A Dream Derailed, But Never Lost
Sept. 24, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
On Aug. 8, 2007, a group of Maryland men's soccer players got together for a 7-on-7 pickup game in the days leading up to the official start of preseason. Two years removed from the 2005 national championship run but primed with talent groomed through 2006, a feeling of optimism blew through College Park.
In their midst was a redshirt sophomore, Kevin Tangney, who had found his way onto the field after an entire season off of it. Tangney had missed all of 2006 with an ACL tear, suffered while in France for a regional team competition. But he'd rehabbed and thought, in some ways, he was better than before. Stronger. Faster.
He was the second generation of Terps in his family, after his mom, Joanne, came before him -- he was a kid, who, in the words of coach Sasho Cirovski, "breathes Maryland." When Tangney first visited College Park in 2004, he committed on the spot.
And now he ran on a field just 20 yards from his mom's old dorm with a dozen of his best friends, feeling the grass buckle beneath his feet and moving, circling, gliding along the pitch in a way he hadn't since before his leg first failed him in June of 2006.
Then, just four days before his first preseason since shredding the central fibers in his left knee, he planted to make a cut in open space and fell to the ground.
His teammates stopped. It was probably just a twist, maybe a sprain, they told him. But Tangney knew. In June of 2006, he'd told himself the feeling was just a tweak. Something he could jog off. This time, everything rushed back. Déjà vu of the most brutal kind.
"As soon as it happened, I knew the feeling," he said. "I knew the sound and I knew know my season was done. It was almost a year and a month to the day from when it first happened. Like someone just pulled a switch."
"We couldn't believe it was happening," said Maryland teammate Kwame Darko, a teammate and friend of Tangney's since the two were 13 years old. "We thought he just got hurt, and he went down it took him a long while to get up. And when he did he was like 'I did it again.' Our jaws dropped."
And as he hobbled off the field, he knew that after 14 months of working a crippled left knee back into function, his second season was over. And with that, he thought, went his dreams.
Sasho Cirovski, the men's soccer coach at Maryland, likes to ask a trivia question when he talks about the captain of his 2009 defending national champion team.
"Who's the only Maryland player to have been healthy in the last two national championship runs?" he said.
The answer is Kevin Tangney.
"Those two years he was injured we didn't even make it to the College Cup."
Rarely has Tangney been healthy.
He saw time, a good amount of it even, as a defender in his freshman year in 2005. Picked up two starts. Played a chunk in the Terps' national-championship win over New Mexico. Then, for two years, when he should have been capitalizing on a freshman year in which he took his first real strides toward his ultimate goal - his only real goal, he said - of playing pro ball, he didn't play a second of soccer.
In 2008, Tangney played behind a starting defensive corps that had crystallized into one of the more formidable ones in the country in his absence, seeing only one start.
It wasn't until 2009, as a redshirt senior with only three starts to his credit through three years, that he's become a staple on the back line. But this is a story that happens off the field. It happens in dorm rooms and weight rooms, it happens in classrooms and in rooms miles away from campus, in family kitchens and in operating rooms.
And because Kevin Tangney refused to let this be a story in only two acts, it's a happy story. One that ends with him captaining the defending national champs, alongside redshirt junior Jason Herrick - a forward who put up 12 points in '08 after also sitting out the '07 season due to injury.
"He stuck with it, which allows him the right to be captain, which is rare, because this is a guy who's been out for two years," Cirovski said. "He was a part-time player his freshman year, and suddenly goes from that to being captain of the team. He's got unquestionable respect among all the players."
"I don't know what my identity would be like as a Maryland soccer player without him around," Darko said.
Tangney's is a story that untangles itself at the shadow-border between triumph and absolute collapse. And one that writes itself in bursts, brief and loud and punctuating, like the tearing of ligament itself. Like the uprooting of a life. And, more importantly, like its eventual rise.
When Padraig Tangney, then a senior captain at Northeastern, got a call from his brother in August of 2007, he jumped on the first train from Boston to Washington.
