November 13, 2008

There's Something About Mary

Thursday, Nov.13, 2008
by Katie Parker, sports information graduate assistant

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga.- After a serious car accident two years ago, Mary Byrne (Lawrenceville, Ga.) is thankful just to walk let alone be playing soccer again. The senior education major of the Georgia College & State University soccer team (13-2-4) was named Comeback Player of the Year for the 2007-2008 school year for her tremendous determination.

In the early hours of Sept. 24, 2006, Byrne was on her way back down to Milledgeville to catch the bus for an away game when she fell asleep at the wheel. On Highway 441 just outside of Bishop, Ga., her gray 1996 Honda Passport veered off the road and hit a large tree on the driver's side. The impact knocked her unconscious and she came to as the paramedics were pulling her out from the passenger side.

"I broke my hand and I shattered my ankle," said Byrne. "There were lots of main breaks and then lots of little pieces [in my ankle]. I had air bag burns, cuts from windshield glass and seatbelt bruises. I didn't know what was going on. It's something I never want to experience again."

When her parents arrived at the hospital, Byrne said she could hardly look at them because she felt so bad. She hated scaring them like that.

"The last thing someone wants to do is hurt their parents. And they got the phone call no parents want to get because of me," Byrne said with great emotion. "I just felt so bad. I started apologizing as soon as they walked in the room and they weren't even mad."

After the accident, Byrne had two surgeries and missed three weeks of school. She had 11 screws and one plate put in to hold her ankle together. Both of her brothers now live in Florida and one was able to get off work during those three weeks.

"My family got me through it. I couldn't have made it if it wasn't for them. My brothers live in Florida and one came up and just sat with me. And the other one called me everyday. They showed me that they love me."

Byrne's teammates were also very encouraging and supportive. They constantly sent her messages letting her know they were thinking about her and were there for her. In groups her teammates mailed her notes and cards. Her roommates Hayley Ferrell and Stacie Proffitt, a former teammate, sent her a goody basket with things for her to do while she was stuck at home.

"I was at home for those three weeks and I was distraught," said Byrne. "I was beside myself and in so much pain. But it never failed that everyday I had phone calls and text messages from my teammates. I wouldn't always answer but they would always leave me messages. All of their words and encouragement helped me get back to school."

Mary was in a wheelchair for the three weeks she spent at home and kept the wheelchair for a month when she went back to school with a cast on her wrist.

Her teammates helped her navigate around Milledgeville while in the wheelchair. They drove her places and even carried her wheelchair up to the third floor of her apartment complex while she scooted up the stairs on her hind sides.

"It was a sight to see," Byrne said with a laugh. "There were some funny times. I think the people on the team liked my wheelchair more than I did because they were always messing around with it. They made a bad situation better. It showed that they truly cared about me and truly loved me. It made the days go by better."

"I'm not great with words but helping her with the wheelchair was the only thing I felt like I could do," Ferrell said.

In late December, after six weeks in a wheelchair and two months on crutches, Mary had one screw removed in surgery. She was allowed to start putting gradual pressure on her ankle using crutches and then moving to a cane. Her doctor cleared her to begin physical rehabilitation on her ankle.

Byrne has been playing soccer since she was three-years old. She says the sport has always been a part of her life. She began playing because of her family. Her dad grew up playing soccer and he passed that on to his kids.

"I have two older brothers and I did everything they did," said Byrne. "We would play together in the yard and I always went to all of their games."

After the accident, she was told she would probably never play soccer again, especially at a collegiate level. But for Byrne, being able to walk again was her main goal.

"In talking to her parents, they were looking for a place for her to do her rehab after her surgery," said GCSU Head Athletic Trainer Paul Higgs. "It made sense we treated her like every other athlete."

When Byrne returned to school in January, she started her rehab in the Georgia College Athletic Training Room. She had to re-teach herself how to walk and all the muscles in her foot had to be rebuilt. She spent three months in the training room working on range of motion and endurance. Another part of her rehab was spent working on overall conditioning with the idea that she was going to play again.

"Doing her rehab here kept her in an athletic setting where she was around other athletes," said Higgs. "There were days where she got really down but being here and around her teammates helped I think. Her teammates were great because they tried to involve her as much as possible even when they couldn't relate to her."

After spending hours everyday in the training room, Byrne worked up to lightly jogging in straightaways. It was a piece-by-piece process. Once straightaways were mastered, Mary lightly jogged straightaways with one turn. She built up enough strength and endurance to run one lap around the track in the Centennial Center.

"She wanted to get better quick," said Ferrell, a roommate, teammate and close friend. "She had a big work-ethic for wanting to get out of that wheelchair so fast. It was really cool to see the happiness on her face when she was able to run again for the first time. She was so excited about getting to run again."

