ST. PETERSBURG — The first time she learned to walk, she kicked grapefruits across the kitchen floor, so there was never a time that Erin Davis didn't play soccer. She played with the neighborhood kids and she played with the boys, the ones four years her senior, and by the time Erin was 13, colleges were filling her mailbox, wondering if she'd come play with them too.
Soon she'd join the most elite pool of players in the country, on the United States youth national team. She'd play on five teams at once, and train at the Bradenton athletic academy that gave Eli Manning to football and Ian Desmond to baseball. The Olympics committee would send letters to her high school. Erin can't come to school today because ...
Suddenly there was pain. Pain in her legs when she ran and kicked the ball, pain in her head from the bad things that had happened, the things she told herself weren't real.
To live a life without the pain, Erin Davis had surgery to kill the nerve in her left leg; nerve damage took care of the right. Today, 26 and still playing, she can't feel anything beneath her knees: not the ankles she covers with shin guards, not the cleats she laces up over her feet. She can't feel the ground she is running on. She can't feel the ball she is kicking past goalies.
She returned to the field for the first time in six years this fall as a mid-fielder for Eckerd College's Division II team.
Soccer could help Davis find closure from the only dream she's ever had. But it's hard to find a new dream, when you don't let go of the old one.
• • •
"Do you guys want to win?"
"Do you want to make the conference tournament?"
It had been a losing season. But on a sunny Monday in October, the final practice before the women's soccer team's last home game, Coach Danielle Fotopoulos said they could beat Saint Leo University the next night.
They'd just have to pick up their game. When the coach asked the girls to describe the practice, the huddle offered "horrible" and "rough." Davis didn't say anything. She reached down and touched the toes of her cleats.
In her freshman year of high school in Pennsylvania she was named Rookie of the Year by the Philadelphia Inquirer and, at 15, was selected to the U.S. Under-17 Women's National team. The next year she was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America Adidas Youth All-American.
Splitting her time between Philadelphia and the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Davis played on five soccer teams at a time, including for the Olympic Development Program. Her days starting at 5 a.m. and ended after 10 p.m.
The ache came in her junior year of high school. Her legs started to feel heavier and swollen. A doctor diagnosed her with compartment syndrome, explaining that her muscles were growing too fast for the lining around them. Her power was outpacing her development.
Her doctor cut the lining to release the pressure. But after the surgery, Davis' legs felt worse. The top of her left foot felt numb.
Davis says she never played as well after that. Still, the University of Texas gave her a full ride and a starting position. After a semester, Davis took her scholarship and starting spot to the University of Florida.
Home in Pennsylvania over a holiday, she consulted a second doctor. He found a severed sensory nerve from the first surgery. In yet another operation, doctors put in a graft. It never felt right.
Davis developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, a pain disorder. All of her limbs hurt, none more than her legs. And the more her legs ached, the harder it was to run away from the mental pain.
When she remembers the abuse, she sees herself from outside her body. She must have been 4 when it started. He was one of the boys she played soccer with. It went on until she was about 12 and could stop it, but she would think about it, every day, and she couldn't stop that.
She took a medical exemption, signing a paper saying that because of the pain she was done playing soccer. She finished her degree and she flew far away.
• • •
When new players join up at Eckerd, the athletic department has them fill out a form. It asks for "fun facts" of sorts, for potential human-interest stories. Some players have family on pro teams. There are two sets of siblings on the tennis team.
Davis left hers blank. At the end of practice, when she jogged barefoot across the grass, no one knew she could not feel it. No one knew that her leg swelled up because she let an infection she couldn't feel go for two weeks.
She does not tell them because she does not see why anyone would want to know.
The RSD had become so bad, her father Warren says, that she could not have bedsheets touch her legs without crying out. She could not wear clothing that touched below her knees.
After leaving UF, Davis had surgery to deaden the nerve that had been severed in her left leg. Dr. Daniel Richman of New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery said losing feeling "is the intended effect" of the superficial peroneal neuroma excision that he and a colleague performed in the fall of 2010.
Davis can walk because her motor nerve is intact. It's her sensory nerve that was traumatized and had to be treated. "She couldn't be doing better as far as we're concerned," Richman said.
Her right leg didn't need the operation, but nerve damage still stole most of the feeling.
