It is opening day and there are 80 seconds on the clock. A mishit pass creates a loose ball and Brittany Bock accelerates to get there before her opponent but is slightly late and slams on the brakes to avoid a collision.
The Dash lose possession and she jogs back into the center circle, watching as the Portland Thorns begin a move down the right. Play continues but Bock is suddenly in slow-motion. She starts limping, pulls up and kneels down. Ella Masar spots her prone teammate and kicks the ball out. There are two minutes on the clock.
Bock is examined on the sideline and returns to the field but trudges off gingerly again in the 19th minute after making a clearance, getting a sympathetic pat on the back from head coach Randy Waldrum.
The crowd noise, the action, the background distractions: everything blurs and melts away. All she can focus on, all she can think about, is her knee. The 27-year-old midfielder — it was her birthday the day before — is officially substituted for Teresa Noyola moments before Portland score the game’s only goal.
It is opening day and there are 23 minutes on the clock. This is not only the end of Bock’s first Dash NWSL match, it is the end of her season. A couple of days later she is diagnosed with a left ACL tear and undergoes surgery.
For many who watch soccer it is a form of escapism, but for those who play it, sometimes the sport all too closely embodies the caprices of real life. Careful plans, hard work, hopes and ambitions can be set back or wrecked in an instant — randomly, senselessly, cruelly. And then, after shattering news, after the shock, grief and frustration subsides, you begin to pick up the pieces.
And you do that through a mix of inner willpower and outside support: determination, guidance and friendship. As she began the long arduous rehabilitation process, Bock was about to have company.
Eleven days after the Dash’s inaugural match, Dynamo winger Tony Cascio plays the full 90 minutes in an MLS defeat away to the New York Red Bulls, but something is not normal with the right knee that has been bothering him for a few weeks. He sees a doctor, figuring it might be some loose cartilage. The verdict: torn ACL. He undergoes surgery on April 30.
The following month, the Dynamo travel to Washington to face D.C. United. Mark Sherrod is confident. The big rookie forward has forced his way into the starting lineup and his previous two games have brought two goals and an assist. Early in the match he vies with former Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell for the ball near the goalline.
It’s physical, but routine, yet Sherrod screams and tumbles to the ground. On June 4 he has reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL at Houston Methodist, like the other two. It is the end of his season but the start of something positive: the ACL Crew.
Anterior cruciate ligament tears are infrequent but not unusual in soccer, especially given the dynamism of the modern game, where players sprint and pivot, jink and lunge, pushing their bodies to their limits; sometimes beyond.
The ACL is tissue that connects the thigh bone and the shin bone and helps maintain joint stability and prevent excessive movement. It can be torn in several ways, including impact with another player or if the knee twists while a foot is planted firmly on the ground. ACL injuries can be sneaky, hiding their true seriousness beneath swollen skin. The knee is painful and flares up, and players may feel a “pop," but sometimes they carry on until the instability becomes untenable.
Not everyone with an ACL tear has surgery but athletes, who are young and need to be in optimum condition, usually go under the knife. Decades ago an ACL injury was career-threatening; these days, almost every player can return in about 6-9 months after an intensive, difficult rehabilitation. But it remains one of the most dreaded hazards of the job: catastrophic yet essentially unavoidable, mostly a matter of luck.
“I’ve had through my pro career five foot surgeries and last year had a broken wrist, concussion, and surgery on the wrist and some broken ribs. The fact that I did the knee … I never thought — I mean, who does think they’ll tear their ACL? But I never thought that was the case. It’s kind of crazy actually,” says Bock, sitting at a table at Houston Sports Park with Sherrod and Cascio after a morning’s rehab.
“I have this devotional that I read and the three or four days that I read it for the first time with the injury gave me peace with it and so when I came out of that I was just excited to just take it on. It was weird, an excitement, like ‘I’m going to come back stronger than I ever was before’. Not that it hasn’t been a rollercoaster … but I just know that I am growing a lot for it and it’s going to happen for a reason.”
Her Christian faith helped her cope, she says: “An ACL is something that can really tear you down, emotionally, mentally, physically. And I’ve been strong and I’ve come back strong from all my injuries but it was kind of like, wait for His plan, His timing, trust in Him, be a witness of His strength. That’s why I was so positive personally, because I’ve gone down from other things and I haven’t been so positive.”
Cascio, a 24-year-old on loan from the Colorado Rapids, is philosophical after the initial shock of the diagnosis. “That’s the weirdest thing, it didn’t hurt that bad. It wasn’t like anything I couldn’t play on,” he says.
“The doc said he does hundreds every year, that gave me confidence, surgery went fine, I was walking a few days after and other than that most of the process has just been mental, getting over the hump, running outside, knowing that the knee’s going to be all right, mentally just pushing through it.
