Sports

Fulfilling her purpose: GCSU soccer player overcomes long odds following life-changing car crash

For years, the tree stood strong and tall.

Its roots deep in the soil, its trunk thick and solid, its branches high above her head; Mary Byrne couldn’t forget its distinctions if she tried.

Each time she would travel home, she would pass by it and think about how that tree changed her life. She would think about how things were before and how things would have been different had she not had a chance encounter with it. What if?

It was always a tough question to shake off when she saw it, with the feelings as deep as the roots that kept that very tree standing tall for so many years.

But Byrne and that tree had more in common than she realized when she passed by one day to find nothing was left in its place but a humble stump. Seeing that the strong, mighty tree had fallen was a tough sight to take in. It was always bittersweet passing by it and remembering the events that took place under its watchful gaze, but seeing only a stump in its place does nothing to lessen the intensity of those memories or the impact that it had on her life.

Like Byrne, it, too, had fulfilled its purpose.

TWO YEARS EARLIER

It had been a rough week at school. Byrne, then a Georgia College & State sophomore, needed a break. She had to get away from a demanding schedule of classes, homework, exams and soccer.

Seeing the rare opportunity to head home for a few days before she needed to be back on campus, Byrne seized it. The weekend at her Lawrenceville home was peaceful and just what she needed. She didn’t want it to end.

She was due back early Sunday morning for a soccer trip, and she was confronted with two scenarios: Either she left home Saturday night and tossed herself back into the rigors of her busy schedule, or she stayed home an extra night and drove back early the next morning.

The choice ended up being simple. She chose to stay the extra night to spend some more time with friends she hadn’t seen in a while.

Before sunrise the next morning, Byrne awoke for what was sure to be a long day. With little to pack, she hopped in her car and began the long trek back to GCSU.

She always took the same route back to Milledgeville. Hop on Route 316, jump off to Loop 10 around Athens, pick up Route 441 and ride it all the way into town.

This trip, however, started differently. Almost immediately, Byrne began to notice how tired she was. It was a nagging feeling, but she pressed on, at one point stopping at a convenience store for a cup of coffee and a snack she thought surely would perk her up enough to make it back to campus.

After the brief stop, she got back on the road.

“I was driving back, and I knew I was tired,” Byrne said. “I got to about the Athens area, kind of the last thing I remember, and then I made it about 15 miles down the road.”

Byrne’s 1996 Honda Passport cruised through the small town of Bishop as the sun began to rise. As she reached the outskirts, fatigue settled in hard.

Her biggest fear was realized as she fell asleep behind the wheel. Everything went to black.

“I don’t really know what happened,” Byrne said. “I woke up to paramedics pulling me out of the car from the right side, so it was scary.”

What Byrne missed was her car veering to her left on the lonely, sparsely-lit road and smashing into a large tree. The car made impact on the left side, crushing the driver’s side door into Byrne’s body.

As she came to, confusion set in. It was the scariest moment of the whole ordeal. Questions began to come all at once.

Where was she?

What happened?

Who is trying to get her out of the car?

Byrne couldn’t make sense of it all.

Shards of glass were littered all over the inside of the car and pain began to make itself known. After finally getting Byrne out of the car, paramedics took her to a hospital in Athens where she spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how this could have happened.

Worse than not knowing how she could have possibly fallen asleep behind the wheel of her car were the injuries she suffered because of her fatigue.

Her seatbelt saved her life, but not without a price as it left bruises on her body from the impact. Broken glass from the windshield left cuts on Byrne’s face. Her right hand, which had stayed on the steering wheel despite her falling asleep, was broken.

But those injuries seemed superficial compared to her left ankle.

When her car impacted the monstrous tree, the driver’s side door buckled in below the steering column, pinning Byrne’s foot underneath the crumpled metal. The ankle took the brunt of the impact, which was so bad that doctors told her they couldn’t tell her exactly how many breaks the ankle sustained. All they told her was that her ankle was broken in three main places, which didn’t account for all the other pieces of bone that chipped off from the impact.

She left the hospital later that night with nothing more than a wrap over the badly injured ankle and an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.

After more scrutiny on Byrne’s ankle, it was determined that surgery was inescapable to repair the damage that had been suffered during the accident. Much like the injury itself, the procedure would be extremely complex.

Byrne went under the knife just a few days after the accident. When she awoke, 11 screws and a titanium plate were holding the shattered pieces of her ankle together.

A few days after the surgery, Byrne went for a check up. The prognosis from her doctor wasn’t encouraging.

