“Oh my God. I’m paralyzed.”
That was Mekenna DeBack’s first thought as she sat in shock, surrounded by the wreckage of the car accident.
That afternoon of her senior year at Miramonte High School started out like any other. She had borrowed her dad’s car to go pick up her younger brother from school. With her boyfriend along for the ride, she pulled up to a stop light outside John Muir hospital in nearby Walnut Creek when something unusual happened.
She witnessed a car accident. The car in front of her hit the bumper of another car in the line at the stoplight.
“I was behind the Honda and was like, ‘Whoa, there’s an accident in front of me,’” DeBack says.
Seconds later, she would be in an accident of her own — an accident that would rattle her self-confidence.
She glanced in her rearview mirror and saw a red truck barreling toward her stopped car.
A split second later, the impact flung her body toward the steering wheel and then snapped it back into the seat. DeBack, who had a bad habit of putting the shoulder strap behind her back, was fortunately wearing her seatbelt properly that day.
“I thought I was paralyzed,” DeBack says. “I was in shock and I couldn’t move and tears were running down my face. I was just sitting there like, ‘Oh my God, I’m paralyzed.’”
A star soccer player from a young age, the senior had a spot on the Cal roster waiting for her. The thought of not having the use of her legs was utterly beyond comprehension.
DeBack began playing soccer at 5 years old. She dabbled in other sports but decided to focus solely on soccer when she was 9.
DeBack’s career was riddled with adversity. But rather than hanging up her cleats, DeBack dedicated herself to battling back from several major injuries, the first of which came in her sophomore year of high school.
A stress fracture in her navicular bone — a large, kidney-shaped bone in the center of her foot — snapped after it could no longer take the pressure.
Her recovery process was extensive, encompassing both physical and mental healing. She doubted whether she could — or even wanted to — make a comeback.
When she was able to play again, she realized how much she missed the game. Her time away led to a renewed love of soccer. She came back in explosive fashion, notching 30 goals in her junior season and officially committed to Cal.
Soon after that memorable season, DeBack was again sidelined with a major injury.
In the fall of her senior year, she broke her fifth metatarsal — a bone on the outside of her right foot. After she was cleared to play, she resnapped the bone in a game soon after.
DeBack was confident that she would physically recover, but her mental state was again a cause for concern.
“It’s different for every player,” says DeBack. “For some, regaining fitness is harder than confidence, but for me, it is the mental aspect of rebuilding the confidence.”
This time, she wasn’t sure she would ever return to her old self. She recovered physically right as she was coming to Cal, but she was in an intimidating environment, without her support system and out of practice.
And she was still haunted by the car accident that occurred in her senior year of high school.
After her initial shock wore off, she was able to comprehend what happened. Her toes had been crushed into the pedal, and her neck was in serious pain. For the first time in her injury-riddled life, her pain brought a sense of relief rather than dread.
Though she was seriously hurt, she was not paralyzed.
She saw that her boyfriend had been slammed back into his seat by his seatbelt so hard that his seat broke entirely in half. Her dad’s car had been crushed, making an inverted “V” shape in the middle of the road.
She spent several weeks in a neck brace and awoke in pain every time she slept. She was able to return to practice as long as she played without contact.
But by the time she was cleared for full contact, she was too frightened to play aggressively.
“When I was cleared to head the ball, I couldn’t,” says DeBack. “I was so afraid of getting up and putting the pressure on my head and neck.”
She had been a powerful force in the air before her accident, but she came to Cal with that lingering apprehension. However, she refused to be imprisoned by her own fears. She dedicated last summer to overcoming her inhibition and regaining her confidence, taking cross after cross and focusing on pushing her fear aside.
The junior scored her first goal of the season in Cal’s 3-0 win over the University of San Francisco.
The cross came in from the outside. She jumped into the air, and, finally, she headed the ball, sending it into the back of the net.
With that confidence-booster, she scored her second goal of the season with her head again in the following game.
With that first goal, DeBack proved to herself that she could be successful with her head. The second one proved she was back. Her summer of work paid off, and she has high hopes for the season now that she has her confidence back.
“It’s more of just telling yourself what you need to do and doing it,” says DeBack. “I used to think that I would make it worse heading the ball, but it’s just going to stay the same. I will feel pain, but I’m not scared of it anymore.”
She learned how to better manage the mental aspects of the game. She taught herself how to overcome her own fears, and she rebuilt her self-confidence.
She still suffers from physical pain and sees a chiropractor every few weeks. She will likely feel lingering soreness throughout her life, both in her neck and foot.
Fully aware of the limitations of her battered body, DeBack plans for her Cal days to be the culmination of her competitive career.
“I love soccer a lot, and I will play for fun after college,” says DeBack. “But I want to be able to run with my kids, and I wouldn’t mind being a coach.”
Despite all of the pain, DeBack considers herself lucky. She has achieved her goal through the power of her own strength and determination. She never gave up on herself, and that perseverance paid off.
“I’m just really proud of myself for being able to make it this far,” DeBack says. “Especially with all the challenges I’ve had to go through.”
Taylor Brink covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]
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