Luca Di Censo
University High School
Instructor: Jim Garrett
Sweat poured all over my face and pain burned throughout my lungs. It was only the first day of high school tryouts and I was already exhausted. I wanted to collapse. My brother was finishing up his last lap of the fitness test (I had already run it) and I was running it with him to try to give him motivation; he was not very fit so he needed it. As everybody screamed, "Rocco! Rocco! Come on, Rocco, you're almost there!" I turned to back-pedal to watch him finish. He had about 15 seconds left to complete his run. I was clapping, trying to motivate him. As I stepped backwards one more time, I felt a divot in the ground. I felt my foot turn inwards and a sharp pain that I had felt before. Not again.
I hobbled on my other leg off the obstacle course of hell and into the grass where I lay by myself. I sat there depressed, distraught because I had just injured myself in the most irrelevant way possible. I rode on the back of the trainer's golf cart up the long and bumpy hill, my right leg lying flat and in pain. I did not say a word. I sat there for the bumpy and awkward ride, with tears that couldn't be any closer to the boundary of my eyes and ready to burst. I knew I was seriously hurt too, because I had broken the other ankle exactly six months prior, and the pain was the exact same. I had to prepare for the recovery and rehabilitation process once again. It was all so negative and dreadful. I was heartbroken.
I have dealt with the eternal battle of the sport of soccer my entire life. I say "battle" and not struggle because I don't want to surround the beautiful game and my favorite sport with negativity. It is not negative; it really is "the beautiful game." I have just happened to encounter so many setbacks while playing. And while I have encountered setbacks, soccer has also given me the happiest moments of my life. That is why I call it a battle because sometimes I win big and sometimes I lose big. Just like all sports, soccer teaches how to react after adversity as well as how to have resilience. But because the better team does not always win the game, knowing how to bounce back in soccer is extra important and ideal.
For most of my life, I have thought of myself as a great player, yet I didn't always feel like one. I have rarely been on a team where I was looked at as the main man. Whether I was as good as I thought or not, it was still painful to realize that I was not treated and respected by my coaches as much as I would have liked. I did have reasons to believe I was good, though, because since I was a kid, I was able to do things that others could not. I was faster than a lot of other players, could score goals, had a great IQ and vision for the game, and despite my lack of size and defensive mindset, was phenomenal with my head. Lastly, I was an amazing dribbler. I loved to dribble. Beating multiple defenders off the dribble was one of the best feelings I could ever have when I was younger. I felt like the king of the world when I would nutmeg a defender.
As I got older, dribbling so much came back to haunt me. My sophomore year, I broke my left ankle in my first winter game. And the game didn't even matter for anything. The only reason I was playing was to get used to the new club team that I was on. I didn't get registered for my regular age group in time, so my coach told me to play in this exhibition game with a different age group just to get back into things. Five minutes into the second half, I found myself on the ground in some of the most physical pain that I have ever felt. It all happened so fast, so I don't truly remember the exact details. But if I had to take a guess, I was dribbling when I probably should have passed the ball. How could something that brought me so much joy as a little kid be the reason that I was in a boot for four weeks and sidelined for over two months? The only positive from this setback was that if I was going to get injured, it was nice to have it happen during the winter and not the school season. There was soon to be a dramatic change.
For the entire month of July and most of August, I was up at 7am every Monday through Friday, training. I had my brace strapped to my left ankle, was out of shape, and had pain in my back. It didn't matter. I needed to get back to work. I was sick and tired of sitting on the sidelines for my school games. There was no reason for it. Since my freshman year, I always considered myself a top-11 player whether the coach agreed with me or not. However, there was no room for excuses anymore. I was a junior, an upperclassman who had also already been on the team for two years. Being benched this year was not an option for me. I was at training every day and then even went to basketball practices and lifting after to get in better shape as well as to get stronger. If I had to be ten times better than the rest of the team to start, then so be it. As the summer came creeping up, I was looking good. I felt good, too. I was playing better than my previous self and other players as well. Other people told me they were proud of me, too. Bouncing back after a broken ankle to look just as good as I did or if not better was a great feeling. I owe my improvement to an amazing trainer. Summer going into junior year I felt alive again. I was performing very well and people started to see it.
As tryouts came up, I was very excited for everybody to see that I was back. I was a new and improved player. I was bigger, stronger, more confident, and I had a better touch as well. That feeling of excitement lasted about an hour. Once again, I was hit by another ankle injury; the other one. Once again, it was heartbreaking.
I was back in the same cast, in same training room, with the same trainer, and the same exercises; only this time, I knew the process. I was more motivated than ever to get back because of the specific year. I was a junior in high school, finally an upperclassman; I would have a more important role. Also, this was the most talented team compared to my previous years. There were high hopes for us to go further into the playoffs than my first two years (and we did eventually). I remember the first time I laced up my cleats (since the second injury.) I was with my trainer, and I had a weighted medicine ball, and just dribbled around. I took the ball and ran off. I was doing stepovers, rollovers, skill-moves, and fancy turns. I felt like I was back; I felt free again. 15 minutes into this exercise and I was exhausted. I was just about to start untying my shoes, when I heard a voice from a distance, "What are you doing?" It was my trainer. I looked up at him puzzled, "Get down there, kid," he said, "you're going to start light practicing today." I was astonished. I did not know today was going to be the day. "I thought it was going to be next week," I said.
"You look ready now," he replied.
I was still shocked. I was excited but nervous still. I ran down the hill, thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong. I had the braces strapped to my ankles so tight that I felt like I was losing circulation. I jumped into the drill feeling awkward, like I was running with anxiety. The moment the ball touched my foot everything changed. I dribbled the ball with confidence and demonstrated myself with poise. I truly found joy with the ball at my foot.
Soccer has given me the privilege of happiness, a sense of pride, and the skill of resilience. My question to myself and even others as well is why can something so amazing to me cause me pain? Both physical and emotional. The amount of stress that I have dealt with because of not feeling appreciated by coaches, the disappointment I have felt because of my limited playtime, the constant injuries that I have dealt with that have held me back, and finally the late-night conversations crying with my dad as a kid. All of these have only pushed me forward as a person. It is almost like soccer and I have dealt with a toxic relationship, and we always find our way back to each other. I need the sport to live and to be happy because it is such a big part of my life. It always will be. I am currently back to playing. I play with two ankle braces and pain in my right foot, but everything is worth it because I cannot stand to miss anymore. I love soccer, and I love myself when I am playing it.