Delran's John Verzi makes it back to the soccer field despite six knee surgeries

Delran's John Verzi lost three seasons of soccer with injuries in both knees. His coach calls his return a miracle. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Delran's John Verzi lost three seasons of soccer with injuries in both knees. His coach calls his return a miracle. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Posted: September 30, 2012

Each time John Verzi woke up in a hospital bed, the feelings were more pronounced.

And the odds? Stacked higher against him.

The lights flickered in his mind. His eyes opened. And almost as quickly as he felt the aching in his knee, he felt the emptiness and exhaustion of someone about to take on an impossibly uphill battle.

"It became like a habit," Verzi said. "Three straight summers with an operation."

Verzi's story ended up as something of a fairy tale. The senior soccer forward for Delran overcame six knee surgeries in 28 months, the result of three anterior cruciate ligament tears that stole the first three years of his high school career.

He clawed his way back. He somehow, poetically, found the back of the net in the first high school game of his career, at Pennsauken on Sept. 21.

The surface details are nothing short of inspiring.

But the real inspiration probably doesn't lie in the fairy-tale part of the story, but rather in the gruff reality of a teenager having the sport he loved repeatedly taken away, and in all the raw, unavoidable emotion associated with it.

While his peers were training, Verzi was rehabbing - fighting pain, doubt, fear, and nagging feelings of what could have been.

Through it all, Verzi was defiantly resolute. Few really expected him to come back. Many in his position wouldn't have bothered trying.

But soccer became more than a sport. Overcoming the odds became Verzi's passion. It made him stronger, physically and mentally; it was the catalyst for an iron will.

"There were plenty of times when I would think, 'How am I going to get through this?' " Verzi said. "But I just knew that I had to. Deep down, I always knew that I would."

Delran coach Mike Otto, a fiery veteran coach of two decades, still pauses and cracks a smile at the mention of Verzi on a soccer field.

"I've never witnessed that kind of determination and love for the game," Otto said. "Quite honestly, I never thought he'd come back to the field. It's nothing short of a miracle."

The litany

Verzi is matter of fact as he breaks down the list of injuries that cut down his promising soccer career.

ACL tear No. 1 occurred in March 2009, when Verzi was in the eighth grade. A kid "ran through" his left leg. To make it just a tad more harrowing, the injury occurred during an Olympic Development Program tryout.

Verzi's dry assessment of his playing days before high school suggests someone weary of thinking about where he'd be if he had made it through the tryout.

"Yeah," he said, shrugging. "I mean, I was definitely up there with the rest of the kids in that ODP group."

His first ACL surgery was in August 2009. In January 2010, he underwent a scope on his right knee. He rehabbed both injuries only to learn that his body had rejected his first ACL reconstruction.

So in August 2010, he underwent a second ACL reconstruction, wiping out his second straight year of high school soccer. When it finally looked as if he was recovering from that, along with another scope on his right knee, Verzi caught his foot in the turf during a workout in May 2011, tearing his left ACL for a third time and eliminating his junior season of high school soccer.

He needed a bone graft procedure on the knee before his third ACL reconstruction, last December.

"From a parent's perspective, it was scary, it was hell, it was horrible to watch your son go through this," said his mother, Maureen Verzi. "But he just wanted to come back - he wanted it so badly that it never even entered our minds to discourage him. There was never a question."

The determination

For John Verzi, each injury was like a cruel joke. When he tore his ACL a third time, he knew it right away. He refused any help off the field. He limped off determinedly.

Instantly he was thinking, once again, "There's no doubt in my mind that I'm going to be back on this field."

All he ever wanted to do was play soccer.

"I remember watching him run around the soccer fields in Delran when he was 5 years old," Otto said.

Verzi is a class president at Delran, and a member of the National Honor Society, so he has plenty going for him. But he holds a special place for soccer.

Verzi's three older sisters played the game in college.

Two of his sisters overcame ACL injuries. One overcame a serious back injury.

"I watched what they went through, and it definitely made me believe that I could get through it, too," John Verzi said. "I grew up watching them, wanting to play soccer like they did. And when I got hurt, they were by my side."

And they weren't the only ones.

Verzi cites family, friends, his physical therapist, and support from his Delran teammates and coaches as being instrumental in helping him through tough times.

While sidelined, Verzi was a fixture on the Delran sidelines. Through his first three years of high school, he went to practices and games and, even as a freshman, was welcomed as a member of the team.

"It was very upsetting for everybody to see him keep getting hurt," Otto said. "Especially someone who's such a good kid like John. We were just all hoping for one day to see him back on the field."

The comeback

Verzi's physical therapist, Erich Herkloz, recalls several instances of the same conversation.

"There were times when John would come in and he'd be down," said Herkloz, who worked with Verzi through every one of his recoveries, often three or four times per week. "I'd tell him, 'I know it stinks. I can't imagine what you're going through, but we're going to get through this.' And he believed that - that was constant. He'd be down, but he never stopped believing.

"He was an inspiration: how hard he worked, how committed he was, how dedicated he was. He wanted it so bad. And that's what got him through this."

The tough times, Verzi said, made the triumph so sweet. He saw a light at the end of the tunnel late this summer. His training was amped up. He was working on his touches, feeling like a soccer player again.

He still gets aches in his knee, "but not while I'm playing," he said. "The adrenaline kicks in, and I don't feel much. You just go out and battle. It's not like I'm thinking about getting hurt while I'm out there."

As for the storybook ending - scoring a goal in his first game - Verzi doesn't view it as an ending at all. It was an amazing moment, but not one he's dwelling on. Verzi now wants to walk on to the men's team at whatever college he attends. It might be a long shot, sure - but try telling Verzi he can't do it.

"It's just a surreal feeling being back," Verzi said. "Getting to this point was a long struggle, a day-in and day-out grind. But it's made me stronger as a person. I feel like I can tackle anything that comes my way in life.

"You just have to push through when times are tough."


Contact Chris Melchiorre

at rallysports@phillynews.com.

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