Everything was familiar…….
I sat on that same wooden bench facing the maroon and gold crowd that I knew all too well. The air smelled like sweat, popcorn and rubber-soled shoes. The saucer lights hanging from the rafters poured gold beams onto the floor and the gym was on fire. Ten girls, two hoops, three referees and one leather globe moved together like a dance, and I couldn’t wait for my coach to call on me to join. A whistle blew and I knew it was time.
until it wasn’t…..
I saw the ball in my hands, knew exactly how to execute a perfect cross over dribble around my defender, but I couldn’t feel anything. I tried to bounce it on the hardwood, but it connected with my foot instead and rocketed out of bounds. I had the ball again, but this time it was behind the three-point line facing the basket. I knew every micro-movement necessary to make the ball arch its way through the net without touching the rim, but I couldn’t make it happen. I let the ball fly, but it hardly made it out of my hands before falling to the ground and rolling to the other team. I stared down at my all of a sudden clumsy, numb hands and everyone else stared at me. What was happening? Why couldn’t I play? The questions stacked up in my brain and panic started to crush my chest. Why couldn’t I feel my hands or the ball? Why is this happening to me?
If you ask my parents, they will tell you I was born ready to play basketball. The first thing I pulled myself up on was a basketball hoop, my first word was ball and I took my very first steps in a pair of Nikes. However, as promising as my career looked, I was also born with something that would keep me from my dream.
When I was 12, they told me I had accessory naviculars. The navicular is a boat shaped bone located in the arch of our feet. Everyone has one in each foot, but only a very small percentage of us are lucky enough to grow a few extras. When kids who have them are growing, it can cause pain because the bones rub on each other like a fracture. They told me the best thing to do would be to wear the custom arch supports they had molded for me and to ice and rest after every basketball practice. They also said I would grow out of the pain eventually or the bone would disintegrate and I would be pain free then. Looking back I wish I could scream at that doctor. I know I was just a kid, but I wasn't a baby and my parents weren't incompetent. If there was a chance that the pain wouldn't go away, he shouldn't have lied. This lie was the first of many on my road to losing my dream.
The second lie happend when I was 17. By high school I was playing a lot of basketball, nearly a game every night. I'd play on any team who offered me a spot because that's what all the serious players were doing. I knew I was good enough to play in college, but I always wanted more. I didn't want to be calling coaches, asking if they had a spot for me when I graduated. No, I was determined to have them knocking on my door. The summer before my senior year of high school, I was competing for two different teams and playing four games every Sunday in Milwaukee in a scouting league. I played about seven games a week and I was on fire for every single one of them. I have never been so confident, so sure of myself or my dreams. I knew that if I just took one more tiny step forward, I would run smack into my goal of playing college basketball. But my foot held me back.
I did what the doctors had always told me: play, ice, rest, repeat. None of my efforts seemed to matter though, and my right foot was never pain free. I finally paid the price for my unwillingness to slow down after forcing my foot to play through 21 games in seven days. Heading into the final game of my AAU game with the Wisconsin Swing and game 21 of my streak, I could hardly stand. My parents begged me not to play, but my coach had told me earlier that day that there might be college scouts in the stands. I thought, one more game, especially one so important, wouldn’t kill me, right? Wrong. It took 40 minutes of gimping up and down the court for me to realize for the first time that maybe this isn't worth the pain.
After the final buzzer, I collapsed into a chair and proceeded to untie my laces. When I pulled my right foot out of the shoe, I immediately burst into tears. I had massive bruises and swelling from my ankle down to my toes and the pain was just as bad as it looked. Even the lightest brush of air circulating in the gym sent shooting, unbearable pains straight up my leg and into my heart. I knew this wasn't good for my health or my career, but I couldn't sort out in that moment which pain was more excruciating. My dad carried me out of the gym and right into the doctors office. After hours of waiting, x-rays and long, serious talks with several doctors, they concluded that I had done some major damage and was to play absolutely no more games this summer. In fact, I wouldn't even be walking for the next eight weeks without the help of crutches and a cast. Not only did I have to miss the remainder of my summer season, I wasn't allowed to play volleyball in the fall either. The doctors told me I had fractured my navicular right where it was met with that pesky extra bone. They said they were sorry they had to take volleyball away from me, but if I rested in the fall, I would be good to go for the rest of my basketball career. Lie number two.
I was not a good gimp. I hated my crutches, the boot was clunky and annoying and my high school didn’t have elevators or air conditioning. Hobbling up and down hundreds of steps each day had me so over-heated and grumpy that I frequently chucked all my equipment across the room in frustration. However, the searing memory of my black and blue foot and immobility after that 21st game refused to let me forget that I needed to be diligent with my healing. As outraged on an hourly basis as I was, I was more determined to get back on the court at full speed as soon as I was cleared to play.
