By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
ATHENS, Ga. – When Laura Eddy takes the field on Friday night in Austin, Texas, it will be as one of Georgia’s top midfielders poised to lead her team to one of the best seasons in program history.
That might not seem that improbable on the surface for an athlete who has won the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Year award and also has been named to the league’s All-Tournament team. But you have to understand Eddy’s journey to appreciate the scope of that accomplishment.
Eddy hasn’t seen the field for more than two seasons. Back-to-back ACL tears in her third and fourth years in the Georgia program left the Atlanta native with a long journey to recovery, one that will culminate on Friday when she and the Bulldogs square off against Texas.
“It’s surreal right now,” Eddy said. “Looking back on it, it feels like longer than two years. I love it every day and can’t wait to get back out there.”
Rewind to the fall of 2009 when Eddy arrived for her first semester in the Classic City as a highly touted recruit who had been named the 2009 Georgia State Player of the Year, had twice been honored as an All-American and, as a senior, led her Marist High School team to a state championship.
In Eddy’s first two years at Georgia, she played in each of the team’s 42 games with 30 starts. She earned countless accolades for her play, especially in a freshman season that saw Eddy play all 90 minutes on 16 occasions during the year.
Heading into her junior year, Eddy tore her ACL during preseason practice and would be sidelined for the remainder of the campaign.
“She got taken out in practice and, right when it happened, it was kind of one of those things where you knew right away,” Georgia head coach Steve Holeman said. “She was pretty devastated and there were phases where there was a little bit of depression, but she recovered well. She worked incredibly hard for nine months to get back on the field.”
During her nine months of rehab, Eddy’s commitment to her team never wavered. She was a leader on the sideline and did everything she could to encourage her teammates. That dedication earned Eddy the SEC’s 2012 Sportsmanship Award.
“That’s probably one of the coolest awards I’ve ever won,” Eddy said. “I was trying to put myself out there and be a teammate without being on the field. It’s awesome to get recognized for my attitude and dedication. Even though I wasn’t on the field or scoring goals, I was trying to help in other ways.”
Still, Eddy was eager to get back on the field. After the standard nine-month period of recovery and being cleared to play, she went full speed into her first training opportunity.
And that’s when it happened.
“I was 25 minutes into my first training session, playing 7 v. 7 and I tore my ACL on a routine change of direction,” Eddy said. “I was devastated. I knew from the moment of my surgery that I was going to have to take this slower. I wanted to make sure I was strong, and mentally and physically prepared. I did 13 months of recovery.”
Holeman was away from Athens when he received the news he could hardly believe. Eddy had been a model patient and had done everything the right way in her rehab.
“It just didn’t seem fair,” Holeman said. “I’m sure she said ‘Why me?’ She has worked really hard to come back. She is obviously doing really well and it’s great to see her on this side of those injuries.”
Eddy served as a team captain during the 2012 campaign despite, again, not seeing any playing time. She has fully recovered from her second ACL injury, battling through the rehabilitation process and the more difficult mental aspect of her journey.
“The mental part is probably 10 times harder than the physical part,” Eddy said. “It’s easier to get your body in shape than it is to get mentally prepared to start running or cutting or playing. You have that nervous feeling, so it takes a whole lot of mentally coaching yourself, trying to gain back your confidence. I have really zoned in mentally, I have confidence and I feel like I haven’t missed a beat since getting hurt.”
Holeman agrees, saying he hasn’t seen any hesitation or lack of confidence in his pupil’s play.
“To be honest, the coaching staff has had more of a mental block in terms of her being aggressive than she has,” he said with a laugh. “We’re telling her to back off a little bit. We know she’s full go. When we see her go to the ground or tackle, she doesn’t seem nervous at all.”
If it’s possible, Eddy looks to be better than ever when she returns for her redshirt senior season with the Bulldogs.
“The cliché is true – you never realize how much you miss something until it’s gone,” Eddy said. “I’ve always had an extreme passion and love for soccer, but I didn’t realize how great it was until I couldn’t play. I learned how dedicated and passionate I am and how I’m willing to do anything to play.”
While Eddy may have missed two years of playing time, she learned a great deal from her time on the sidelines. She now has a new perspective that she will bring to her team when she returns to competition.
“She has certainly matured from a soccer perspective,” Holeman said. “She spent a lot of time watching from the sideline and we had her very involved in everything we did. She’s kind of gotten a coach’s perspective.
“Any coach who has been in the game would tell you, they wish they could go back as a player with the understanding that they now have as a coach,” he continued. “Laura is able to do that. We put her back on the field and now she’s a player-coach, basically.”
Holeman knows the combination of Eddy’s talent and the knowledge she has gained on the long road back to soccer will be of great benefit to both her and his team in the 2013 campaign.
“She will bring us leadership and she is a fantastic midfielder,” Holeman said. “While she was a captain last year, it’s a little more difficult to lead watching from the sideline. Now she can be an on-field leader. She pulls the strings for us in the midfield. She know the game, knows when to speed up and knows when to slow down. She will do a great job controlling everything for us.”
Eddy is primed to do just that, with the goal of leading her team to new heights. After all, it has been a long time coming.
“I think this is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “We have a really strong freshman class. We’re shooting for our first SEC Championship and a run in the NCAA Tournament. It’s still hard to believe I’m full go. It’s so much fun.”