July 1, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Emily Ball won’t be able to play soccer for South Carolina this fall. That’s something the rising senior has had to hear throughout her collegiate career. An unfortunate string of injuries has derailed a once promising career for the much-heralded goalkeeper from Tampa, Florida, but she hasn’t lost her determination and spirit and will remain with the team to help train the goalkeepers this fall.
“I had a streak of bad luck, I guess you could call it,” Ball said. “I really had to do what was best for my body, and that’s not always what you really want to do. They weren’t really normal injuries.”
Ball received a medical exemption due to those injuries, which allows her to be part of the team and keep her scholarship without being able to participate as a player. The bad luck began with chronic stress fractures in her tibia, causing her to miss her first two seasons. Playing behind All-American goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo, Ball had an opportunity to help the team last year when D’Angelo went down with an injury late in the season. Ball’s misfortune would continue in practice before the next game day arrived.
“I kept taking time off and tried to heal,” Ball said. “I had surgeries on both legs to try to fix it, and then after I came back from that, I broke my leg at practice. It was very strange because I was weirdly calm when it happened. I think I surrendered a little bit.”
With D’Angelo graduating this past spring, Ball may have finally had her opportunity to shine, but her body was sending other signals. She consulted with doctors and coaches on what her options would be.
“I talked to the doctors about what would be best for my body,” Ball said. “To play, I’d have to have another surgery, and there was still no guarantee with the way my body would heal. It was really hard.”
Despite the injuries, Ball has the respect of her coaches and teammates and received the Teammate of the Year Award this past year.
“She has to think about being healthy for the rest of her life,” said head coach Shelley Smith. “She has been an inspiration to other players. When things get hard, they look at Emily and know that she would be dying to be in their shoes and be on the field. To be this young and not be able to perform like you have all of your life is hard. She has never been a negative person in the program or brought any of her problems to the locker room. She has just always been there to support everybody. Not many people could have handled it as well as she has.”
Having played soccer since she was four years old, the reality of not playing was mixed with acceptance and frustration.
“I’m still working toward more acceptance sort of feelings,” Ball admitted. “I had a little bit of frustration because I had tried to push and push. Since then it’s been a very frustrating process. I’ve had a lot of tough decisions.”
Ball isn’t alone in have an athletic career interrupted or cut short prematurely. She has found some solace and inspiration through meetings and friendships with other South Carolina student-athletes who have had their own brushes with misfortune, including former football star Marcus Lattimore, whose NFL career ended before playing in any games after two serious knee injuries, and Karoline Woie from the women’s golf team, who has not competed in each of her first three years at South Carolina after suffering a back injury.
“Karoline and I were in the hospital together at one point, and our recovery was at the same time, so I always saw her in the Roost (Athletics Training facility),” Ball said. “I’ve been really close with Karoline, and it’s really exciting to see her get back to playing.
“Lattimore’s retirement statement came out around the same time I broke my leg. I happened to meet him in the athletic training room at the football stadium when I was doing my rehab. We had a really good conversation. He brings a lot of good perspective. I mean, he was in the NFL and that was his job, but he took a step back to do what was right for his body. He understands. I told him how hard it is to get back to training and everything just hurts all the time, and he understood what that feels like.”
She has been an inspiration to other players. When things get hard, they look at Emily and know that she would be dying to be in their shoes and be on the field.
Ball also found comfort in her association with Fellowship for Christian Athletes a few years back. That’s where she met former women’s basketball student-athlete Shelbretta Ball, who was diagnosed with a heart problem prior to the start of her freshman season which kept her from ever playing again. She would remain a part of the team however, and discovered a role as a videographer/reporter for the program. She would shoot and later edit pieces for the Dawn Staley television show and earned her degree this past May.
“Everything that she worked for was taken away, and she talked about how she dealt with it,” (Emily) Ball recalled. “At the time, I was thinking that I don’t know if I could handle that. It made me see that if other people can handle it, then I can too.”
Ball had also learned a lot from former teammate, Rae Wilson, who had gone through multiple hip surgeries to miss a lot of playing time before returning for her senior year in 2013.
“Once you go through your first surgery, you realize that everything doesn’t always go back to being exactly the same,” Ball said. “It’s been really nice to talk with her about her thought process. She was able to come back for her fifth year and play a little bit. She kind of helped keep me sane when I was going through my injuries. As much as I really wanted to play, it made me realize there is life outside of soccer and sports. When you’re in it, you’re in this bubble and it seems like it’s your whole life. It can consume you. It’s good to have people that can bring you back in to reality and give you a broader view.”
The misfortune of the student-athletes begs the question as to whether she would start a support group for therapeutic purposes.
“We should start meetings,” Ball laughed. “It’s good to talk with someone who has been in your position. No one really knows what goes through your mind unless you’ve been in that same situation. I find it very helpful.”
Hard work has never been an issue, on or off the field as Ball is also an SEC Academic Honor Roll student who is studying biomedical engineering with a minor in chemistry. She is considering graduate school and medical school once she earns her degree and is currently spending her summer in a research program to help her acclimate for the next step in her academic career. She has also expressed excitement about a mission to Nicaragua during spring break. Despite her bad luck on the field, she has no regrets.
“I think it’s natural to play the ‘what if’ game, but that’s a dangerous game,” Ball said. “Every time I’ve played it, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I’m excited about what’s next.”
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