March 17, 2012… what a crazy day. It is St. Patrick’s Day, my dad’s birthday, but most importantly game day. The rush and excitement of game day is indescribable. Do you ever wonder what you think about during a game? I always try to remember but I am so focused and, in the moment, the only thing on my mind is soccer. So of course when I am on a breakaway and see a goalie coming out, I take my shot, not even realizing that the goalie dove right in front of me and I am going to have to leap over her. First ACL tear.
Keep in mind I was twelve when this happened. TWELVE! I had absolutely no clue what an ACL even was. When it happened, I felt pain, but only for about 20 minutes. Then, after the game I went to my friend’s house and went on her trampoline. I didn't just sit on the trampoline though; I was doing flips!! So imagine my face when the doctor told me that this injury was leading up to surgery and then six months of recovery?? After he told me I could not play soccer for that long, I cried for a long… long time.
The tears must stop someday though. After surgery, I was a determined little girl. Physical therapy three times a week, juggling every second I could, worked my way up to passing and sprinting, then at the end of six months I was cleared. The first recovery was not easy. It took a lot of hard work, but I was not letting anything get in the way of getting back to the field. I was also twelve so I had limited things to focus on. I could put all my effort into the recovery and getting back to doing what I love most.
Then, roughly two years after my first surgery, I tear my ACL again. Not the same one but it was my opposite knee. I was told that once you tear one ACL there is a chance of tearing the other, but I seriously never thought it would happen to me. I am sure others who have torn their ACL can vouch that you know the sound of a tear. That pop is unforgettable. My foot landed in a ditch and I heard that awful sound. I am screaming “not again, not again.” Within a couple of days the surgery date is set, and it is time for round two.
This recovery was a little more difficult. I was playing for a new team and struggling to fit in with the style of play. I was just getting into the groove of everything when the tear happened. My coach was really noticing a change in my play and even calling me a leader. Not to mention I missed my freshman year of high school soccer, and now I was going to miss my sophomore year as well.
People started to change their opinions about me playing soccer. Suddenly, I was hearing that I would never play soccer again, I should just quit now, I am ruining my body if I return to play. I tried not to listen, but when a 14-year-old hears those rumors, some stick in the back of your head. I did my best to forget about them and carry on with the recovery. Same process, physical therapy three times a week, getting cleared at six months. Nothing else I was thinking about... well besides grades, high school shenanigans, oh and this thing called college.
I used what everyone said about me to motivate myself to prove I will still be the player I know I am. I had my hard days, but I just had to remember that it was only one day. Having one bad day is perfectly fine during recovery, but when that day is over, getting back into the mindset of being unstoppable is the only way to keep going forward. You cannot let one day depict your six months of recovery. The recovery was not hard, but proving to everyone that I belong back on the field after the six months, that was a challenge. People gave up on me before I even had a chance to prove myself. I was not starting, I barely played half of a game, and when I was in my teammates did not trust me. I knew it was only going to take one great moment in a game for me to show everyone what I can do.
State cup finals. It goes down as one of my favorite days. I already thought that I was not going to play that much so I knew when I was playing, I had to make it count. Someone passes a through ball to my side, right outside the box I hit top bins. Everyone goes crazy, my team runs to me and jumps on me. I scored my first goal since surgery, and I could not have been happier for when and where it happened. I did not hear another comment after that.
End of my sophomore year of high school. I am at a captain’s practice for the high school season starting in fall, during the practice I remember saying how excited I was to finally play with everyone. I missed my first two seasons, so I had to take advantage of my last seasons of high school. We were scrimmaging, and I went to do a cutback, but my cleat got stuck in the turf, as I went to cut my foot did not pivot with my body so that caused my first ACL reconstruction to tear again. Worst. Feeling. Ever.
I am 15 with three ACL tears under my belt. Each recovery getting more difficult. I am fifteen and I am being told that I must give up what I have built my life around. I did not see that as an option. I knew what it was like getting back to soccer during the second recovery and finding the motivation to keep going was slowly dimming. But I realized that the comments were a small price to pay in order to get another minute on the field.
I took more time with this recovery. I got cleared at eight months, and it was the smarter option. Patience is not my thing, but I did not want to tear my ACL ever again, so I took my time. During those eight months though, I had a lot of time to think. I have missed three years of high school soccer, every big showcase my team went to, and my chances of getting into my top school were shut down. I thought about if playing was even worth it anymore.
My teammates were committing to schools left and right. I was a grade above most of the players on my team and still had no plans after high school. I was so embarrassed, but I kept pushing myself and reaching out to other coaches. Just when I started to see some positives and hear back from schools, I ended up tearing my meniscus at a practice. Nothing major surgery wise, but it took a huge toll on me mentally.
