Things happen to all of us, regardless of our plans, our dreams, and our hopes. Some might say that suffering is what proves us as people, but for most of us it just ends up becoming part of life. It doesn’t make sense, but it happens and we’re forced to deal with it.
When U.S. international Tab Ramos stepped on the field against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup, he didn’t expect to have his skull fractured by an elbow, but he also didn’t let that moment define him. As Ramos explained it, “I don’t think he meant to hurt me. I have no ill feelings. Whatever happens on the field happens on the field.”
Most pro athletes would agree with Ramos, you take a risk each time you step on the field, not to mention the problems that most players face pushing themselves physically season after season. Doctor visits become part of the routine, but even that doesn’t prepare you for serious injury.
After multiple surgeries to repair his ankle, U.S. international Brian Maisonneuve’s doctors told him his goal should be recovering enough so he might walk normally, not returning to the field.
“When you have doctors telling you that you may not ever play again, it is a very scary situation,” said Maisonneuve. “The whole process is frightening. Any time you grow up playing a game that you love and that’s taken away from you, it’s difficult.”
Even an injury with a set recovery time can change a player, like Chris Armas’s ACL injury just weeks before the start of the 2002 World Cup. Forced to stay in the United States while his teammates went to Korea for one of the greatest experiences of their lives, Chris says he had to refocus.
“I had to dig deep and find out who I was during that time. I also learned a lot about how important my family and friends are to me. During those months, I found out how incredible my wife is, how incredible my family and friends are. This injury was more than just a knee injury. This was a life’s dream that I had to put aside. It was definitely bittersweet watching the games, but I was so proud of the team. I still felt a part of everything.”
Brian McBride suffered through two facial reconstructions before discovering he had a life-threatening blood clot. After surgery he returned to the game, realizing how easily it could all be taken away and responding by playing some of the best soccer of his career for club and country.
Then there are the potential problems that stop people from even exploring some careers, especially ones that involve the kind of public scrutiny of an elite professional athlete. United States National Team Goalkeeper Tim Howard lives with Tourette Syndrome, a condition that yields symptoms that are tough to hide and would open anyone up to the kind of petty mocking that discourages even the bravest among us. That Howard has seen this sort of thing played out in newspaper headlines did not stop him, but instead increased his commitment to those who share his condition.
“I consider myself a great example of why this condition should not hold anyone back from anything they want to accomplish,” said Howard. And I’d love to be able to pass that message on to children who might need some inspiring.”
But more often than not, children have a way of showing us who the real heroes actually are, dealing with the worst life has to offer in ways that would make heroes out of all of us. It is to help children and others who must face the challenges of leukemia, lymphoma, and other blood-related cancers that first led the US National Team Players to make the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society their official national charity. And, through the players’ association with the Society, with leukemia and lymphoma survivors, and with the families of people with leukemia and lymphoma, the players are constantly reminded that there are true heroes among us. It’s a lesson that was emphasized when Peggy Alea wrote to the players about her son, Jackson.
In 1998, when Jackson was 17 months old, the doctors here at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital diagnosed him with leukemia (ALL). The doctors set up his treatment of chemotherapy for three years and two months, which included visits to the clinic at least once a week and often more. All in all, though, Jackson did amazingly well. I remember one day during a particularly rough round of chemo, Jackson, his two brothers Alex and Jacob, and I were outside playing freeze tag when all of a sudden we heard, “Time out! Time out!” We looked up to see a bald little Jackson run over to the bushes, throw-up a couple of times, then come running back yelling, “Okay, time in!”
That’s Jackson. Now, he’s not perfect mind you. I don’t know how much you know about chemo, but some of the drugs they use are steroids. If you do your math right . . . he was 17 months old when diagnosed and he was on chemo for three years . . . you realize that we went through Jackson being two and three on steroids. Enough said.
Towards the end of Jackson’s chemo we started him in soccer at the YMCA, playing for the Green Giants. Jackson had found his calling. Some people have the athletic drive and Jackson is one of them. He became one of the best players on his team and would get upset sometimes when the games were over because he wanted to keep playing. At the end of the season he had a soccer trophy on the dresser in his room.
Finally we reached the three year and two month mark and were getting ready to start a new phase – no more chemo, with doctor visits farther and farther apart until after five years they would pronounce him cured. But we didn’t get to start that phase. It was during his last clinic visit on chemo that they discovered Jackson had relapsed. It was totally unexpected.
Life changed very quickly. Jackson underwent three incredibly brutal rounds of intense chemo followed by five days of radiation treatment twice a day. For each round of chemo, Jackson and I stayed at Vanderbilt Hospital for about four weeks at a time. It became our home. On November 30, 2001, Jackson received his bone marrow transplant and the waiting began. Because the chemo had suppressed his immune system, we stayed in a milosuppression room to reduce the chance of outside infection. He could look out but he couldn’t go out. He spoke to his brothers through his little window. Every day after the transplant, the doctors would come in and check on Jackson while we were playing bed soccer (a little game we invented). Every day they would tell me to enjoy it because he was going to get very sick, but he never did. He had his problems but he just dealt with them and got on with living and enjoying being a kid.
We got to go home on New Year’s Eve Day. Slowly, but surely, Jackson got stronger and once again the doctor visits got farther and farther apart. In the fall, with the doctor’s permission, we signed Jackson up for soccer again. The first few practices were hard on him because he was much weaker than he had been before. But, true to Jackson, he was tearing up the field in no time.
On Friday, September 27, 2002, we went to see Jackson’s doctor for a regular visit and I received the devastating news that Jackson had relapsed again. We had three options: go home and do nothing and Jackson would die within 10 to 30 days; try experimental chemo; or try another round of heavy chemo. No matter which way we chose, the prospect for long term survival was less than 10% and it was quite possible the chemo would kill him. Jackson understood what had happened and he chose to tell his brothers himself that evening by saying, “Dr. Frangoul says I have to die.”
The next day we took Jackson to his last soccer game. My husband Ray had to explain to Jackson’s coach what had happened and that he wouldn’t be back. Jackson scored two goals that game. Three times during the game, after the whistle had blown to stop play, Jackson stopped where he was and took a knee. He had 90% leukemia in his body and he wasn’t getting enough oxygen from his red blood cells. But all three times he got back up and kept playing. Two days later, Jackson and I moved into Vanderbilt for another round of chemo. He got to come home for his sixth birthday party on October 10. He went trick-or-treating on a couple of floors in the hospital on Halloween. And on November 1, 2002, at 9:30 p.m., Jackson died in my arms. Jackson was buried in his soccer uniform holding his trophy.
Jackson fell in love with soccer while he was going through treatment for leukemia, and he never let any of those trials dampen his enthusiasm for playing. Even when he learned that the doctors couldn’t help him any more, that he was running out of time, he wanted to go out and play soccer. It seems to me that players in the Soccer Association will be able to understand this. Jackson would have liked to be one of them.
The US National Soccer Team Players are honored to extend full membership in the USNSTPA to our teammate, Jackson Alea.