Keeping his goal

After sitting out last soccer season with a back injury, a midfielder at North Carroll defies the odds and returns to the top of his game


October 22, 2006|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,special to the sun

Watching North Carroll midfielder Nick Riley effortlessly glide past opposing defenders on the soccer field, one might never suspect what lies beneath the surface.

In his case, it's a couple of screws and a spool of surgical wire.

That, and countless hours of grueling rehabilitation, has helped put the multi-talented senior back on the field for the Panthers (9-1) just 16 months after being diagnosed with career-threatening stress fractures in his lower back. After sitting out last soccer season, as well as each of the past two baseball seasons, Riley has defied the odds to return this fall, scoring eight goals through his team's first 10 games to rank among Carroll County's leaders.

"I never thought I wouldn't play," said Riley, who attended all of his team's practices and games while he was sidelined. "I was too determined - I wanted my senior year."

"You preach to the kids, `Play the game like it could be your last,' " Panthers coach Denny Snyder said. "Nick totally understands that, and he plays with a passion - like every game could be his last."

Riley's health problems were found in January of his sophomore year after he had taken a few swings in the batting cage.

"It was like a tightening ... like a knotting pain in my lower back," Riley said. "I thought it was just because I hadn't swung a bat in a while and my muscles weren't used to it. But it kept persisting."

Eventually, in a game against conference rival Urbana a few weeks later, the discomfort became too much to bear.

"He had made a couple incredible catches, and he was like, `Coach, I'm struggling to swing,' " Snyder recalled. "So we went through a game where he basically just played defense."

Though he was hitting over .400 at the time, that game would be his last of the season.

With initial X-rays turning up negative, doctors advised Riley to rest, but the pain didn't subside. Finally, a bone scan that June uncovered the problem. There were three separate stress fractures in his lower back - two in one vertebra and one in another.

"I was pretty upset. Once they diagnosed it, they gave me a less-than-50-percent chance of healing," Riley said.

"I really didn't know if I'd ever see him in a soccer or baseball uniform again," Snyder said. "When you looked down the bench and saw him sitting there and not able to play, you could just see his heart being ripped out."

When rest and therapy didn't resolve the issue, surgery became a viable alternative.

"We were very concerned, more so from a lifestyle standpoint than just from a sports standpoint," said Craig Riley, Nick's father. "He couldn't sit for any length of time, like if we were taking trips or in the classroom. He was 16 years old, and it was like, `What's this going to be like when he's older?' "

So in November of last year, Riley underwent surgery at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, where doctors took a bone graft from his right hip and inserted it between the fractured parts of his vertebrae. They then secured it with two screws at the bottom and surgical wire around the top.

With the operation deemed a success, Riley's attention turned toward returning to the field. Doctors told him he'd need to wait about three months to start rehabilitation, then another six months or so to begin jogging.

That left him just enough time to get in shape for soccer season.

"I always told myself, `I'm going to get better; I'm going to do the right things; I'm going to play,' " he said.

Snyder also held out hope. "For a lot of coaches, their dream situation is, `I've got this Brazilian forward coming in as a foreign exchange student,' " Snyder said. "For me, my wish was just, `Can I have Nick Riley healthy?' He is that much of an impact player."

Rehab consisted mainly of abdominal exercises, as well as others meant to strengthen his lower back. Eventually, he began light jogging, and it wasn't long before he was again working out with teammates.

"It just felt really good seeing him out there running before the season, because we all knew what he could do," teammate Justin Carver said.

In his first game back, he didn't disappoint, scoring a pair of second-half goals against Frederick in a 5-0 win, though he admittedly shied away from collisions, fearful of a recurrence. It's a fear that slowly has subsided.

After all his son has been through, Craig Riley said his heart still pounds when he watches Nick play.

"When he gets knocked down, is he going to get back up? Is he reaching for his back? Is he walking OK?" Craig Riley said. "So far, he's taken his tumbles, and so far, so good."

Though missing his junior year may have cost him a chance at an athletic scholarship, Riley is hoping to play in college as a walk-on. With a weighted grade point average of 4.0, he plans to study engineering.

This spring, he also plans to play baseball, where he's a standout center fielder and the team's leadoff hitter.

Doctors still aren't entirely sure what caused the fractures, other than perhaps genetics.

Nick Riley still feels occasional tightness in his back, but he gets through it with the aid of ice and over-the-counter pain relievers. To Riley, any physical pain is trivial compared with the pain of not playing.

"I definitely took it for granted," he said. "I always thought I could just play whenever I wanted. So when they said that I couldn't, it really opened my eyes. Sitting on the sidelines and watching everyone do what I enjoyed really gave me a new respect for the game."

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