“He’s like, ‘I’m not happy,’ ” Byrne said. “He wanted it to be perfect, so he could help me as much as he could to get me back on the field, so we did another surgery.”

A small measure stood between Byrne and the road to recovery. Five days after her first surgery, she was back for the second procedure, which involved removing all the screws and moving the titanium plate up just one millimeter, then replacing all the screws.

Her future was now in her own hands.

TOUGH REALIZATIONS

For three weeks after the accident and after facing two surgeries, Byrne did little more than lay in bed at home. It was about all she was medically cleared to do.

It was a difficult thing to handle for a previously active, vibrant college athlete.

To make matters worse, the severity of Byrne’s ankle injury and the fact that her right hand was broken made crutches out of the question, so she was confined to a wheelchair for two months.

During three weeks at home, Byrne did a lot of thinking about what her next moves would be. If she wanted to defy the odds and get back on the soccer field, she would have to take baby steps and set small, attainable goals for herself.

The first was to get back to school and be with her teammates again since they couldn’t be with her. Because the accident happened during GCSU’s soccer season, none of her teammates were able to make the trip to Lawrenceville to visit Byrne.

“It was really tough,” said Hayley Ferrell, Byrne’s teammate, roommate and best friend. “We wanted to go visit her, but we had practice and then games and then schoolwork ourselves. ... But we called, we sent letters, we got all her schoolwork for her. It was a weird time not to have her around.”

Before Byrne was able to get back to school, she surprised her teammates by attending a game. Seeing one of their own in a wheelchair was a shocking moment for the Lady Bobcats, but it was exactly the type of therapy Byrne had needed since being separated from her team.

“I got out of the car, and they all stopped and cheered,” Byrne said of the moment. “It’s things like that that helped me get through it. They truly missed me being there as much as I missed being there. That’s my family when I’m at school, so I wanted to be back with them.”

Simply getting back on campus, however, proved to be a challenge.

For starters, Byrne was still forced to use the wheelchair she had grown to despise. The fact that she lived in an apartment on the third floor of a building with no elevator presented a bit of a problem.

Logistics, however, weren’t the issue — to get up to her apartment, Byrne simply got out of the chair, sat on the stairs and scooted up using her right foot and left hand. The issue was that Byrne found it difficult to rely on other people, like asking someone to carry the wheelchair up to the third floor or having to catch a ride to class because she couldn’t wheel herself there.

Prior to the accident, Byrne had been self-sufficient. The wheelchair and her injuries made her feel vulnerable and helpless, which were tough feelings to face.

Despite all that, Byrne was defiant at times.

“It was tough because I wanted to help her a lot, but I knew she wasn’t going to ask for me to help her because was so stubborn,” Ferrell said. “I think one time, we saw her wheeling home in her wheelchair in the rain just because she didn’t feel like asking us to come get her to drive her home because she didn’t like to rely on people. She was stubborn that way.”

For Byrne, stubborn was another way to refer to determination, and she definitely had that.

When her time in the wheelchair and a cast was up, she happily shed them, but not without more problems to face and realizations to come to.

Being inactive for such a long period of time caused Byrne to lose muscle in her legs. She never thought she’d have to deal with this, but she found herself having to learn how to walk again.

“You never think that you’ll forget how to walk and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s like riding a bike, just get back on,’ ” Byrne said.

Getting upright again was hardly that easy. Her worn-down muscles couldn’t support her weight, and her equilibrium was off-kilter, making it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time. It took time and a few tears, but Byrne progressed from the wheelchair to two crutches, then to just one crutch and finally to a cane.

By the time she found herself able to stand and walk without any sort of aid, five months had passed, and another surgery had taken place. Her third procedure, however, was a welcome one. Her surgeon went back into the ankle and removed one of the screws in the titanium plate. That one screw prevented Byrne from being able to run, and having it removed provided a much-needed boost of optimism. It meant she was no longer limited by something that seemed small compared to her determination.

But the removal of that screw began another long, difficult road for Byrne. She wasn’t able to just start running right away. Instead, she was forced to take baby steps toward her bigger goal of playing soccer again.

DARK DAYS AND BRIGHT ENDINGS

Behind the back row of seats at GCSU’s Centennial Center is a modest track. The length is about 1/10 of a mile, but it might as well have been 1,000 miles when Byrne started walking on it.

It took a few tries to make it around one lap, and when she finally did, she was exhausted. But she felt she accomplished something, and it was a big deal to her.

Eventually, she started working on an elliptical machine for five minutes. When she felt comfortable enough, she’d go for six minutes. Then seven. Then eight and so on.