"At the end of spring I was able to start practicing again. I did what I could. I started to get my touches back on the ball. And in April, I got to play soccer again. I was scared to kick too hard and mess up my ankle but I still played. I got into the last game in mid-April because I wanted to."

In the last game of the short Bobcat spring schedule in 2007, Byrne made her post-accident debut.
She was only permitted to play in short two to three minute spurts, but the point was she played.

"One of the coolest things I remember was in that spring when she was able to play again," Higgs said. "As an athletic trainer that's what we live for, being able to get athletes back out there and playing again. She was in uniform and she didn't have a pretty running form and she didn't score but she was back out there."

Her teammates, who had rallied behind her, were just as excited to have her back on the field.

"I missed her when she wasn't out on the soccer field," Ferrell said. "She was my best friend and I missed not having her there. And it was great having her back out there. Even though she struggled getting back out there and getting her touch back, she was still just so happy. It was great to see her like that."

Because of the accident, Mary missed the bulk of her sophomore season. She came back for her junior year and saw action in four games. After her inspiring return, Higgs chose Byrne as the 2007-2008 Comeback Player of the Year. To her surprise, the award was announced at the Georgia College athletic awards banquet last spring. The award is based on the attitude of the athlete more than any other factor. This award is designed to celebrate those who work hard to return after intense injuries because many athletes choose to quit and don't try to make a comeback.

This year the Lawrenceville native has appeared in 11 games and has proven to be a key reserve for the national tournament bound Bobcat soccer team. She has two assists on the season along with her first career goal. Byrne's game-winning goal came in an important 2-1 victory over Tusculum College.

"Her game-winning goal against Tusculum is the goal that the team celebrated the most this season. Not because of who we were playing but because it was Mary," said Head Coach  Juan Pablo Favero.

The journey of recovery wasn't over once Byrne stepped back on to the field for the 2007 season. Her struggles continued throughout her junior year as she longed to be 100 percent again. She said her junior year was really difficult for her. It was hard for her being an upper classmen and not being at the top of her game.

"It was frustrating," Byrne said. "There were times I wanted to throw in the towel but no one would let me. But I don't regret any of it. I've learned so much from it. It made me grow up really quick. I'm not mad that it happened; I was at first but everything happens for a reason. Looking back now, it makes all those bad days worthwhile."
"I think that the team rallies behind her but I don't think it's because of the injury," Favero said. "I think that Mary is a tremendous leader. You don't see many people that young that has that kind of servant leadership. The team rallies behind her because she's a selfless servant leader. And that kind of leadership is impressive."

Ferrell agreed with Favero saying how much Byrne means to the team. She continued praising Mary by saying she is a pivotal person on the team. She is a natural leader and not just because she is a senior. Byrne knows her role on the Georgia College soccer. Her presence and personality means so much to all of her teammates.

"Her story of triumph and over coming obstacles is inspirational to the team and a life lesson for us," Ferrell said. "Without her we wouldn't be the team that we are. I love her and I'm glad she's with us. To get that phone call saying ‘Mary's been in a bad accident' just makes you cringe and it's just really shocking. I'm just really glad she's here and I learn from her everyday."

The scars, 10 screws and a plate are still there, but the future looks bright for Byrne. Over Christmas Break, she will go in for her fourth and final surgery where they will remove the hardware in her ankle. After that, she looks forward to graduating with a degree in Early Childhood Education. She hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps by becoming an elementary school teacher.

"I was the kid that played school growing up," Byrne said. "I love kids and helping them. I just knew it was something I wanted to do. I've always been real active and creative. Even now when I say things people are like, ‘you're so a teacher.' I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

But for now, Byrne, Ferrell, Favero and the rest of the Bobcat soccer team are focused on the upcoming NCAA Tournament beginning tomorrow, Nov. 14. Armed with one of the best defenses in all of Division II, Georgia College soccer earned its first national tournament selection.

The Bobcats picked-up the No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region and will face No. 5 seed Catawba College (15-4-2) the first-round match. The Indians and Bobcats square off tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Columbus, Ga. The winner will take on top-seed host Columbus State University Sunday afternoon.

The Bobcats are having the most successful season in program history, earning the highest conference, region and national ranks in school history, as well as landing seven players on the All-Peach Belt Conference teams. Looking back, Byrne is grateful just to be a part of this talented Bobcat team.

"I take every day as a blessing; I'm playing the sport I love with the people I love."

The GCSU Department of Athletics sponsors 10 varsity athletic programs at the NCAA Division II level. As a Division II program, GCSU prides itself on balancing the life of the student-athlete, evidenced by the Bobcats' multiple appearances in post-season competition as well as documented academic success and community-service involvement. Follow the Bobcats and their positive impact on the Milledgeville community at www.gcsu.edu/bobcats.