LAKELAND — It's only 13 minutes into Rebecca Reynolds' final regular-season home game when she has to make the first of many on-field decisions to both stay healthy and help her team win.
Where many soccer players would just head the ball forward, the Southeastern University senior midfielder opts to let a drop pass bounce and take it with her knee. Minutes later she fields another high pass off her right foot. A goalie punt to the circle also goes off her foot and she later takes a line drive off her chest.
Reynolds is under strict doctor's orders never to head the ball again, for fear of doing severe and permanent neurological damage.
It's how she has played all season, leading the Fire to a 14-1 record and the first top 25 NAIA national ranking in school history, with their only loss coming against top-ranked Keiser University. She leads the team with eight assists, ranking third in the Sun Conference. And it's the way she will continue to play as Southeastern hosts a first-round postseason conference tournament match Saturday on its Lakeland campus.
Her style suits everyone just fine — from her coaches and teammates, to her family and friends — because a couple of years ago they all thought she would never play soccer again.
"This is such a special day for her," said her mother JoAnn, who recalls watching Reynolds play for youth club teams in Pasco County and then in high school at Hudson. "She thought she was never going to have her senior year. She lost hope. She did not know who she was. She has so identified herself as a soccer player that when she couldn't play at all, she was lost."
The struggles came for Reynolds after she suffered herniated discs during an offseason scrimmage when she was hit hard by an opposing player. A pair of concussions followed soon after. She couldn't run and had difficulty remembering things, making studies even more challenging.
With the rise in cases of athletes suffering from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, Reynolds took no chances. She used yoga to work her body back into playing shape and enrolled at Polk State College to continue her studies while on the road to recovery.
"Coming back from that, it did make me stronger," said Reynolds, who wears homemade bracelets during games where she writes inspirational reasons for continuing to play — like her mom and sister Nicole. "It made me take the time to realize what I was about. In taking the time off, I was able to not only see who I am without it, but who I can be with it and the effects that I can have on others."
First-year Fire women's soccer coach Randy Belli saw those effects and invited her back to SEU.
"Becky is a hard kid (while competing) but she's just so compassionate," said Belli, a former USF assistant women's soccer coach. "The player you see on the field doesn't match her personality and her love and caring for her teammates."
Her best friend and teammate, Alyssa Kaminski can attest to that. Kaminski leads the conference in goals scored with 12 including a recent game winner against St. Thomas that came off Reynolds' foot.
"The way God works to put us through four years of college soccer it's just amazing," Kaminski said. "Just to know as best friends we get to keep experiencing it together."
Southeastern is a faith-based school is affiliated with the Assemblies of God and follows Pentecostal traditions.
Reynolds has used her head in different ways throughout her collegiate career, intercepting would-be through passes as a defender and placing corner kicks cleverly in front of the net for her teammates to convert. She plans to apply her smarts as an intern with the Lakeland Fire Department upon graduation and work toward a full-time position in public relations. But not before one last postseason run on the pitch.
"Honestly, it's wild," she said. "It's emotional. It's exciting. It's more than I could ever imagine because there was a point in time where I didn't think I was ever going to play again. It's a God moment. It truly is."