In the ensuing haze Davis must have tried to walk around the hospital, but she only remembers the nightmares, hallucinations, the loss of some vision in one eye, her dead, numb legs.
She had moved to a tiny studio in New York. She could not walk down the stairs or stand in the shower or buy groceries. She stopped talking to her old teammates, her coaches.
"I didn't really have a life," she says. Her father told her to get help. "Fine," she said, and she drove to Ocala.
The others would later tell her that when she walked into the the Refuge, a treatment center where patients live in cabins in the middle of the woods, she hobbled like a little old lady about to fall over. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In group therapy she found common ground with a Russian girl about her age who, as a child, had overheard her mother's boyfriend kill her in the next room. The girl liked to run along the levee to a bush about 2 miles away, then run back. Would Davis like to run with her?
It was summer and it was hot and cottonmouth snakes sat all along the trail, their mouths open, waiting for the girls to run by. It's hard to explain, Davis says, of the numbness hitting the ground. It is a little bit like running on air, but, weak and powerless. She was clumsy. She fell. Still her body knew how to move.
First she ran with the girl, then alone. In between therapy — talking and accepting that who she had been had died — Davis began running to the bush and back three times every day. Twelve miles in all.
One day another friend from therapy gave her a pair of soccer cleats. Bright pink. Part of Davis' therapy was to say "goodbye" to things. She had driven to Boynton Beach, where her abuser was living, and said goodbye to him. Now, she threw the cleats into a tree. "Goodbye, soccer," she said.
Davis says she meant it. But on a field trip to a Walmart, she bought a soccer ball.
• • •
The scoreboard sounded like a siren as it finished its countdown to game time. Davis had been warming up. She walked the white sideline back to the bench.
This was not just the last home game of the season, and a must-win to make the playoffs, but also Senior Night: the last game for four girls on Davis' team. They read off inside jokes about perfume, lockers, hashtags and organic chemistry. "I'll never forget when you scored a goal and your mom bought you a car."
When Davis had called her former coach at Florida and told her she wanted to go back to college, to play again, Becky Burleigh was shocked. She asked Davis, is this really what you want?
"I thought I needed to finish my soccer career," Davis says, "to move on and process my life."
Burleigh called Fotopoulos. Long before coaching at Eckerd, Fotopoulos knocked in the winning goal for the Florida team at the 1998 NCAA championship.
At preseason in August, Davis was too skinny to take a hit and could only play for 15 minutes of the two-hour practices. She couldn't kick the ball in the air.
When the season began, Davis played 10 minutes of each half. "She might not have been making great plays or being flashy," Fotopoulos says, "but she was out there and she was doing her role, and she was getting better."
At first, when Davis went for the ball, her body would follow her legs. Then she started leaning in, sprinting to the ball. Instead of sitting 10 yards off from a tackle, she started going in, winning the ball. Playing the entire game.
The week before Eckerd's last home game, playing Nova Southeastern, Davis scored a goal: a 30-yard shot in the air. "For me and her, just because we both know how far she had come, it was so awesome," Fotopoulos says.
Davis didn't see it that way. The team lost in overtime. That night, at nearly 1 a.m., Davis texted her coach. She said the loss was her fault. She put the ball in scoring position for Nova, didn't she?
• • •
Eckerd lost its last home game 9-1. Davis hit a couple passes, had a good kick downfield. But mostly she ran, back and forth.
The school plays in a competitive Division II conference. But it's not Texas or Florida or everywhere she dreamed she'd play.
While 81 percent of Eckerd students live on campus, Davis lives alone in Pass-a-Grille. She goes into the girls' dorms and sees soccer posters on their walls and she wonders if soccer is their life's passion like it is hers.
It should be a happy experience, playing again, she says. She knows it should be.
After the matches, after the practices, after the scrimmages and the strength training, Davis practices alone, sometimes with just one ball. She sets it down, kicks it into the net, walks to the goal, picks the ball up, walks back.
She sets it down, kicks it into the net, walks to the goal, picks the ball up, walks back.
She sets it down ...
She does not like to lose. She does not like being slower and clumsier and feeling weak.
She's not feeling challenged, she says, "which makes me feel like I'm just going through the motions."
Soccer was her life, wasn't it?