“It’s just kind of a freak accident. You can ask all of us, if we could stop it, we would. We do everything we can as an athlete to prepare for games and prepare for preventing injuries and stuff like that, but when you plant funny, it just happens. Nothing you can really prepare for.”
Every injury, every body, every operation is different. But the trio realized that they shared some of the same experiences, were facing many of the same challenges and dealing with similar emotions, and they began to bond during the long, tedious hours together at Houston Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Houston Sports Park, where the Dash and Dynamo train. Not forgetting the fourth member of the Crew, Dash defender Lauren Sesselmann, who tore her ACL on international duty with Canada in preseason and spent the summer rehabbing in Houston. The Crew will unfortunately add another member after goalkeeper Tally Hall was diagnosed with a ruptured right ACL after the Dynamo's win against Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 29.
“I had torn my ACL I guess five years ago, my other leg. Going into that aspect I kind of knew what to expect as far as rehab and stuff like that,” Sherrod says. “This was a little bit different because I went down and as soon as I went down there was no doubt in my mind. Everybody else was like, maybe something else had happened. But I was in excruciating pain and I knew right away that I wasn’t playing the rest of the season. So that was a little rough, but other than that, these two have really helped me.”
Amateur athletes and regular physical therapy patients also use the facility to rehab. “This lady one day, I think was having a rough day and she had mentioned something like, ‘you guys are so inspiring every day, you’re the first ones to get here and the last ones to leave.' Me personally and I think them too, we’re coming in and we’re all there together, it’s a little crazy and we’re all joking around but it livens up the atmosphere. Because there’s days when you see people in there and they’re just struggling and going through things,” Bock says.
“I will be down and then they’ll walk in and my level just jumps up because it’s like, that’s what a team atmosphere brings. That’s what’s hard, for us to be away from that, but being able to be in here with these guys has just pushed me even harder and we’re all motivated players, we wouldn’t be at this level if we weren’t … but even just the extra spark that it’s given us, given me personally, is huge.”
For Sherrod and Cascio, that sense continues after they leave the gym — they live together. “There have been days where I see him doing something, and he’s five weeks ahead of me so I’d do it five weeks later on,” the striker says. “There’s one instance where we were doing little step-ups and I was doing mine on like a preschool level, and he’s doing his on such a higher thing and we were doing them right next to each other. That was a little bit degrading but other than that it’s been fine. You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy but it happened and so you don’t try to dwell on it, you try to keep going.”
Just a few tantalizing yards from where their teammates practice every day and a fifteen-minute drive from where that effort comes to fruition in front of thousands in East Downtown, the ACL Crew created their own games as they worked out under the capable supervision of the Dynamo and Dash medical staffs. Tasks measured not by goals or points but miles covered, repetitions completed.
“We were in there and just slowly started making competitions on the bike, and we’d be looking, oh, what did you get today, how many miles? And then it started to be a thing, and getting into push-up contests, into everything. It’s been a fun rehab — if you can say rehab is fun,” says Bock.
“We’re always comparing where we’re at, we’re all close. As an athlete we got here for a reason: we’re competitive, we like to work hard. On and off the field, whether it’s who drives the nicest car or whatever, athletes are just competitive and that’s the way it is,” Cascio says.
After training the Dynamo players come inside the building soaked in sweat, feigning envy for their air-conditioned colleagues. For the ACL Crew, being outside in the heat and humidity is a sign of progress. Sherrod hopes to be running in a couple of weeks.
“It makes you appreciate it so much more when you come back. There’ll be days when you’re at practice and it’s just like, ‘oh, I want to go home’. When you get back from an injury you don’t want to go home at all, you want to stay an hour after, if you can. It definitely makes you want to play a whole lot more, gives you a whole different perspective,” he says.
The Dash’s debut campaign is over but Bock has kicked a ball around and been with the squad on matchdays, lending vocal support. “You sit and watch these games and you’re just itching to get back there, especially the more I’m able to do, I’m like, ‘I could do that, I could do that!’ But you’ve got to be patient and go through the process,” she says.
“It’s exciting to say, ‘I’m going to be back out there.' If you don’t have a goal or a dream in mind, you don’t even know each day what you’re working towards in any aspect of life … You envision where you want to be, and that’s what you work towards.”
Here’s a vision: it is opening day 2015, there are 90 minutes on the clock and she has just shown the fans why Waldrum selected her with the first pick in the expansion draft. And she plays as if she has not missed a minute, never mind a season, with body and mind healed through medical expertise, personal dedication and companionship that helped make dark days a little brighter. The ACL Crew’s injuries were terrible misfortunes but at least the timing threw them together. “I think we’ll be back stronger,” says Cascio.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.