Senior year starts and I decide to play one last season of soccer. I could not resist; I did not play all the other years and I just wanted to experience one year of it with my closest friends. My team was not the most talented but the girls on my the team were one of a kind. I played about five games in my senior year but ended up getting hurt in a game leading to partly tearing my ACL. I did not need surgery, but I did need to sit out a while and let it heal so my season was cut short. I enjoyed playing but I told myself if I did not make it through that season, it was time to hang up the cleats. When the season ended, that was it, I was done. So I thought.
My best friend was going to our community college once a week for open gym soccer. She knew I was missing the sport and asked me if I wanted to go just to get touches on the ball again. How harmful could it be, right? Playing again reminded me of how much I loved the sport and showed me how much I missed it. It brought a new kind of joy into my life.
The women’s coach was at the practice and he talked to me a couple of times asking me to play. I explained that I could not due to my injuries. I was so tempted to just say yes and see how it goes but I knew my parents would kill me. When I have my mind set on something though, I tend to not give up until I get to my goal. That goal was convincing my parents to let me play again; not the easiest but I somehow managed to do it.
2017, five years after my first tear, two years after my third tear. I was ready to put everything behind me and focus on my collegiate soccer career. I was so ready to make it the best two seasons I possibly could. I wanted to make sure that I did not take any second of playing soccer for granted. My goal this season was to make it a memorable one. A season that I could end soccer on. Tearing my ACL was not going to be the last memory of me playing soccer. Too dark.
I played at Sussex County Community College. When I play, I do not think of myself as 'the girl who tore her ACL three times', I am just as normal as everyone else out there. I ached a lot but knew it that was going to happen and that I just had to take care of my body.
I played like I have never played before. I made sure I left everything on the field and did anything I could for my team. We killed it. Making it to the region finals. I remember the week leading up to the finals. I could not believe that I was about to finish a full season of soccer. I needed to buy new cleats because mine were falling apart. I bought my brand-new babies and wore them the same day at practice. I had so much energy at practice and was hyping up anything and anyone. The finals were right around the corner and we were all ready to bring the title home.
We were playing keep-away and I went to do a give and go. As I was doing that my knee just gave out. I do not even remember how it happened exactly because it was so fast, but my heart sank. I was in shock. I could not believe that I possibly just tore my ACL for the fourth time. I kept thinking why me? How could I be so unlucky? Not only did I tear my meniscus at practice but had also torn my ACL. What my doctor told me next was crazy. I played my whole season with a torn ACL. Four months of constant soccer with no ACL! Having soccer three times a day for a month and then every day for three months wore away my ACL. I had one of the best seasons of my life and it had to end right before the region final. I just had to last a couple of days. I felt that I let my team and coaches down. More importantly I let myself down.
I scheduled my surgery as soon as I could. I planned out all the math in my head. Get surgery in November, recover nine months, bringing me to August, which means pre-season. I know, I am crazy for still thinking about soccer. It was perfect though. I was ready to do it. This time I had a team that was supporting me more than ever and would help me with anything. I had coaches that believed in me and knew my worth on the soccer field. I still had the negative comments from people here and there, but I also had more positive comments and people telling me that they know I have the strength to get back to the game.
This surgery had a little hiccup though. By little I really mean huge. All together I recovered for 15 months this time around.
I missed my second season at Sussex. I missed PLAYING it. I still showed up to every practice, every game, and every other meeting we had. I wanted to be the motivation for the team to keep going and keep pushing. At times I questioned if I was even doing anything for the team, I thought I was just taking up space. My coaches reassured me that I am making a difference. I always thought that I had to play in order to make a difference on a team. I learned that I am capable of being a lot more than just a player on the field. It is just as important to be a leader on the field as it is to be a leader off the field.
I decided to stay an extra semester at Sussex so I can play another season. They became my family and I was not ready to move on. I was also not ready to end soccer…shocker. My last season at Sussex was one for the books. We dominated. More importantly we finally got that region win. I made all-region and all-conference teams, I was captain, and I finished the season without any kind of tears. Then, I committed to a four-year university. William Paterson University of New Jersey, the next chapter in my life.
To this day I still have some people question me, but I have earned a lot of respect from people. They see my determination and understand that I will go through any barrier I have to in order to get to my end goal. If you really want something, do not let an outsider voice in.
The main question I get is why? Why do I continue to play soccer and put my body through all this pain? I felt like it was more painful to lower my standards for everyone else’s sake and give up soccer. My friend told me this quote during one of my many recoveries, “don’t fear failure, but be terrified of regret.” That has stuck with me for so long because it is exactly how I would feel. Failure sets you up for life, but it is how you respond to failure that sets you up for success. My why is because I refuse to let the negative minds win. I refuse to give up on myself. When you think you cannot do it anymore, think about your why. Think about your drive and you will keep going. That is what kept me going and because of this I am better than ever playing the sport that I love and as healthy as I can be.
Author: Brelyn Cusano