Protecting her goal
UB soccer player White defies medical history to become D-1 keeper
Published: Sunday, November 24, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 14:11
Mckenzie White is wearing shorts.
It’s warm for October – at least 65 degrees. And White, well aware of the looming harsh chill of a Buffalo winter, is embracing the last few days she can dress like it’s still summer.
This soccer player’s got a new leg to show off.
At any point last year – even if it were 90 degrees – she’d be wearing sweatpants to hide her legs. Soccer was her dream, but doctors kept telling her that the legs and feet she was born with would keep her from the field.
She wanted to play and she has spent every day since defying and dumbfounding them.
“Those doctors saw my body; they saw my clubbed feet,” White said. “They saw the breaks in my feet, the crooked legs. But they didn’t see me. They don’t see me. They don’t see who I am, my determination or my perseverance.”
Until June, both her legs were offset, misaligned between the tibia (below the knee) and femur (above). And there was nearly unbearable pain in her right knee. That was before the surgery – before White finally got answers she’d been seeking and a straight right leg she was told she’d never have.
Her feet have their own story, too – one that includes eight breaks between the ages of 10 and 15. And though all of White’s lower body complications are connected, it was usually her feet that were the focus. When she was born in 1993, they were clubbed – rotated facing each other from the ankle.
She was in casts up to her hips when she was 2 years old. Her mother worried about her daughter being able to walk comfortably. She had no notion White would grow up to be a Division I athlete.
When White was 4, she hit the soccer field. She’s been fighting to stay on it since.
She is an athletic anomaly. She should not be able to play soccer. Most people with a medical history like White’s self-select; they fall into hobbies that don’t tax their bodies. They don’t reach the level of athleticism White has already surpassed.
White, a junior goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team, came to UB her freshman year on an athletic scholarship. At that point, she’d already been going against her doctors for years. She was told to stop playing – that her legs and feet couldn’t handle it, that she was “born with a bad set of wheels,” that she needed to drop her ball and try swimming or biking – but White knew things about herself the seven doctors who told her to stop playing couldn’t understand.
White played on a fractured foot for eight months in middle school before doctors figured out it was broken in three places. She has kept ice buckets on the sidelines to soak her feet between halves. She has been bound to a wheelchair with two broken feet, impatiently awaiting a completed recovery so she could get back to the field.
It’s always been about that field.
And right now, White is not able to man her net. She’s spent the past two seasons in blue and white supporting the Bulls from the sidelines. She has been approved for a fifth year of eligibility, but whether she’ll be back playing next year, the year after or at all depends on her ongoing recovery process from the massive leg surgery she had in June.
“If I don’t succeed, if I’m not able to play again, it won’t be because I didn’t do everything in my power to get back on the field,” White said. “It would be because my body just simply didn’t allow me to do it.”
She’s never been one to let an injury define her. Soccer has White under a trance she isn’t willing to break. She has had a lifelong star-crossed love affair with the game. One of her physical therapists, Sheri Walters, said she has never seen someone with White’s degree of deformity compete at such a high level and that most people with White’s medical history wouldn’t make it to club soccer.
“It’s like she was made to play soccer,” said White’s brother, Matt, 27.
She may have been made to play, but doctors would argue she wasn’t built to. They point to a few things – White’s worn-down knee cartilage, the flat bones in her feet that should be rounded, the rounded bones in her feet that should be flat – and tell her to put away her cleats for good.
But this is the girl who would juggle a soccer ball down supermarket aisles – the girl who left her home and family in Flower Mound, Texas, at 15 to attend a boarding school in Minnesota because it had a promising soccer program.
It would take fewer than eight foot fractures (White had seven in just her left foot) to get many athletes to quit a sport, but White has never even considered it. Seldom does White let her positive attitude slip away.
White’s mother said her daughter sees “the bright side of everything.” Her father, David, says she gets it from her grandfather – he ran a restaurant called The Optimist Café up until a year ago. White has been serving up optimism since she was a toddler, stuck in casts and a wheelchair with a big grin on her face and a mess of sweet strawberry hair on her head.
White leaves little room for negativity to creep into her consciousness. When she was back in a wheelchair in middle school due to foot injuries, she kept herself entertained and her friends laughing by learning to “pop wheelies.”
She’s humble and quiet; her Texas accent is light – she was born, and lived a few years, in Boston. Her hair is typically pulled back in a ponytail. She’s most comfortable in soccer T-shirts. And even though everyone in her life seems to see something stunning in the persistent athlete, she says she’s nothing special.
“I’ve just as much to learn from everyone else as they can learn from me,” White said. “And I think that is important to say. I don’t think I’m special or anything like that. We all have a story worth telling – this just happens to be mine.”