Protecting her goal

UB soccer player White defies medical history to become D-1 keeper

By SARA DINATALE
On November 24, 2013

  • Mckenzie White is a junior goalkeeper for the women’s soccer team. She has sat the last two seasons out due to leg complications she’s had since birth. But the persistent athlete is determined to compete again once she recovers from her latest surgery. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
  • Before June, both of White’s legs were crooked. Her right leg, which was once 11 degrees deformed, was surgically straightened. Her left leg, however, is still 6 degrees deformed between her tibia and femur. Aline Kobayashi, The Spectrum
  • In White’s June surgery, doctors removed wedges of bone in her femur and tibia and used a metal plate and seven screws to align her leg so the pressures in her knee could be properly distributed. The x-rays above show the current state of White’s surgically straightened right leg. Courtesy of Mckenzie White

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."

 ***

White's mom, Michelle, lovingly called them her "crazy legs."

"I used to pray for her to love her legs the way they are," Michelle said. "She never could."

White admits she never did. "I literally just hated the shape of them," she said.

It was like an invisible string was always slightly tugging her knees toward each other. The inward-facing arch from her hip to her knee was more noticeable on the right leg - the degree of deformity was nearly twice as large on that leg than on her left.

In June, White sat dazed and under heavy painkillers with a large wound snaking up her right leg. She had allergic reactions to the sedatives for days; she had been in varying stages of deep sleep and pain.

Matt, her brother, described the wound as a "hack job." It was open a few centimeters and surrounded by yellow and purple bruises.  

"I got a distal femoral osteotomy and tibial tubercle osteotomy," White said with ease. Her right leg was 11 degrees deformed between her femur and tibia.

Some bits of metal and burrowed-out bones were beneath the unsightly wound.

Doctors took a saw through White's femur and removed a 13.38-millimeter wedge of bone, in order to align her leg, and attached it back together with five screws and a metal plate. They removed a wedge of her tibia, too, to bring the bone outward and relieve any burden on her knee. The bone is now held together with two screws and pressures are redistributed throughout her leg and knee. Even her quad muscles were repositioned.

White goes to doctors with one question: "Can I play soccer?" And whatever they have to do to get her body to a place in which it can function as a keeper, she'll do it.

You can think of White's knees like the tires of a car, according to Walters, who is the director of physical therapy at Athlete's Performance in Texas.

The 'tread' in White's knees is her cartilage; tires only have so much tread before they "blow out." White's malalignment makes it so her cartilage wears down quicker - if she wasn't so active, her knees would be in better shape, Walters said. That's why doctors push White to stay off the field because even post-op, White will still be putting stress on, and likely tearing up, her cartilage.

At the end of White's freshman season, an increasing knee pain eventually left her unable to play. She didn't spend her sophomore season recovering; she spent it searching for answers. At that point, White didn't understand the degree of her deformity and she didn't know there was any chance she could have her legs surgically straightened.

She just knew she wanted to play soccer - the game she uses to define herself.

Doctors - with her health in mind - have asked her, "How much do you love soccer?"

"These questions for a Division I athlete don't work," White said. The surgeries don't scare her. "The thought of giving up a dream and a goal - that scares me."

By November 2011, years of pounding her feet against grass, mud and turf had left White with pain she could no longer play through, as she had been doing for years. The deformity in her legs got more noticeable and she veered into solely wearing pants as a way to hide the crookedness.

And White, though desperate for a solution, had no direction. Doctors were uncertain about what could fix the problem. Some said it was her hamstrings; others said she needed injections. White spent more time researching her legs than doing homework. She couldn't exercise. She couldn't walk up stairs. She couldn't play soccer.

She tried to prevent ever going back to a place that put her on the bench, but it happened anyway. It was another setback - something White is used to.

***

In her freshman year at a public high school, White had two screws put into her right foot after a break struggled to heal, even after time in a cast.

The following year, she started at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota  - a place White described as "like college with a lot more rules" - so she could grow as a player in the prep school's soccer program. But the recovery from her foot surgery was extensive. White didn't feel like she was back performing at her best until her senior year. At that time, nothing was hindering her for the first time since her breaks started when she was 10 years old.

And to be able to perform again at her highest - that was everything. She worked out three times a day. She was so thankful to be able to run, she'd go to her school's soccer field alone and do laps for hours. She had an overwhelming feeling that she was almost invincible whenever her cleats sunk into that turf field.

She's already done so many things she wasn't supposed to be able to do - the field is her salvation and a reminder.

"It's like a reminder that I'm here and I'm doing it and I'm playing," White said. "In that aspect, when I'm on that field, I've already beat that - I've already won in a sense. I'm doing it."

Ellie Williams, one of her best friends who also went to Shattuck, described White as a vocal leader on the field. "The girls would listen to her," she said. "They trusted her."

White's high school team was going to a State Cup game. They were going to be champions. A week before the big game, White was hit with what she thinks was vertigo - likely due to a kick she took to the head.

