TAMPA — From the moment her left leg gave way after she had fought for a loose ball, Brittany Burrows knew she had done it — again.
Eleven months after reconstructive surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee as a freshman, the Alonso soccer player collapsed in pain during a game against Sickles. She had suffered the same injury again.
"I was just screaming on the ground, 'I did it again, I did it again,' " she said. "I knew it automatically."
During the most pivotal part of the soccer recruiting season — most high school players commit by the end of their junior seasons — Burrows, now a senior defender, fought back to play again. In all, she missed nearly two seasons of soccer — and the mental hurdles took longer to overcome.
But in December, Burrows' remarkable comeback peaked with a phone call from her father, Norm, telling her that the University of Florida, the school she dreamed of attending, had offered her a scholarship.
"On my end of the phone, it was like a crescendo," Norm Burrows said. "It started with Brittany and a few of the girls around her screaming. I heard that and I started crying."
'She runs like a guy'
The Burrows family moved to Tampa from Dallas before Brittany's freshman year. Her father played football at Ohio State. Her mother, Marilyn, was a cheerleader at Florida.
And Brittany always had the athleticism to be a college athlete. When she first joined the Clearwater Soccer Club, she immediately stood out.
"She's one of the best athletes I've ever seen," said Bill Scott, her Clearwater U-14 coach. "She is just so fast. She has an extra gear that a lot of players don't. I'm not trying to sound sexist, but she runs like a guy."
But that year, already playing for the Alonso varsity team as a freshman, she was kicked in the leg from behind in a game. The thin rubber band-like tendon in her left knee snapped, a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
After surgery — a patella tendon from a cadaver replaced her ACL — she was away from the game for some 10 months. Three games into her sophomore season, she tore the tendon again.
"The toughest part was definitely the mental phase, knowing it was going to be really hard work getting back again," Burrows said. "Seeing all my teammates and all my friends succeeding and getting better during the recruiting process and me just having to sit there watching them, that was hard."
Burrows had seen firsthand how prevalent ACL tears are among female teenage soccer players. Four of the 14 players on her U-13 club team in Dallas had ACL injuries during their freshman year. Two teammates from her current U-18 Clearwater Soccer Club team sustained ACL tears this season.
The NCAA's Injury Surveillance System tracks injuries to college athletes by sport, and its most recent study of ACL injuries shows women sustain them more often. According to the study, .28 of every 1,000 women's soccer players (1 in every 3,571) suffered a severe ACL injury, compared with .09 in every 1,000 for men's soccer players. Even college football players — .18 in every 1,000 — are less susceptible. In fact, the only sport with more ACL injuries is women's gymnastics (1 in every 3,030).
Studies have shown the reason these injuries are more prevalent in women seems to be anatomical — a woman's knee joint allows for less flexibility in the knee and because females have wider hips, their leg alignment places more pressure on the joint. Other reasons include reduced muscle strength and the fact that women condition for sports at a later age.
Burrows had already come back from one ACL tear, but another?
Scott would meet her after school and test her with the basics. How would she handle a ball coming to her mid thigh? How would she do with her weak foot? How would she trust that every battle for the ball wouldn't end in another painful fall and rehab?
But at a showcase in Raleigh, N.C., two Decembers ago, Burrows received a letter from Dartmouth. She was back on the recruiting radar.
"I had my doubts definitely. …I doubted it a lot of times, knowing that if I did it one more time I probably wouldn't be able to walk."
Over e-mail, she maintained a relationship with Florida coach Becky Burleigh, who was honest in telling Burrows her 2009 recruiting class was complete. But two Florida assistants saw Burrows at her best at the same Raleigh showcase a year later. She didn't know they were there.
"I remember being able to feel it, I was just on fire," she said. "These girls weren't touching the ball. I was like, 'Nope, nope, it's mine.' I remembered feeling that way before. I remember having that confidence and being able to practically kick everyone's butt."
The next day, her scholarship offer came.
Burrows plans to major in physical therapy. She is looking forward. But when she returned to Sickles' field, site of her second tear, memories came back. When she sees a kid on crutches, her mind wanders. But she said no longer does she wonder, "What if?"
"It made me a lot mentally stronger, that's for sure," she said. "I think back on it and I think it will help with the struggles through college, getting that starting position, running that last lap. I'm going to remember how hard I pushed to get this."