Senior Jessica Parker knows the risks.
One loud pop in her ACL and she’d be completely done with soccer, the sport that she’s been playing for over a decade. One small tear and she’d undergo a third surgery, plus nine more months of recovery right before college. One wrong step and she’d have to live with arthritis in both of her knees.
Still, after walking away from the sport for two years due to previous injuries to her anterior cruciate ligaments, and despite what she’s been told by her dad, her doctors and even herself, Parker is willing to take any risk to play varsity soccer with her teammates one last time.
Soccer is Parker’s everything, and it has been since she played her first five-on-five rec game as a kindergartener.Though she was a part of the state championship golf team and had been working to play golf in college for almost 12 years, she couldn’t get the cheering fans on the sidelines and her grass stained soccer jersey out of her head. When it was taken away from her during her sophomore year, she immediately began counting down the days until her cleats would be back on her feet.
“My life was all sports, all the time,” Parker said. “And when people had to help me walk 10 feet, it felt like everything was changing, I went from playing soccer almost every day to a benchwarmer and a manager instantly.”
In 2013, during her freshman year, Parker heard a pop in her knee. After a series of x-rays she found out that she had torn her left ACL. A year and a half later, during her sophomore season of high school soccer, Parker was defending her opponent when it happened again, another pop in her ACL, it was the same as before, only this time in her right leg.
The first time she tore her ACL, Parker crammed nine months of recovery into six. Her hours spent at soccer practices were now spent trying to gain function of her knee or lying in her bed, hardly able to walk to her kitchen to grab a glass of water. Every day she worked hard at rehab and at home so she could be back in her forward position with her team in time for the following season.
Parker began physical therapy the day after her surgery, trying to bend her knee in a 90 degree angle and re-learning how to walk across the room. At home she would lie down on her wooden kitchen table wincing in pain as her father, Steve Parker, slowly bent her knee forward and to the side. Although her main goal was to get back to soccer as soon as possible, Steve had different ideas and was skeptical about letting her go back to the sport at all. He was just hoping that her knee would heal completely.
Her second recovery was similar to her first incident, but this time, after hearing her parents concerns, she wasn’t rushing to get back to soccer. Parker spent nearly 10 months doing everything she did the first time: stretching, squatting, walking and waiting.
During both of her injuries, her teammates were by her bedside with packages of Oreos and jokes trying to keep her mind off of her knee, hoping that she would return to the team. However, worried that her ACL would tear again, Parker quit soccer for the remainder of her sophomore and junior year. She then shifted her main focus to golf and started contacting college coaches for potential scholarships.
“Golf was a huge part of my recovery,” Parker said. “I started focussing on it more than soccer [the second] time since I wasn’t planning on playing again, and even though I couldn’t rotate on my knee to make a full swing, it really made my short game improve.”
Although Parker was offered a number of scholarships at the end of her senior golf season, the schools weren’t ideal for her, changing her focus back to soccer.
In the months after she quit golf, Parker couldn’t get her mind off of soccer. She couldn’t resist the 11 years worth of celebrating wins with her best friends. Without those friendships, Parker believes she wouldn’t have considered returning to the soccer. However, it was a Christmas present from her parents that she got during her sophomore year that gave her the final push.
“After my second injury, for Christmas my parents gave me this book of my whole soccer career and I literally started crying… so I never looked at it,” Parker said. “Then a few months ago I saw it sitting on this bookshelf and I thought maybe I could look at it now. I got it out and I didn’t cry, it just made me so happy and I knew I really needed this again.”
A few weeks later, about one month before tryouts, her mind was made up. Parker sat down with her mother, Laura Parker, and talked to her about trying out for soccer in February. Knowing that Steve would likely say no to the idea, she started winter conditioning without his knowledge. However, when he eventually found out, the conversation she had been so carefully avoiding became inevitable and she worked hard to convince him that this was something she had to do, whether he liked it or not.
“Every time she gets on that field, every time she goes down, it’s scary, especially as a parent,” Steve said. “I’m still not entirely comfortable with her playing just yet. Ultimately I knew it was going to be her decision in the end and I could see how much she wanted to play for her senior season.”
On the first day of tryouts, Parker was nervous — she could still feel a slight pain in her knee. As she dribbled and shot the ball Parker made sure every move she made was clean and precise to prevent another injury to her ACL.
However, during the fourth week of the season, Parker was scrimmaging the JV team when something felt off. Her knee popped again, not as severe as the past two times, but enough that she still became worried; everything that she worked so hard for could easily turn into nothing.
Parker breathed a sigh of relief when she learned that she had only torn some of her scar tissue. Though she was still unable to practice for a few days, Parker is now focussing more than ever because she knows that at any moment, she could be done with soccer for good.
Going into her final season, Parker has prepared herself for all of the possibilities. She knows that she could hear the sound that she’s come to fear and could once again be at the point she’s been at twice before and the cycle would continue. While she’ll still go into each game holding her breath, this is what she wants to do: spend her last months in high school doing what she loves with the people she loves.
“This is a huge risk what I’m doing, and I know that,” Parker said. “It was keeping me up at night and this is something that I really, really wanted to do more than anything and if it’s something that you love enough, you just have to do it.”