August 24, 2009

The Long Road Back

Aug. 24, 2009

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -

For the fans of the Cal State Northridge Men's Soccer team, the countdown to the 2009 season-opening exhibition game against UNLV has already begun. But for one individual, that same day will serve as the culmination of a year-long challenge to return to the pitch and compete for Head Coach Terry Davila and his team. 

For Matador midfielder Rafael Garcia, that day cannot arrive fast enough. 

It was the first game of the 2008 season when Garcia initially took to the field in hopes of helping his team secure their first victory of the season; a campaign filled with title hopes and championship aspirations. 

Unfortunately for everyone involved, those goals took a serious beating once Garcia fell to the turf and struggled to get back to his feet. 

"I was running after a guy who made a sharp cut towards me," stated the midfielder. "I planted and put my weight all on that leg; I guess my hamstring was not able to support it since my foot got caught on the grass shifting my knee out of place." 

Not even half-way through their first game of the season, the Matadors had lost one of their top scorers from the 2007 season to a non-contact injury. In an instant, the 2007 All-Big West Conference Second Team honoree saw his season come to a premature end. 

"The feeling was scary because I knew that my season was done. I knew right away, there was no question about it. I have felt pain, but never to that degree in my life. When I was on the ground feeling the pain, I knew that my season was done." 

The game was not the only thing the Matadors lost that fateful afternoon as another player, in addition to Garcia, suffered a season-ending injury of his own in the first minutes of the game. As quickly as the season started, the Matadors had found themselves in a disastrous situation. Days later, the team would learn the true extent of Garcia's injury. 

In addition to a complete tear of his ACL, a partial tear of the lateral meniscus also took place. One doctor even went as far as informing Garcia that the collective damage looked `like a bomb went off' in his knee. 

Coming off a state championship-winning season with the soccer team at Canoga Park High School, Garcia possessed the raw skills and talent needed to compete at the Division-I level. 

Fresh from a 24-0-1 record, All-Area Player of the Year and Sunset Six League MVP honors, everyone on the CSUN soccer team knew Garcia was destined to succeed against some of the best collegiate players in the nation. And in his first full season, he did not disappoint.

Having started in 14 of the 17 games he played in, Garcia quickly gained the respect and attention of other coaches within the Big West Conference. During his freshman season, he finished with six points on two assists and two goals, both game-winning shots.

"Looking back at my freshman year, I thought I adapted to the game pretty well," said Garcia. "I think the coaching staff really gave me the confidence to step up and jump into the college game. I think I adjusted pretty well and did a good job in figuring out my role on the team up until the time I was injured."

For his efforts in 2007, Garcia was one of three Matadors to receive All-Big West honors, recognition that proved to Garcia that he could compete and succeed in the collegiate environment during his four years at Northridge.

"I felt really good leading up to the start of the 2008 season and was motivated to work hard. During my freshman year we did not have the kind of season that we were hoping. Everyone was really motivated and ready to kick off the season."

With a potent combination of established veterans, and a talented recruiting class that paid dividends on the field in 2007, the 2008 season was seen as the `breakout year' for Matador soccer - an effort that Garcia was a key component of.

Athletes expect to receive their fair share of soreness, pain, and an occasional injury as compensation for competing against their competitive peers. Nicks, cuts, bruises, and tweaks are seen as mere speed bumps on the road towards a championship season, but an experience like the one Garcia faced that afternoon against Georgetown was one that no individual would like to become a part of.

 "It didn't really hit me up until the morning of my surgery. I was in denial saying to myself, `there's no way this is happening to me. These things cannot be happening.' Throughout my whole experience I knew I needed to keep a positive attitude instead of being mad or disappointed if I wanted to come back better than before."

September 11, 2008.

Of all the dates that take place each and every year, there are a very few that leave an indelible mark on the minds and psyche of Americans nationwide. As television stations broadcasted various images of memorials taking place across the country, Garcia was just another member of the viewing public - albeit one who was watching everything unfold in front of him from a hospital bed instead of the comforts of home.

"Talk about a heavy day, I'll never forget that day, ever." 

What turned out to become a day more emotion-filled that he could ever imagine, Garcia's hospital stay turned out to have a positive ending when he found out that his surgery was a success, with a full recovery expected by his physicians. 

After being released from the hospital, he then had to stay off his feet for an entire week to rest, recover from his surgery, and prepare for the upcoming months of rehabilitation. Due to all the events taking place around him, Garcia would be unable to attend any of his classes that semester; a situation that all of his coaches and professors thought would be the wisest decision given his circumstances. 

Even though Garcia took a leave of absence, he would still frequent the campus, as his rehab was scheduled take place at the Cal State Northridge Athletic Training facility. 

"The beginning was the most painful part of the recovery process. I would scream or need to bite on something to help deal with the pain during the initial weeks of my rehab every time I tried to bed my knee." 