"I could just hear it in his voice how upset he was," Tagney said about his younger brother. "He didn't know he tore it at that point but I could tell he knew something was wrong. In the back of my mind I knew he would need his family down there so I never really hesitated."
When he got there, he found a brother in crisis and a team in shock.
"For about two days it was like a morgue, like somebody had died," Cirovski said. "I'm not diminishing death, but on a relative scale, it was one of the sadder days in our locker room.
"It was like the air was out of the entire team," he continued. "It was devastating because he's so well-respected and well-liked on the team. No one would've faulted him if he packed it up and said 'I'm just gonna be a student."
Kevin, meanwhile, sat in his apartment. He put on his hard-worn face of normality, the one he'd wear for the next year, to veil the unrest and confusion inside.
"At that point, I'd never seen him that down," Padraig said. "To date that was the hardest thing he's ever had to go through."
"It was a major blow to me psychologically," Kevin Tagney said. "I was in shock when I did it again. I started questioning why - why does it happen to you."
Inside the locker room, the coaches and players scrambled to get across to Tangney that it would be ok. That he would still be part of the team, on the field or not. That, even after a year of daily workouts and the constant cracking of scar tissue, he'd be back after still another one.
"This was so traumatic that we literally almost had a suicide watch," Cirovski said. "He was about as low as you can be."
Joanne Tangney didn't know right away. She'd been at a Phillies game, just about 45 minutes from the Tangneys' home in Newtown, Penn., with her husband, Patrick. On the way home, she turned her cell phone on.
"We got a call from [Padraig], that he was on a train," Joanne said. "He said, 'I just got a call from Kevin, and they think he tore his other ACL.'"
The diagnosis came a few days later. Torn. As complete as the one in 2006, just without taking a chunk of the MCL with it, as the first one did. A complete tear - a Grade 3, as opposed to the less-severe Grade 1 or 2 tears, where part of the ligament remains - in effect collapses the central bridge connecting the upper and lower legs.
The first time, it happened to the left knee. This time, the right one fell.
All his life, Tangney said, he had one goal: to play professional soccer. Now, he'd watch another season - one in which he could have been something - from the sidelines. If at all.
That weekend, Kevin left for home.
Joanne Tangney felt helpless.
Her son came back to Newtown unsure of his future and seething with a rage directed everywhere and at the same time, nowhere.
"It was heartbreaking," she said. "You wish it could've been your knees. Certainly my husband had said that same thing - if you could take the pain from him you would. But that's not possible. And to see your almost-grown son crying, not because of the pain, but for what this means to [him] as a player, as an athlete - 'Will I ever get back?' - it's just heart-wrenching."
"I was just pissed off," Tangney said. "I was trying to figure stuff out, and they understood what I was going through. ... I worked so hard with the surgery and it was another setback, and I wanted to get my head around the situation and try to come back to College Park in the right frame of mind. I didn't want to be a guy really depressed and moping around. I didn't want anybody to have any pity for me."
When the saga started in France, with Tangney as fit as he's ever been, ready to play for starting spot on a team itching to defend its first national title since 1968, he counted it as a setback. It was a pop in the knee, something unavoidable and something he'd seen people at all levels come back from.
He had the surgery in 2006 on a Thursday. By Monday, he was back on campus, rehabbing.
"It was always in my head that I'd be back for [the 2007] season," he said.
But this time around, all he saw was a year of his life washed away and his life's goal receding.
"After the second time, you definitely go into a little state of depression," he said. "You think back and you're like 'I worked so hard to come back the first time.' You're like, 'I don't' want to go through this again.'"
Joanne's a licensed psychotherapist. But, she said, she always tried not to "blur the lines." To separate home and work, no matter how much one could affect the other.
She tried to tell him that in one year, this will be over - that, "this, too, will pass," she said. But in Kevin she saw something she'd seen often in her patients.
"I can't say it was clinical depression, but it was a situational," she said. "It was just flat affect, and communication was limited."
In the days before he went back to campus, he considered quitting, he said.
