By Chioma Igwe
I wake up with a shooting pain running down the outside of my left leg. It feels like I rolled onto a family porcupines. I get out of bed blindly and squint at my alarm. It’s five in the morning. I have a slight problem shaking this dream out of my head. For a brief moment I try and recall the hazy scene playing with my imagination, but the shooting pain again brings me back to reality. I try and stretch out the excruciating pain in my leg, but it doesn’t work. What is the matter? I have no clue. I had a hard workout preparing for the 2010 preseason in Chicago I was about a month away from having. I was sore the minute I had left the field earlier that day. I take a few extra strength Advil and lay in bed trying to ignore the pain that was begging for my attention. Somehow I manage to fall asleep and first thing in the morning I drive to the doctor’s office.
I partially tore what? My stupid meniscus. Who needs a meniscus? Can’t you rip it out so I can continue training? I have a season to prepare for. What does a knee specialist know anyway? But every time I took a step, I could feel my meniscus definitely existed and something was wrong with my left one.
I sat in my room or on the couch for weeks, miserable beyond belief. My parents and even my dog had given up trying to comfort me. There was nothing I could do but wait, wait for my knee to heal. The injury gave me time to do a lot of unnecessary thinking. I look back to last year and see how miserable I was in just those couple months I spent without soccer in my life, and it makes me worry. I worry that those couple months will be the same as my life after soccer. I fear that life after soccer will be like waiting for an injury that will never heal.
I didn’t always worry about life after soccer. It has only recently crept into my emotionally complex life. As I grow older, opportunities to continue to pursue my dreams become slimmer and slimmer. There is still light at the end of the tunnel, but realistically my body is only capable of playing for a good five more years as competitively as I do now. Then I will have to find something else, but what if I don’t want to find something else? I think at the moment I am consciously going through the stages of healing. Right now, I’m in denial.
The problem I have with finding a new passion is that it wasn’t there in the beginning of my adolescence the way soccer has been. It’s like choosing your maid of honor. You always go with the friend that you grew up with and knows you inside and out. I am 24 years old, and I have been playing soccer for as long as I can remember. Almost every fond memory I have as a child, somehow relates to soccer. It has followed me around like a shadow.
I was 7. It was a typical sunny summer day, but it was anything but an average day for the carefree curly haired girl who wore her hair down with a pink elastic headband connected to a polka dot bow at the top like a present waiting to be unwrapped. It was my first soccer practice with my new team. I was anxious for once in my life, but not to play soccer. No no, that was something I knew how to play and was good at. I was confident in every maneuver when I stepped on the freshly cut grass. Soccer was like breathing to me; I could do it without consciously thinking. This particular team I was placed on was an all boys team. Nerves got to me not because I didn’t think I was good enough, but because I wasn’t sure if they would accept me. I am the middle child sitting in-between two boys like the meat smushed between two identical slices of bread, very different yet essential to any good sandwich. I knew how to push every wrong button to irritate boys, and I knew how to hold my own in any game. My concern was whether or not they would allow me to express my talent without looking at me like I was an itchy sweater their grandparents got them for Christmas.
The coach blew his whistle to assemble the troops and I waved bye to my Dad with no fear in my eyes and trotted over to the group. The coach told everyone to grab a partner and I immediately panicked. I wasn’t going to pick someone. Who was I to choose? To them, I was just a girl who no one would dare offer a smile or nod. To my disbelief, a kid just about my height splattered with freckles said, “Hi, I’m Andrew. I have a ball and we can be partners!” I exhaled for what seemed like 10 seconds with relief and nodded. We turned and found an open space and began passing. From that moment on, I had not an ounce of concern in my body, almost like it whooshed out with my extended sigh of relief.
So who am I without soccer? It is my life and has been since I was born. I was born into a soccer family. It was innately embedded into my genes like the way a bird automatically knows to fly south for the winter or build a nest. Soccer has been like a third parent to me. It has taught me how to share, make friends, never give up, work hard, manage my time properly, discipline and the list goes on. I am not saying soccer has been there to literally hold my hand through the tough times, but through the many experiences I have had with soccer, I am who I am today. There has always been another season to begin, another team to make, another game that matters more than the last.
When I was a preteen, I wanted to make my varsity high school team. When I was in high school, I wanted more than anything to go to a well-respected division one collegiate team, and when college was finished, I wanted to play in the Pros, and after that, I wanted to play in Europe and see the world through soccer. Once all of that has been accomplished; once I am at an age where my body can’t plow down the field like a steam roller ready to tackle anyone trying to score on my goal; once I can’t outrun the next up and coming young player whose dreams are at her finger tips; once I can’t immediately get up after some beast has shoulder charged me to the ground making me taste the dirt and grass beneath me, what do I do?