When she started running again, she’d run one lap, then two, then three and progress until she was able to run two miles.

The days she accomplished those goals were good ones, and there were plenty of those. But Byrne also experienced her share of bad days, and those were some of the darkest she has ever been through.

“It was hard. A lot of tears. I’m an emotional girl anyways,” Byrne said. “There were the days where I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to do rehab. I didn’t want anything to do with that ankle anymore. I was fed up.”

Throughout the process in trying to get back in playing condition again, Byrne made the GCSU training room her second home. She would spend hours in there, which meant the trainers were adept in treating her recovering ankle and Byrne’s sometimes fractured spirit.

The training staff kept a coloring book handy and some ice pops in the freezer. Those were Byrne’s treats on bad days.

But eventually, all the good days and bad days paid off. In April of her sophomore year, Byrne was cleared to start playing again. It was an overwhelming feeling considering her injuries and the tough road of recovery.

That spring season was more about a continuation of rehab rather than honing and improving her soccer skills. She focused more on regaining the endurance that it takes to play soccer and finding confidence in her left ankle.

During a preseason tournament, Byrne got into a game for two-and-a-half minutes. For a player who was used to seeing the field more often than that, it was tough when she was subbed out, but just stepping on the field was a huge sign of progress.

“It was great to be back out on that field. It felt right,” Byrne said. “I can’t be mad about that.”

FINDING HER PURPOSE

Those two-and-a-half minutes were the perfect springboard into her junior season, which would prove to be just as grueling as the rehab that had gotten her back on the field by April.

Byrne put herself through a rigorous training regiment during the summer, but when she got into practices, she still felt months behind her teammates.

She felt like she could do two or three times more work than anyone else and still be trailing her teammates. By the time the season started, being so far behind kept her on the bench. There were games that she didn’t even dress out.

“Honestly, it was hard,” she said. “I wanted to give up on a couple of occasions.”

She even went so far as to approach associate athletics director Jimmy Wilson and try to return her jerseys.

Each time she would try, he would tell her to put them back in her bag. Considering how far Byrne had come, no one was willing to be a party to her failure.

It was tough for Byrne to accept that she would be spending more time on the bench than on the field, but much like every obstacle that she had to negotiate to this point, she took it on with everything she had.

She became the most vocal teammate on the sideline, always encouraging those around her. Despite her desire to be out on the field, being the emotional support — the heart and soul — of GCSU’s women’s soccer team became her purpose, and she accepted it wholeheartedly.

Finding that purpose made Byrne feel more like a teammate and less than just a player on a team, and it’d be tough to argue that her support didn’t play a part in GCSU reaching the Peach Belt Conference semifinals and completing a successful year.

Soon after her junior year ended, Byrne’s attention quickly turned to her senior season as she learned GCSU would be getting a brand new head soccer coach.

The nerves struck immediately. Here she was, about to enter her final season at GCSU with a new coach who, as far as Byrne was concerned, likely wasn’t going to care a bit about Byrne and the four other seniors on the team.

“Truthfully, we were nervous because we didn’t know this new guy coming in,” Byrne said. “He’s going to build this new program, we’re seniors, we’re only going to be here one year. Why should he waste his time on us?”

She didn’t know how to approach the situation from a personal standpoint. She didn’t want to go to him immediately and tell the new coach about the accident she had been in and the mountain that she was still continuing to climb toward recovery. Quite simply, she didn’t want to be pitied or have any special consideration, so she kept the story to herself.

During one of Juan Pablo Favero’s first practices as GCSU’s head coach, however, Byrne was one of the few players that caught his eye.

“She was one of the first players that stood out to me in terms of the work she was putting in,” Favero said. “I remember encouraging her and not knowing that this was one of the first things that she was starting back up, doing again with the team.”

But there was something else about Byrne that caused Favero to pay attention to her. A few years earlier when Byrne was still in high school, Favero recruited her when he was at Newberry College. As fate would have it, Byrne turned down Newberry and chose GCSU and yet Favero would still have a chance to work with her, even if it was just for one season.

Byrne struggled through her first preseason with Favero simply because of the physicality of the practices he ran. There was plenty of lingering pain that Byrne had to push through, but by the second game of the regular season, Byrne had found another purpose — as a starter.

“People asked me — Jimmy, our assistant AD asked me, ‘Why did you start her?’ ” Favero said. “Charity, I guess was what he was trying to ask me without asking me that.

“I said, ‘No, she’s earned it.’ ”

FULFILLING HER PURPOSE

It was the second game of the season when Byrne stepped on the field at Columbus State for a tournament game against nationally ranked Tusculum.

