappy demeanor, I might have been a decent player. My best friend from age 5-12 back at Lampeter-Strasburg HS played all four years, and I was a better athlete than him. So that’s my only measure of what “might have been.” Out at Kaneland in Illinois, the had neither baseball or soccer teams at the high school level. So I wound up in cross country and track. Such is life.
So the mid-life romance with soccer was a deferred and somewhat guilty pleasure. Getting to play outdoor was especially nice, because I could use my speed on the open pitch. Our next match was held on a smooth field in Schaumburg, but rain had fallen the night before and the turf was slippery. The footing was lmost greasy with underlying mud. Only eight guys showed up on our side and we were down 8-0 by half as a result. The other team was having a field day at our expense, laughing when they scored and playing rude games of keepaway. My anger grew by the minute. Right before half, I stole the ball at the top of the box and set my left foot on the turf and was about to strike the ball at the open net when a big old guy from the other team plowed into my leg and I felt a profound “Click!” inside the knee. Instantly I knew what had happened.
The joint felt loose as I walked off the field. I tried jogging on the sideline, but it was a no-go. I gathered up my gear and told the guys, “I’m sorry. I’m injured and can’t play anymore.”
Climbing into my car, I bent over and cried in the front seat. After two years of recovery, and a full return to playing sports, I knew that I’d torn the ACL all over again. I parked my car at a park on the way back home and sat there thinking. “Well, that’s that,” I said out loud. “I’m not fixing it again.”
I understood then, at the age of perhaps forty-seven years old, that the days of playing ballistic sports were over. I wasn’t alone in that. Guys my age were dropping out of ballistic sports right and left. Our Sunday night basketball groups fizzled out. Even our soccer teams dissolved. It was time to move on in life.
A deep grief caught up to me during that drive home. “Jake” had died all over again.