Head Athletic Trainer Steve Grech, Assistant Athletic Trainer Erick Buitrago, and Garcia were focused their efforts on strengthening the midfielder's hamstrings, regaining his extension, and range of motion in an attempt to enable Garcia to begin walking without a discernable limp. 

"In the early stages I had my bad days and was frustrated at the lack of mobility and extension. The pain, the soreness, the frustration, all combined made me ask on occasion if this was worth it. But at the end of the day I knew this is what I wanted because soccer is my life." 

As grueling as his rehab was, it paled in comparison to what Garcia was about to experience during the upcoming months as his team continued with their season. 

"To me, being on the sidelines was possibly the most difficult thing that I have ever had to do as a competitor," shared Garcia. "My attitude is that I love to compete, I love my team, and for me not being able to help them on the field was so hard to take."

As the Matadors continued to climb the standings, an interesting dichotomy began to unfold.

Garcia was not the only student-athlete injured in that first game of the season; also suffering a torn ACL in the same half was forward Devin Deldo.

Teammates on the field and roommates off, the duo would challenge one another to reach their goals in an effort to shorten each other's rehabilitation process as much as possible. 

"He (Deldo) had his surgery the day before I did since his injury took place in the same game as mine. I told Devin that I was not glad that he got hurt, but was glad that I had someone I trust to go through the process with." 

During their rehab, the two would do whatever they could to positively influence their team. Often found assisting the coaching staff during their practices, both Deldo and Garcia could be found on the Matadors' bench anxiously cheering on their teammates during each and every home game. 

"Devin and I will always have a special bond that I may not have with others on the team, but the great thing about this group is that everyone has a special bond with each other. We have a bond as a family, never want to leave anyone out, and want to include everyone because that is how tight this group is as a collective unit." 

In addition to the coaching staff, teammates, and one another, Garcia felt blessed to have an extensive support group available at all times. 

"My support system came from anywhere where I knew someone. Obviously it starts with family, my mom and dad have been great with me. I owe a lot to them. My sisters were great, my roommates have been incredible, and they all have been there for anything I needed." 

Even though Garcia kept quiet about his situation ever since he sustained his injury, word still traveled quickly within the soccer community. Friends who competed on soccer teams from other colleges and universities across the nation even took the time to display their support, show their respect, and encourage Gomez throughout his rehab. 

"It made me feel good knowing that so many people cared, it was a great feeling. At times I felt frustrated, but when you have people who are close to you, encouraging you, and reminding you that everything will be ok, it meant a lot to me. When people say those things, it may not have meant a lot to them, but it meant the world to me.

This was a whole new experience that I have never gone through before. (Current teammate) Moy Gomez had gone through this process when he injured his ACL and told me to just work hard each and every day, and do what the trainers asked me to do. My high school coach was great as well. When he was coaching my senior year, he tore his ACL as well. He was the first person who I saw struggle through a rehab process like this one. He even called me before I had a chance to let him know what was going on." 

Having competed on various teams, in various leagues non-stop since the age of four, Garcia initially found it difficult to adjust to his life off the pitch. 

"I have never taken a break from soccer that lasted longer than a month. During my free time, I watched a lot of movies and spent a lot of time with my family who live close by. Seeing my nephews, nieces, and parents on a more frequent basis was the best thing about the whole process."

Within a short amount of time, the Canoga Park native was able to share a great deal of positive news with his family and friends as he was starting to reach some of the goals initially set during his time in the hospital.

"When I got my extension and range of motion back that was definitely a moment that excited me."

In combination with various calf and hamstring stretches and exercises, Garcia was able to begin working out on an exercise bicycle shortly before the new year in an attempt to strengthen the muscles needed to prevent such an injury from taking place again in the future.

A typical rehabilitation of an ACL injury ranges anywhere from 6-9 months, but doe to the dedication and work ethic exhibited by Garcia with the Northridge training staff, he was able to start jogging in early February.

"When I received my brace and was able to begin running, that was by far the most encouraging step of my rehab."

Still unable to work on his lateral movement at that time, Garcia was now able to work on his conditioning in an effort to re-establish the muscle memory lost during the initial stages of his recovery.

The midfielder was still given strict orders not to do anything with a soccer ball, a request he was able to abide by for only a short amount of time as the temptation was too strong a force to deal with once he received his brace.

"I would make sure nobody saw me kick or touch the ball. I would walk around the living room touching the ball. Now I can juggle. Back in February, I was very worried about running with the ball or kicking it very hard. Soccer has been a big part of my life, and when I first started touching the ball again it was a relief." 

What was once a guilty pleasure has now evolved into one facet of a strict routine designed to mold Garcia into playing shape by the time the 2009 season begins.

"The coaching staff, the department staff, and my teammates makes this a great place to play and compete. This team means everything to me."

 

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