Column: Opportunity turns to disaster and a path is sent awry

by Ryan Martin
edited by Katie Davert

In January 2016, Antonio Ayala received an exciting invitation.

A standout for his Maine high school’s soccer team, Ayala was invited to join a travel team for a week in England. “I was really excited to play in England, but we had to raise the money to get there first,” Ayala said. “We had to raise about $1,500-$2,000 which was really tough. We set up a GoFund me page and was eventually able to reach our goal.”

Ayala was committing to Franklin Pierce as an incoming freshman at the time, anxious to try out for the school’s soccer team. “I thought being able to play on the travel team at such a high level of intensity would be a great experience to transition into college level soccer,” Ayala said.

At the end of July, Ayala left for England on a 10-day trip that would put him in a tournament, sight-seeing tours, and training with his travel team. “The experience was amazing. We stayed in the Watford area, it couldn’t have been better.”

On the last day of Ayala’s trip, something went terribly wrong.

His team was playing their final game in the tournament. During the first half, Ayala went for an open ball and cut off an opposing player. He tripped and twisted his knee badly. Ayala fell to the ground, screaming.

Coaches decided that his condition was worse than they thought and brought him to a hospital. “I was still pretty convinced it was just a bad sprain,” Ayala said. The doctors took X-Rays to see that nothing in Ayala’s knee was broken, which was a relief for him. “I called my mom who’s a physical therapist. I explained my condition to her over the phone. She was convinced I had torn my meniscus,” Ayala said.

Ayala was wheelchair-bound as he traveled back to his home in the United States. “I got back on a Sunday, the following Thursday I was scheduled to see an orthopedic surgeon,” Ayala said. “He immediately scheduled me an MRI the same day after

(Photo: Antonio Ayala)

seeing my condition.”

The MRI determined Ayala had not only torn his meniscus, but his ACL and LCL as well. The ACL is the anterior cruciate ligament while the LCL is the lateral collateral ligament. They are two of the four main ligaments in the knee and crucial to its movement.

Ayala was scheduled for surgery just four days later. He was given the option of using the ligaments from his patellar or his hamstring to create a new ACL for his knee; Ayala chose to use his patellar. This was Ayala’s fifth surgery, as he has undergone surgery for his appendix, jaw, as well as open heart surgery as a newborn.

Ayala’s surgery lasted six hours, not to mention the extra hour and a half spent to save his meniscus. If Ayala lost his meniscus, he would never be able to do anything highly physical again without risking serious pain. The meniscus is what cushions the knee, making running or physical activity possible.

Following the surgery, Ayala was told he would be out of high intense physical activity for eight to ten months. Leaving him with a leg brace, a high dose of painkillers, and feeling discouraged because he it left him not being able to try out for Franklin Pierce’s soccer team in the fall.

“I was extremely disappointed. It was hard to go from a high-level athlete to crutches for such a long time”. Ayala said.

Three weeks following the surgery, Ayala started his freshman year. With limited movement in his leg, Ayala began physical therapy through Performance Health and Fitness in Peterborough New Hampshire.” Driving to Peterborough wasn’t so much of a challenge as it was uncomfortable,” Ayala said. “I still had movement in my right leg so I could drive.”

“It was extremely discouraging starting my freshman year of college and not being able to do anything while watching the FPU soccer team play through their season,” Ayala said. “My friends, family, and therapist all helped to boost my morale.”

Throughout Ayala’s freshman year, he went from seeing his physical therapist every other day to every other week. He is currently eight months into rehab and only sees his physical therapist occasionally. “I’m now running long distances and working towards gaining full mobility of my leg again,” Ayala said.

Being out for so long has made him question whether he has a soccer career. “Playing at a collegiate level again would put me at high risk for re-injury,” Ayala said, “which has led me to believe that maybe my injury was just fate’s work.”

As summer rapidly approaches, Ayala looks to get back into the toned physical shape he was in last year. “I will also be coaching youth teams this summer as well as holding my own soccer camps in order to stay in the game I mentally adore,” Ayala said.

When August rolls around, Ayala will have to make the decision as to whether his body can handle another season of soccer or if it’s time to hang up his cleats.

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