Within the first few practices of my senior season, I saw my patience pay off. I wasn’t quite on the same cardiovascular level as the rest of my team, but I hadn’t missed a beat with my skills. My crossover was still flawless and I was draining shots from all over the court. Best of all, my foot was feeling better than it ever had. Not perfect, but certainly better.
I glided through our pre-conference games with countless three pointers, plenty of defensive steals, but very little foot pain. By the time our first official conference game arrived, I had even attracted the attention of the head women’s basketball coach at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The details of that phone call are blurry even today because I was too elated after hearing the words “I want you to come play for me in the fall” to absorb any more information. Thankfully the call was on speakerphone, so my parents filled me in. Yes, the coach did want me to come play for her team, but she couldn’t promise me a starting spot or even ensure that I get all the playing time I want. She told me those details were up to me and would be based on how I finish out my high school career and how I perform once I arrive on campus. Little did she know, those words fueled a very dangerous fire.
I pushed my body and soul to the limits over the next few months, getting to practice early and staying late, shooting hundreds of shots on the weekends when I was supposed to be resting. My parents and friends started to worry about my mental stability. Surely no sane person would keep up the pace that I did, but I couldn’t stop. Any time I was less than perfection on that court, all I could hear was “Not good enough for a starting spot” banging its way through my skull. However, the more I pushed, the more my foot pulled away. I could feel myself running head first down the path I had the previous summer, and I knew the end of the road would be ugly. But I just. couldn’t. stop. I told myself that everything would be alright and it would all be worth it to be called onto the court as part of the starting line-up next fall in Macalester’s gym. Little did I know, that lie would ruin my life.
We didn’t make it to the state tournament my senior year, but I had played well enough to impress Macaester’s coach. She said she saw a very bright future for me in St. Paul and couldn’t wait to make me a part of the team. However, she also knew about my foot problem. It was a little hard to pretend I didn’t have one when I would come limping out of the locker room to talk to her after she had come to see me play on several occasions that season. She, my friends and family, and current coach all agreed that in order to give myself the healthiest start possible in the next chapter of my life, I should explore a surgical fix to my chronic pain.
The surgery was common and uncommon all at once. A very small percentage of people with an accessory navicular bone experience so many problems for so long that surgery is the only solution. However, those who do all undergo the Kidner procedure. The surgery involves detaching the extra bone from the posterior tibial tendon, taking the bone completely out of the foot, and reattaching the tendon to the bone it is supposed to insert into in the first place. According to all the information my doctors gave me prior to the surgery, “Patients will likely need to use crutches after surgery and should be able to resume all physical activity after six weeks.” Lie number four.
I went through with the surgery and for once, was a good patient. I stayed off my foot like I was supposed to, took my meds and when it came time for rehab, I was diligent and efficient. However, 10 weeks after my surgery, when I still couldn’t walk, I experienced the fallout from my insanity during my senior season, and it was worse than I could have ever imagined. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t healing. I still had pain and the doctors didn’t know why, which meant I couldn’t progress into the next stages of rehab. I was stuck just flexing and turning my ankle and foot, and even that was a painful struggle.
Days of just sitting and flexing turned into weeks. Then weeks of walking with crutches turned into months. When I wasn’t strong enough to make a basket from six feet away from the hoop, I knew it was time to make the call. My parents held my hands as we called that Macalester coach and I gave back my dream.
The truth was, this was my fault.
The truth was, I could have prevented it.
The truth was, I didn’t listen to anyone or anything but my own convoluted dreams.
The truth is, I will never forgive myself.
To this day, I am changed for the worse. I am only a fraction of the person I used to be. I sit in the stands at Badger basketball games and feel nothing. As awful as the numbness is, however, its an improvement from the sobbing fits of agony I used to get just by watching them on T.V. It’s thoughts like those that show me how truly destroyed I am. I mean, what kind of person is grateful for numbness?
People say there are stages of grief, and once you’ve go through all of them, you are supposed to come out on the other side feeling okay. But what if you don’t? What happens to those of us who get stuck somewhere along the way? Can anyone blame me? I didn’t just lose out on a dream, I lost out on my life. Working for something your entire life and not getting it is one thing. However, getting it then giving it back is absolutely worse.
I will graduate from the wonderful University of Wisconsin this May. I will walk across that stage with pride for my accomplishments and love for my school. I will hug my friends and family and talk about how bittersweet it is that something so good is coming to an end. However, the entire day, the mere skeleton of the person I used to be will grieve knowing this day could have marked the end of something even more special had my dream not died.
My breathing lurched out of control, faster and faster but it still wasn’t enough. I needed more air. I had to find more air!
Suddenly I shot straight up and looked around my dark room, trying to pull the reigns back in on my breathing. I finally regained some composure just in time for tears sting the corners of my eyes. Even though it was just a dream, what just happened was my reality. I was awake, but the nightmare wasn’t over. It would never be over.