The field had always given her the chills since Columbus State was one of GCSU’s biggest rivals. There were plenty of memories embedded in the very grass that grazed past where metal met bone in Byrne’s left foot.

Even Favero was nervous about this one. The Lady Bobcats had a week between their first game and this one, giving them plenty of time to rest and prepare, but it was one of those big games that could impact the outcome of the season down the road, Favero said.

In the first half, GCSU had gotten out to a quick 1-0 lead that took the Lady Bobcats into halftime. The confidence soon cooled, however, as Tusculum tied the game at 1 with just four minutes elapsed in the second half.

“As a team, this team lacked collective confidence, so it was a critical moment,” Favero said. “We were about to sub some people out to try to get us a boost of sorts and try to get some of the first-half starters back in.”

On the field, Byrne hadn’t noticed that her number was being called for a substitution at the next stoppage of play. Little did she know, however, that she would be the cause of the next stoppage.

Deep in Tusculum’s end, teammate Jamie Nevin hit a perfect header, directing the ball in front of the goal, right where Byrne had set up.

Time slowed. Byrne saw the ball coming toward her, but she also picked up sight of Tusculum’s goalkeeper, who was notoriously big and tough to get past. The goalkeeper eyed up Byrne and began to charge toward with the intent of taking Byrne out.

As the pass took one final bounce toward Byrne, she lifted the left foot held together by 10 screws and a titanium plate and connected with the ball.

To her surprise, she watched as the ball made it past the goalkeeper and rolled toward the net. That, however, was the final thing she saw.

Before she could think, Byrne was staring up at the sky. Just after Byrne connected with the ball, the goalkeeper connected with Byrne. Moments later, the ball found the back of the net.

But there was silence as Byrne remained on the ground.

For the second time in her life, Byrne found herself asking questions after a collision.

What happened?

Did she score?

Was her ankle OK?

As she laid there, she reached down and felt the ankle. When she came to the realization that it was still in one piece and that the vast amount of metal underneath the skin had done its job, Byrne was bombarded.

“I ran over to her, and I was shaking her,” Ferrell said. “Her eyes are closed, and I’m shaking her, and I’m like, ‘Mary, you scored! You scored!’ ”

That’s when the celebration began. Favero stuck with his decision to sub Byrne out after the play to give her and her teammates time to savor the moment.

Despite there being plenty of time left in the game, Byrne’s improbable goal with a once-shattered ankle proved to be the game-winner as GCSU beat Tusculum 2-1. Byrne’s goal also proved Favero’s words prophetic as the win did, in fact, impact the Lady Bobcats further down the road. The impressive win over a nationally ranked opponent propelled GCSU to an NCAA national tournament bid.

“It was, to me, one of the highlights of the year,” Favero said. “I think that was her first college goal. No better moment to choose than that.”

It was the only time Byrne would find the back of the net in her college career, but it couldn’t have been a more fitting end to a story that Favero will happily tell to future GCSU players.

“We talk about athletes, in general, it all starts and ends with your attitude. That’s easy to say, and perhaps that’s easy to do when the circumstances are favorable,” he said. “In this situation, circumstances were very much not favorable. So it’s a true show of perseverance, character and having the right attitude.

“I’m sure she would admit there were ups and downs through this whole process. She’s a human being, after all. She’s a young lady that had to have her doubts through the whole process and her moments of fear and her moments of frustration. But that’s what makes the story what it is and the example that it is.”

That’s a tough concept for Byrne to wrap her head around. For someone who admitted she wasn’t an all-star, D-I material or the type to get a lot of notoriety, she struggles with the idea that she has left a legacy within the GCSU women’s soccer program.

For Byrne, the logistics of the situation were simple: She was hurt, and when a player gets hurt, they have to get better. That’s what she did, and that’s what she says is all she did.

Yet, despite her outlook on the situation, those around her say she did so much more. At her weakest point, she became the strength of a team and a living, breathing, walking — or sometimes wheeling — reason to never give up and never give in.

The strong tree that once stood in the small town of Bishop, indeed, had a purpose two years ago. It was to show Byrne that she had one, too.

“I wouldn’t trade anything that I’ve experienced. I wouldn’t trade it in. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I think, in a way, it kind of helped me not being the all-star because I still have the attitude that it’s OK to not start every game, to not play every minute; you’re still a part of this team and you still have a role on this team,” Byrne said. “If I’m an example to show that, then I’m happy. If they got that from my experience and from what I did and from me being on this team, then I can leave this team feeling like I fulfilled my purpose.”

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