"One of his comments I remember is 'I had all these dreams and goals and I went to Maryland and accomplished none of them,'" Joanne said.
But, in large part because he'd never known anything but soccer, he got the surgery. And the cycle repeated.
Kevin Tangney returned to campus, again, the Monday after surgery in 2007.
The Tangneys credit the constant support from each other and the Maryland team for pushing Kevin to endure another year off the field, but still on the roster. Not only did he have his coaches telling him to keep going, he traveled with the team, too. He couldn't isolate himself, no matter how painful. Nobody would let him.
Tangney also credits Dr. James Dreese, of the University of Maryland Orthopedic Surgeons, who performed both of his surgeries, with giving him the confidence to test the joint again. Taking the patella tendon from the injured knees, Dreese wove the tendon from bone to bone, creating a replacement ligament that, he said, would be stronger than the originals.
"[Dreese] said 'You may have done it once, but once you get this surgery, you won't do it again, because my ACL's don't tear,'" Tangney said.
But what Kevin Tangney gained during the second year off wasn't a stronger ligament or, in the end, a quicker step. He did exactly what investors suggest to do to avoid a crash: diversify.
"One of the first things that when through my head, when it happened, is 'Maybe I'll never play again," he said. "I was just thinking, 'What else am I gonna do?'"
"Looking back, that was a huge deal for me," he said. "I was just thinking soccer, soccer, soccer, trying to get to the next level. And when you get hurt, you better be able to do something else - this isn't gonna last forever."
As he worked daily to coax his knee back into form, going through a rehab that seemed to take longer and hurt more than the one before it, he poured himself into books. It offered an outlet from the pain in the trainer's room and the deeper one he experienced from watching his team play on the field, he said.
His grades boomed, blowing past 3.0. He started to hit the Dean's List over and over again, earning entry into Maryland's prestigious Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Suddenly, he was more than a soccer player. He was a promising student. He was also, Cirovski and Darko said, a leader from the sidelines. He grew, in other words, into a man.
"I think the biggest thing I realized is I'm definitely a fighter and I won't give up just because it's not the brightest time," he said.
"I heard a lot of stories about how people don't come back from a second knee surgery," he continued. "And I was kind of like [screw] that - I'm not gonna be that guy."
He returned to the field in the spring of 2008. By fall, he'd made himself way into a stopper off the bench and a late fixture during the Terps' Tournament run in the fall.
When Maryland beat North Carolina in the national championship in 2008, Kevin Tangney was on the field.
"It felt kind of felt unreal," he said. "I never thought I'd be in that situation again. Being able to be on the field at the end of not only the national championship but the ACC championship - it was satisfying and very surreal."
Joanne and Patrick were there. And for the first time, Joanne said, she let herself go. She hadn't cried when Kevin came back to Newtown. Hadn't wavered when he considered what life would be like without soccer. She and Patrick both agreed that they had to be supportive, and not let Kevin worry about them.
But when she saw her son, jumping in the air and piling on his teammates on two knees that somehow still work, she broke down.
"That was the first time I got choked up," she said. "I immediately called my dad, who's been following my kids through their careers, back at home in PA and he was crying. It was a phenomenal moment."
On Friday, they'll see their son lead a Maryland defense that's allowed only four goals in six games this year take on the same North Carolina team it met in the finals last year.
And it's not as if he's in there for moral support. Tangney's back, Cirovski said.
"This is the best he's looked, even after the first [injury]," Cirovski said."
"There are times when I forgot what Tags looked like on the soccer field," Darko said. "He's a great player, a great influence on the team."
The right knee still hurts him from time to time. But he's back - he even scored the first goal of his career in the Terps' win over Boston College on Sept. 11, 2009.
"[Playing soccer] is just something I've always wanted to do since I was five," Tangney said. "When it's taken away from you, it makes you want to get out there and be what you were.
"That's the feeling I have every day - that this could be the last game," he said. "I put everything into it, and every game I try to improve. But one day it won't be there anymore. But if I put it all out there I won't have any regrets about my career."