Thanks to a year's worth of ugly surgeries and two rehabs, Chris LoConti may have found his future.
There are few teenagers around town who are now more qualified or knowledgeable about sports medicine and physical therapy as the Gilbert junior. He's lived it all twice, and has no problem rehashing the details.
Even the date it all began - Feb. 4, 2010 - rolls off the tongue: It was a proverbial kickoff of two broken ankles, some snapped wires and two stints totaling 10 months of rehab.
He's back on defense for the Tigers (6-0 in power point matches to begin this week) and his club team, San Tan Legacy. He sat on the Gilbert bench chatting about his journey, adjusted his brace around his ankle a few times, and eventually got up and went running back onto the practice field in preparations for a couple big matches against Highland and Mountain View.
He hasn't missed a game this season, and thanks to the overall timing of this, has missed a handful of games in his high school career since he started as a freshman in 2009.
He earned that playing time with steady play and not making mistakes, a rarity at one of the better soccer programs in the state the past few years like the Tigers are.
But during the Tigers' 5A Division I first-round playoff game against Phoenix Maryvale, a quick change of possession led to LoConti's end-line attempt at crossing the ball toward the goalie box. Maryvale's defender tried a slide tackle as soon as LoConti kicked the ball, but took out his right ankle instead.
After another deflection, the Tigers eventually scored on the play and LoConti later joked his broken ankle didn't even get him onto the stat sheet with an assist.
He left the game, taped it up and returned a few minutes later.
"It hurt a lot, but I thought it was a bruise," he said. "I wanted to play and the adrenaline rush kicked in."
Not for long. The next day his ankle was twice the size of the left one and he couldn't stand up to walk. A trip to urgent care revealed the broken ankle, and he had surgery in which a 5-inch wire was inserted into his ankle/shin to help fuse the bones and ligaments back together.
Rehab followed: 90 minutes every day for six months.
He gradually returned to club soccer later that summer, still gimpy and, at times, in pain. But while in Seattle for a tournament - his third match since the injury - the pain was too much to manage.
It turned out the wire inside his ankle had snapped in half. A second surgery was done to remove the bone chips originally hanging out in his ankle and half of that 5-inch wire, while the rest of the wire remains inside.
It also meant all the previous six months of rehab would have to be done all over again.
"That was the punch in the face," he said.
Four more months of the repeated rehab followed - by this time he was so well-versed on what to do that doctors often left him on his own - and he was cleared again for high school soccer Nov. 1.
Still not fully healed and strong in his legs and feet, his sophomore season of 2010-2011 for the Tigers - successful in terms of a trip to the 5A-I state semifinals - consisted of lots of Advil, braces and suffering.
"I was fighting pain with each step, but (soccer) is what I do," he said. "It was too big a part of my life to say, ‘Screw it.' ... "I kept telling myself to stay positive because I'll come back, but I didn't often believe it."
No problems reported so far during this junior season, he hasn't missed a game or much of any practices, and has been an integral part of the Tigers allowing nine goals this season - four in power point matches - despite a recent rash of injuries and illness.
He's a finalist for the Phoenix Children's Hospital's Comeback Student of the Year award, which, if he wins in May, would give him a couple thousand dollars in scholarship money.
Like most kids, a college soccer scholarship is the goal, but soccer standing is second on his wish list behind a school with solid physical therapy programs, even though a year's worth of surgeries and rehabilitations should count for something well beyond a piece of paper.
"I got to see it all first-hand, the physical and mental rehab process," he said. "I've wanted to do something to help those like me. I guess in a weird way this got me more interested."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.