She couldn't get herself out of the top bunk in her dorm, stand up, walk, think straight and - most importantly - play. She was so close to the moments you live for as an athlete. This was their year. And White wasn't going to play.  

So when White started her freshman season at UB, she wasn't going to set herself up to sit out again. She did physical therapy on every part of her body as a way to ensure her feet and legs would remain uninjured.

She was done with being in boot after boot and cast after cast, with having to spend chunks of time in wheelchairs, with being on the sidelines watching and struggling to really feel a part of the team.

But her body forced her off the field anyway.

White wasn't a starter her freshman year. She got to play three times during the season - moments White described as "a glimpse of how it felt to play college soccer."

She understood her role and that she had to prove her worth and that she deserved to be on that team.

Her father, who was a keeper in high school, was always impressed with his daughter's quick hands. Her high school coach from Shattuck agreed. 

"What she didn't have in terms of having 'the best wheels,' she made up for with her hands," David, her dad, said. "She could stop and catch anything that was coming her way."

In White's first season at UB, she was asked to "come off the bench cold," according to then-women's soccer coach Michael Thomas. White subbed in due to an injury in a conference game against Miami Ohio, and the goaltender had two major saves in 21 minutes to help her team earn a 1-0 overtime victory. It was a turning point in the season, Thomas said, and he added that the coaches were excited to see "the route she was going on."

But they wouldn't get the chance. As soon as that first season ended, White started looking for a doctor who could solve her pain. The search continued as she sat out her sophomore year. After a yearlong hunt, White finally found a doctor - one in Boston - who was the first to propose a surgical solution.

Ten days before the surgery, White made the mistake of watching the procedure on YouTube - citing the incident as "the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life."

But White counted down the days until that surgery. Getting there was a struggle. Finding the doctor was just the first battle White faced.

This time, it was insurance. White's health insurance refused to cover her surgery because it included what White described as a "cartilage transplant," which she said insurance companies don't always approve. And they wouldn't approve her procedure.

She called the insurance company every day for three months - so often that she had their phone number and her insurance group ID memorized. And each time it got denied, White would move on to the next step for her case to be reviewed again until she finally got to her last hope: "independent review." She collected documents and letters from doctors she had been seeing since she was a kid. She wrote her own letter - her parents, too.

She explained that it wasn't just her leg or her knee - it was everything. It was her feet, her hips. It was all connected. And it wasn't until she was 19 years old that one doctor seemed to put it all together and offer a solution.

A solution her insurance company rejected, again.

She was crushed. It was late in her sophomore year - the rejection fell right before exam week.

"It honestly felt like I was just going through the motions of life at the time," she said.

So she applied for the surgery without the cartilage adjustment portion. It was approved. On May 10, White got word she'd be able to have the surgery - easily the happiest day of her life.

That's what landed her in a hospital bed on June 10 with a bloody gash stretching from mid-thigh to mid-shin.

"It looked terrible," Matt, her brother, said. "They pulled back the bandages and all you saw was this red, bloody wound surrounded by yellow and purple bruising."

Matt remembers the days he used to push his baby sister around in a wheelchair so she could get outside. He remembers the times she was told to quit soccer and that her legs would never be straight. White went on a cruise with her family for Christmas during her freshman year and refused to wear shorts. She hated her legs. She hated that she wasn't playing soccer.

So her family sat huddled in the hospital room and had their eyes drawn to the bloody mess on her leg.

And then her brother took a step back and realized, "Holy s**t; her leg is straight."

His voice got higher, he was excited and he demanded his sister look at her leg and see it was straight for the first time in her life. She looked down at it, and he lunged toward her for a hug. That's when the Whites broke down and sobbed as a family because their Kenzie had something she had always wanted.

And she still can't believe it. She'll catch it in the mirror sometimes and have the same reaction her brother did: "Holy s**t."

The wound has healed well, but it left a noticeable scar that sometimes attracts stares in the gym. She doesn't mind. A smile worked across her face as she explained that she'd rather have people staring at a straight leg than a crooked one.

"I'd rather have one million scars and a straight leg," she said.

It's a reminder of what she has been through and overcome - it also shows her determination to keep going. Her left leg, which is 6 degrees off, will eventually need the same procedure - likely after she graduates.

For now, White is focusing on her right leg. She's allowed to use the elliptical - she does that for about two hours a day. She has started juggling and maneuvering a soccer ball again. Recovery from the procedure typically ranges from one year to 18 months - and though White is hopeful and feels like she may be able to play in the fall of 2014, it's too soon for her to know for sure.

She has aspirations to attend medical school and possibly get into orthopedics. She never wants anyone to feel like they need to give up because of their body's restrictions.

We all have struggles, according to White. And this is hers.

"The important thing is that you are not beat until you surrender to your struggle," White said.

Mckenzie White is not surrendering. She's wearing shorts.

 

email: sara.dinatale@ubspectrum.com


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