MIDLOTHIAN — Some athletes break ankles while others tear anterior cruciate ligaments, injuries that range from minor to career ending.
Others — literally — break their backs striving for perfection.
Recent Midlothian Heritage High School graduate Nick McRay's rise to collegiate level soccer and a nearly full scholarship with Kansas' Ottawa University on May 22, though, defied an injury that could have derailed a bright athletics career permanently before it had a chance to take off.
Shannon McRay, his mother, said her son spending almost his entire eighth-grade year in a back brace after fracturing the L5 bone in his spine lit the fire of his resolve rather than dampen it.
"Do you know how hard it is to keep a kid like Nick still? I think that was the hardest part of the six months," she said softly, rocking back and forth in a small office chair and fiddling with a stack of scholarship informational flyers. "It didn't take to long for him to want to play — even though he couldn't — and try and beat that timeline and get back on the field."
The injury didn't occur from some massive blow to the back during a game, from a slide into the goal or some freak accident on the pitch, either. It was a routine twist and fall that removed the future Jaguar star from soccer for almost a half year.
"I was at a soccer practice and nothing bad happened, but I think I fell wrong and within the next couple of days I kept feeling a pain each time I would turn, move my back or bend down," Nick added. "When we went to the ER, I found out I fractured both sides of my L5."
According to information derived from the University of Maryland Medical Center website fractures to the L4 and L5 vertebrae — located in the lumbar region of the spine — can take anywhere between three to six months for pain to subside and nearly nine months to heal completely. One treatment is an orthosis, commonly referred as the use of a back brace.
Nick unlike Hilary Braun, a former Stanford University field hockey player that suffered a similar injury, was one of the lucky ones. Braun was diagnosed with inactive pars fractures in her L4 and L5 vertebrae that effectively ended her career in 2008.
Because the L5 sits at the base of the spine, it is responsible for rotation and stability of the pelvic region. It helps football players turn on a dime and accelerate to breakneck speeds and soccer players to drive the ball into the corners of the net with eye-popping accuracy.
Some don't regain 100 percent of their range of motion. Nick wasn't in that contingent.
"I had to wear a back brace for six months and I couldn't play sports for like four of those," Nick continued. "That was right when we were making the transition into Midlothian and I was able to go into athletics. Coming into a new city and wearing a back brace drew some stares and questions. It was interesting."
The McRay family moved from Richardson to Mansfield before settling in the friendly confines of "Cement and Steel Capital of Texas." He lived in Richardson until fifth grade and Mansfield until the end of his seventh-grade year. Midlothian, though, was where his star brightened.
The athletic DNA of his biological father and the leg talent and guidance of his stepfather Terry Cowan, a former Texas Tech University placekicker, played only a single part of his return to the field. Will, Shannon said, played a bigger role in the Panther-turned-Jaguars’ path back from a spinal injury.
"He may be a short little guy but he can shut anyone down," Shannon said with a light chuckle. "Teams should be afraid, very afraid. Nicholas has always given any sport he plays 100 percent. He never quits, gives up win or lose and he will finish everything strong. He’s one of those kids that’s good at almost everything without really trying. Every sport he’s attempted, he’s excelled at."
“Except for maybe golf. That’s the one thing I’m not really good at,” Nick chirped.
She said the journey south through Texas lead them back to the Mansfield-Midlothian area and the people, schools and friendships there, basically helping them fall back to their surroundings. She also noted them coming back was the best thing they could have done.
Nick also was one of the student-athletes that made the decision to transition out of Midlothian High School and tackle the challenge of laying the foundation of success at a newly minted UIL 4A institution of learning. He joined boys like Preston Smith IV, Jack Ellis and Hogan Keasler on the unsure path away from the 6A football and boys' soccer Panther powerhouse and into the unknown Jaguar territory.
“A couple of soccer players and I sat down cause Coach Wig had pulled us aside and told us about the opportunity,” Nick said. “We were excited because we wanted to start a new school and make our own traditions and do what we wanted to do throughout the years. I think that really helped us because we all had a singular goal, not matter what sport you were in — we wanted to win and lay the foundation for something special. Everybody was in on it and that bled into our relationships. There weren’t groups of friends. Everybody was family with everybody. Having the opportunity to make the decision to go to Midlothian Heritage was probably the best thing that could have happened to any of us. That legacy we set will last forever.”
The fact he spent four years in two different high schools and experienced several different decision changes in the span of six months, too, heightened the difficulty of achieving college roster status. He went from being a Coast Guard hopeful, to a U.S. Navy recruit to an almost chef before settling with the Braves, Ottawa University and on departing the Lone Star State for the state of Kansas.
The spinal injury disqualified Nick, who saw the military and becoming a world-famous chef as one of his goals since he was 6 years old, from service in the Coast Guard. He bypassed 11 different offers to accept a $16,000 scholarship Ottawa for athletics, $5,000 more because of academics and another $500 via the Brandon Palady Memorial Scholarship, too.
With $21,500 of the $26,204 needed for tuition in his pockets, the road to People's Bank Field, and possibly a bid as a commissioned military officer, was closer than he thought.
"The Coast Guard said they'd try to work with him, but they never called back," Shannon said. "Two weeks before graduation, the Navy called him after we had gotten all these offers [from colleges] and told us that they 'might be able to give him a waiver.' I looked at him and he knew this was his choice. He was still thinking about the military but it's like I always tell the kids, 'Everything happens for a reason." You take it as it goes, put your faith in it and know that everything will work out. For him, it did. He'll get to go to college almost free of charge, which is a great way to start your life — almost debt free. He could also enter the military at a higher rank because of his career, too."
Nick flashed a trademark smile, said he still will be a chef and leaned deep in the office chair — just like the classic cool, calm, collected and jovial overachieving jokester his coaches, parents and friends depicted in hundreds of stories about him in four years in Midlothian.
Shannon added four years of work in the club soccer world with Mansfield Revolution Head Coach Shawn Laurence, the smooth-talking recruiting of Angela Finch and the velvet-hammer-like mentorship of Lee Wiginton and former Jaguar Head Soccer Coach Ben Buentello, too, helped her son evolve into the man he is today despite the shortfalls of his past.
Nick, a member of Midlothian Heritage's first graduating class, is one of the first male Jaguars that will play college men's soccer on a scholarship. Buentello said that rather than having an impact on his players, it was Nick and his mates that changed his life for the better.
"It's a pretty big accomplishment given he overcame something could have meant the end of his career and then took a chance at a new school with no guarantees," said Buentello, the new head soccer coach at Ferris High School, about his former sparkplug. "That's just him — a hard worker that has an endless motor and a heart of gold. If coaches want to know what they're getting in Nick, they should know they won't help but laugh at his antics and fall in love with his work ethic. Above all, though, he's a class act. I was just blessed to have a team full of them."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI