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Overcoming the Odds: Knee Surgeries Won’t Derail Falcone’s Soccer Career

November 7, 2013
Catherine Falcone
Catherine Falcone

Senior Day is a highly anticipated event for all college athletic teams. The special ceremony is filled is with a myriad of emotions as players say good-bye to the present and hello to their future.

Last Saturday’s senior day celebration for the Keene State College women’s soccer team was a little bit longer than most as the Owls bid adieu to eight seniors who spent the past four years dedicating themselves to the program. But for one senior the smile was a little brighter, the hugs were a little tighter and the walk through the gauntlet of players was a little bit more meaningful. Catherine Falcone never thought she’d have the chance to make the traditional senior walk, much less run on a soccer field again.

As much as Falcone is a soccer player, she’s also a fighter, enduring not one, but three knee operations to play the sport she loves. Instead of exhilaration and fulfillment her career was filled with rehabilitation and commitment. But Falcone wouldn’t be denied her walk in the sun.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “It means the world to me that I’m not only able to walk on the field, but also able to play.”

“It’s very hard to come back after three (surgeries) and play, but she never quit, she never gave up,” said Catherine’s mother, Nancy, prior to joining her daughter on the field for the festivities. “She stayed strong and she made it.”

Falcone was a late arrival to the sport growing up in Sutton, Mass., a town that was so small it didn’t have enough players for the high school football team until combining forces with a neighboring school. However, finding soccer players was never a problem.

Making the junior varsity soccer team as an eighth grader, Falcone showed enough promise to be called a swinger, a player that played on the j.v. team, but would be called up to fill out the varsity bench.

Falcone went on to play four varsity seasons for the Sammies (named after a local gun-toting legend), perennial contenders for Dual Valley Conference and State (Division III) titles. A speedy, aggressive outside back, Falcone earned her share of honors, but none more special than the Stephen Romasco Award, named after the school’s former basketball coach, who died in 2005 of a stroke. “The inscription on the award reads ‘Play like a champion,’” said Falcone. “It’s given to someone who had heart and devotion to their sport and that was really big for me.”

No one played with more heart and devotion than Falcone, including in a rare under-the-lights late-season game against Douglas her junior year. Contesting for the ball, Falcone heard a sudden crack and then a pop. Writhing in pain on the ground, she was taken to the emergency room where she was given the news that she tore both her ACL and MCL.

Falcone knew that the road to recovery would be difficult. Trying to console her daughter following surgery, Nancy Falcone leaned over and said to her, “The hard part is over, and she looked at me and said. ‘No mom, the hard part is just beginning.’” She must have known mentally in her head what the recovery was like,” said Nancy Falcone.

Falcone made it back for her senior season, albeit with an additional piece of equipment – a brace she called her bionic knee. Moved to sweeper, Falcone had to adjust not only to the brace, but to a different game plan. Lacking the speed, she now had to rely on her tenacity and guile. “It just made me push myself harder. I wasn’t as fast, but I had to be just as strong,” said Falcone, who helped Sutton reach the semifinals of the State tournament.

Falcone’s injury started her thinking about the medical field and helping athletes. She heard about the athletic training program at Keene State and got a ringing endorsement from Terri Senecal, an administrative assistant at Sutton High, whose son Joe starred on the Keene State men’s soccer team. A visit to the campus sealed the deal.

The excitement and thrill of making the Keene State team as a freshman soon gave way to despair when Falcone went down with another knee injury during an October practice. She tried to play through the pain and finish out the season. “I became pretty good friends with the ice bath,” she said

But even her strong will couldn’t prevent the inevitable surgery. “I just made the team and this happens?” said Falcone. “It was a devastating blow – knowing I would have to do it again if I wanted to play.”

Falcone returned for her sophomore season, but her injuries were starting to take a toll on her play. “You think it’s a setback in high school and then you come to college and it’s a huge gap,” she said. “In high school you can get away with pure talent, but you can’t do that in college. I felt that lack of confidence and ability.”

But Falcone didn’t let that stop her. Displaying the aggressiveness and fearlessness that has always been a trademark of her game and endeared her to her coaches and teammates, Falcone cherished every moment on the field, even if those moments were few.

“She does get down but it doesn’t last,” said Nancy Falcone. She just gets back up on the horse and keeps on going.”

Falcone’s third injury didn’t happen out on the field, but at the school’s Spaulding Gym that winter. Playing a pick-up game with members of the men’s team, Falcone was accidently hit into the bleachers. “I knew it the second it happened,” said Falcone. “I sat there for a while and said to myself, Is this really happening to me again?”

Well versed in the recovery routine, Falcone put off surgery until the summer so she’d have the mobility to put in her hours as a student athletic trainer. “I got my third surgery and everyone assumed I was done playing,” she said. “I guess you can call me crazy, but I wasn’t ready to call it a career.”

Putting off surgery until the summer didn’t give Falcone enough time to make it back for her junior season. Reluctantly taking the job of team manager, she soon found out that she preferred playing to watching. “It didn’t feel the same on the sidelines,” she said. “It killed me watching them play.”

Falcone talked to her mom, whom she called her “crutch” through the whole ordeal. “My mom has always been there for me,” she said. “She said, ‘If you know it’s going to bother you for the rest of your life, you should give it another try. I believe in you and I think you can do it.’”

“I think it’s just being there. I didn’t do the work. I wasn’t the one doing the PT, the runs and the drills – that was her. I was just trying to talk her through the tough times,” said Nancy Falcone. “Yes, there were the ‘why me?’ times and the questions, ‘Can I do it?’ And I told her, Yes you can. You’re a fighter. You should stay strong and keep going.”

Falcone also got a vote of confidence from Coach Denise Lyons. “Who comes back after three knee surgeries? But she still had a passion for the game,” said Lyons. “It wasn’t about sympathy. She worked hard and deserved to be on the team. It was her dream to play her senior year and she did it.”

Called “Cat” by her teammates, Falcone might not have nine lives, but she did have three on the soccer field. Cleared right before the start of preseason this fall, she was a little hesitant taking the field. “In my mind I didn’t tell myself I made the team, so I knew I had to push myself,” said Falcone.

Falcone received loads of encouragement from her teammates, including freshman Marissa Costello, who was also fighting for a spot on the roster. “She said, ‘You’re doing great, Cat. You’re showing us how to play back here,’” said Falcone. “That gave me the confidence to keep going.”

Although she’s seen action in only five games, including a senior day start against Southern Maine, Falcone has made the most of her minutes. “When I’m given the chance to play on the field, I say, Here we go, let’s do this – you worked for this – now work your tail off on the field,” said Falcone. “I don’t care how long I play, I just love that I’m a part of it.”
“I’m happy I came back,” she continued. “Emotionally, it’s still difficult because I’m not where I want to be. I know the surgeries curtailed my ability on the field, but I definitely think I showed that I’m the type of person that’s not going to give up just because something is holding me back.” Falcone will return to Keene State next fall to complete her degree requirements. Considering options for grad school, she spent the summer doing an internship with Mike Kiser, who owns an orthotic and prosthetic business in Keene. “It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience, and I ended up loving it,” said Falcone. “You work with a different group of people. They’re not just athletes, but people looking to have the ability to walk. They’re just so grateful and I love the feeling of helping them and being around them. Athletes know they can sometimes have their knees and legs taped up and keep going, but these people really need you and I love that feeling of helping them.”