Competitive athletes have a lot to overcome — opponents, fatigue during intense game play, even teammates whom they battle with for starting positions.
Add injuries to the mix and there lies perhaps the toughest obstacle for a competitor to overcome. Just ask Stephen Conway, a former Newtown High School soccer and baseball standout (Class of 2013), who has battled back from injury and is happy to be playing collegiate sports again, after a frustrating and unwelcome break from game play.
During the summer of 2015, ahead of his junior year at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass, Mr Conway was playing pickup basketball with a few friends at NYA Sports & Fitness when he went up to block a shot, and a defensive player came down on his foot.
“That friction and force of me attempting to jump while my friend’s weight was on my foot caused the tear of my ligament,” said Mr Conway, who was recruited to play soccer as a defender at Stonehill.
Mr Conway suffered a midfoot injury known as a Lisfranc ligament tear, along with a bone fracture, effectively sidelining him for his junior season.
“It was absolutely devastating. Over the course of my athletic career, I have had to constantly overcome adversity, and just when things were looking up and I was preparing for a starting role my junior year, I sustained this injury,” Mr Conway recalled. “I felt like I let my teammates down, I felt like I let myself down. I stopped going to church, and stopped having faith. I truthfully went to a really dark place for a while. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever single-handedly had to overcome. The fact that I was told that there was a chance I may never be able to play competitively again and get back to where I once was, was extremely difficult to swallow.”
Following a procedure at the Hospital For Special Surgery in New York, Mr Conway went home with six screws in his foot and two bones fused together — the typical protocol for this common but often misdiagnosed injury.
“Lisfranc joint injuries are the second most common foot injury in athletes, yet it is missed or misdiagnosed in one of every five patients with a foot injury,” according to a 2013 article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Lisfranc ligaments represent 0.2 percent of all fractures with an incidence of one in every 55,000 patients in the United States, according to multiple online medical sources.
Mr Conway said his injury was actually misdiagnosed for a month, and there was the nagging concern that he might not ever play competitive sports again.
“Many athletes do not come back to the same form they were prior to the surgery, and some actually are forced to retire,” Mr Conway said.
Fazed, Not Deterred
Fazed but not deterred, Mr Conway got started on a path back to playing collegiate sports.
“It was hard. First of all, not being able to be on my feet for two and a half months and be on crutches was tough. I’m big into lifting weights, so I actually remember scootering around the gym just to do some upper body so I wouldn’t completely loose my muscle in my upper half. At the six-month period, I was able to begin to lightly jog. I barely had any muscle in my right calf, and my right leg was extremely weak. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do to get back into shape. I had to work on my explosiveness, pushing off of my right foot, cutting, sprinting, really every athletic movement. In a way, I had to learn how to run again, which was a scary thought,” Mr Conway said.
Mr Conway was rehabilitating during the spring soccer offseason and made it back to the pitch for his senior year in fall 2016.
“It felt amazing. There was a point in time where I thought my playing days could be over. To be able to get back to play again at the level that I was playing at prior to my surgery was a blessing. It was also an extremely humbling process; to see how hard I worked, and the amount of time I put in physically and mentally to get back to where I was, it was a really special feeling. I was really proud of myself,” said Mr Conway, who majored in mediated communication and earned minors in journalism and political science.
Mr Conway also has reason to be appreciative of his doctors for helping him not only get back to soccer, but also to the baseball field.
“I had a great team of doctors and I worked really hard to get back to competition shape, and I am fortunate enough to have this opportunity to play one more year of collegiate athletics, playing both soccer and baseball,” Mr Conway said.
In an odd twist, and adding another layer to the silver lining, the foot injury is the reason Mr Conway now has an opportunity to play baseball. With one year of NCAA eligibility resulting from his lost junior year, Mr Conway was able to continue his collegiate sports career at Waterbury’s Division II Post University, while he worked toward his master’s degree in public administration.
Mr Conway played soccer for Post this fall, and the team made it to the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference tournament semifinals. But that is not the end of his story, as Mr Conway is planning to lace up his baseball cleats at Post next spring.
Mr Conway had attempted to join Stonehill’s baseball team his freshman year, but was diagnosed with mononucleosis — at which point the coaching staff told him it wasn’t going to work out.
“This was really devastating to hear, that basically they didn’t want me, that they felt that I couldn’t help the program. I still played competitively in the summers hoping I’d get some sort of chance, any chance, to play baseball at a high level because it was my first love, and fortunately I was given that opportunity, and here we are today,” Mr Conway said.
Mr Conway stands to be on the field along with Stonehill players after all — when Post takes the field to face his former college team for a late-March game.
“I’d be lying if I said that game isn’t circled on my calendar,” Mr Conway said.
A three-year soccer starter and a three-sport athlete his senior year at NHS, it became clear this athlete’s best sport was baseball.
During Mr Conway’s junior year of high school, in 2012, the Newtown High baseball team won the South-West Conference championship. In his senior year, Mr Conway received All-SWC and First Team All-State accolades, posting a .479 batting average, and finishing in the top three in batting average, slugging percentage, and on base percentage in the state.
Icing On The Diamond
Getting back to the baseball field will be icing on the cake — with that matchup against Stonehill serving as the cherry on top — for Mr Conway after battling back from being sidelined.
“I’d say I’m back to full strength. My doctor said it can take anywhere from a year and a half to two years post-op to feel back to full strength. That next season of my senior year, I don’t think I was at full strength, but I think I am now. I definitely still feel it from time to time, but I’m just so happy to be back out there,” Mr Conway said.
Because of his success story, Mr Conway said he was asked by the Hospital For Special Surgery to create a comeback video, and he happily obliged. View the video.
His advice to other athletes attempting to come back from injury:
“I would say to have faith, and lean on people who you love and trust. I eventually leaned on my faith, my family, and my friends. Being with people who love you and encourage you when you are at your worst will help you come out of that funk,” Mr Conway said.
“Secondly, I’d say to take the opportunity to put things into perspective. After a while, I began to realize how blessed I was to even be given the opportunity to play college athletics. Others don’t get to play at a high level. Little things such as the ability to walk or run, all those little things I put into perspective and I do not take for granted at all. Finally, I looked for things to keep me going and motivate me. Every time I play baseball or soccer I tape my wrists. On one wrist, I write with a sharpie marker “SHS” to remind me of my hometown, and to not only remind me who to play for, but to remind me that there are more important things in life than sports,” said Mr Conway who, this past fall, wore the uniform number 26 on honor of Sandy Hook.
Mr Conway also writes “lionhearted,” a phrase he began to use during his recovery, on that tape. “I used lionhearted as a phrase to symbolize having the heart of a lion, and to have courage. If you have the heart of a lion, you can overcome anything, and that’s what kept me going. I’d advise others to find what would motivate them,” he said.