What is life without soccer? What is life AFTER soccer? I have absolutely no clue, and that scares the living daylights out of me. I fear the day I will have to hang up my boots competitively, and I dread that time like it were a chemistry final that would start on a day a couple years from now and never end. Even writing those words make me tear up. I am terrified I will not know where I belong in this world if I am not a soccer player.
Sure, I could get the 9-to-5 job my college education will qualify me for. I could get up every morning and have my freshly brewed coffee and put on my crisp business attire and heels that make that important clacking sound as I strut down the busy pavement to my office building with my briefcase in hand, but that’s not me. That’s not who I want to be. I want to wake up every morning, have my breakfast for champions, put on my loosely fitting athletic attire, head over to the stadium, and walk into a locker room filled with my friends getting their ankles taped in the training room or putting a heating pad on a sore muscle. I want to tie up my worn in leather cleats that mold perfectly to the contours of my feet and put on my practice gear that smells of freshly washed linens and sweat that is permanently embedded in the fibers of my T-shirt. I want to be gasping for air as we do fitness and be so thankful to have a water break so I can taste that tangy tart flavor of Gatorade rush down my throat. I want to race my teammate to a ball and score a goal so I have the satisfaction that my extra sprints at the end of previous practices has paid off. I want to be a soccer player.
I cradle the ball with the inside of my right foot like a newborn baby. At the same time, there is an assertiveness that must be applied when dribbling a ball. I feel like I am the lead in some passionate Latin dance. Such grace, yet I can feel the fire surge through every bone in my body. The ball feels like it is glued to my foot, no one can take it from me. Only when I decide to pass it off to a trustworthy teammate does it unwillingly leave my protective care.
I would do anything for that ball, guard it as if it were my child. I would race a bloodthirsty opponent twice my size to the ball if it were left unattended and with not a glint of uncertainty in my eye sacrifice my leg to make contact at the very same moment the enemy did. CRACK! The sound of our cleats collide. I push her to the ground and spring up, not caring that the slimy sweat dripping off her body has drenched my jersey.
I can feel my heart beating in my ankle, the pain will be excruciating an hour after the game ends, but for now, the adrenaline rushing through my body suppresses the already growing contusion. I feel like an addict, like I just injected a drug into my veins. Pure bliss as I win the ball and dribble off like someone is chasing me with a knife. I can hear myself breathing, more like gasping for air, but it feels good. My lungs feel like they are going to burst, but my job is not over yet. I look up and make eye contact with the goalie. She is slightly to the left of the goal, standing there like a wild animal chained to a fence. I hold my breath and swing my right leg with such a force I could hear the air whistle passed as I make contact with the round object just underneath me. Poof! The crowd goes silent. The stadium filled with thousands of untamed fans feels like everyone has disappeared into thin air. Silence. I stare at the ball that has done nothing wrong to me and I just pounded it as hard as I could. The moment is mine. I watch the ball hit the back of the goal. The net ripples and if you listen closely it makes a very faint noise. It sounds like heaven. If satisfaction had a sound, I imagine it would sound like that leather ball rolling down the loosely hanging mesh. I am in heaven when my teammates rush over to me and hug me like I just saved the world. Nothing else matters in that moment. That is the moment I live for. That is exactly why I play soccer.
What could possibly fill such an enormous void? I don’t know if I am blinded by my love for the game or if I really am lucky to have found something so meaningful to me. Am I looking at the glass half empty? Or am I just being realistic? I am not going to go into a mode of deep depression the day I retire from my last professional team. I know that. And I am somewhat hopeful for the future, but it is scary not having a plan. I feel like I will be dropped off in a different continent with no money, food or shelter and will have to find my way back home. Yes, I would be scared out of my mind, but I think I would survive and I also think the journey home would be an interesting tale to tell. So as fearful as I am of the future, I am somewhat intrigued as to what it has to offer.
I wish more than anything I could go back to that day I was seven about to start my first day with the boy’s team. I would not take any moment for granted. To be 7, and get to do it all over again would be ecstasy because I am nearly 25, and I am closer to the end of my career. So close I can feel the fear in my body that makes me cringe every time I think about life after soccer. To go back to when I was 7, and I didn’t have a care in the world, just the confidence of any innocent child who never thought further than five minutes into the future, would be perfect. Yes, soccer will always be a part of my life, but it won’t be what I get up for every morning for too much longer.