Sept. 5, 2007
by Jeff Smith
It was Oct. 23, 2005, and Michael Roach was trying to make up time in the car because he was late for his 12:30 a.m. curfew to his suburban St. Louis home.
It was raining out, but no high schooler, not even an accomplished soccer standout, wants to hear it from his parents, especially after a big win in the final weeks of the regular season.
He sped over the one-lane bridge when his right-side tires found a rut off the side of the road. He overcorrected, flipped the car and landed in a ditch.
All of this, just 200-300 feet from the entrance of his neighborhood. All of this, nearly cost him his life.
Roach, now a freshman on the Indiana men's soccer team, vividly remembers what happened that October night. Remarkably, he walked away from the accident, surveyed the damage and sat back down. There was no question the external damage was a mangled wreck, but little did he know how damaged his body was.
He had hit his head, there was blood coming from his eyebrow, but there was no feeling in his upper body.
When analyzed at the hospital, Roach was told he was two millimeters from being paralyzed, or dead. His father explained to him that two millimeters was the width of a toothpick.
Roach's reward for a second chance at life? A broken second vertebra in his neck. He was given two options for repair, but only one of them would provide him the smallest chance to ever play soccer again. The surest route, putting a screw directly in his spine, was not the option for him. He wanted to play soccer again, so he chose to wear a 20-pound vest, with four rods escalating into a halo, all connected by screws drilled into his head.
"It was the saddest time in my life," Roach recalled. "I felt very lucky to be alive, but very sad because I was on top of the world with soccer. One day later I was fighting for my life."
A few days after the wreck, Roach lay pondering his future. Not only might he never recover to play soccer again, but he might not ever recover completely. He wore the halo for three months, waiting for the bone in his neck to fuse properly. If it didn't, he would have only been able to turn his head 45 degrees to each side.
During this time, Roach had to remain stable. If he went out to the mall to escape the dreaded cabin fever and someone bumped into him, it could have seriously affected the healing. If he went outside for fresh air and tripped, or even leaned too far forward in his house and fell, more damage could have been done to his neck.
But he never lost hope. He knew that one day he would be back on the soccer field.
Remarkably, Roach returned to Chaminade College Prep one year later to lace up his cleats and compete.
During the 2006 season, Roach scored 17 goals and 19 assists and captained the fourth-ranked Chaminade squad to a 31-2 record en route to a Missouri state championship.
"I remember thinking back to my senior year and having the opportunity to play soccer again," Roach said. "I was wondering if I was going to be the player I used to be."
Well, he was. If not better.
Following his senior campaign, Roach was named a 2006 National Soccer Coaches Association of America High School All-American, the NSCAA Missouri Player of the Year, the Missouri Soccer Coaches Association Player of the Year and the Gatorade Player of the Year.
"We put together one of the best seasons we ever had as a team that year and I feel it was one of my best individually," he said. "I had so much support from the guys during the injury, but being able to come back and be with those guys during my senior year was the high point of my career."
One other guy that was there for support was Indiana head coach Mike Freitag. St. Louis has always been a hotbed for the Hoosiers' soccer program and has helped produce Indiana legends Pat Noonan and Chris Klein. So no one was more thankful, and probably relieved, than Roach when Freitag offered him a scholarship to play at Indiana.
"Coach Freitag had a lot of faith in me and now being able to play at Indiana, it just seems like it's all coming together."
Freitag notes that Roach's play so far would lead you to believe that no serious injury ever once slowed him down.
"I am very proud of Mike. He is a young man who has over come some adversity, but if you watch him play, you wouldn't know it," Freitag said. "He plays with the same bounce in his step that he had prior to his injury and we are proud he here is here and a part of our program. We expect he is going to be an outstanding contributor."
And one can tell Roach is ready to do just that.
"(Indiana) is one of the best places to play soccer and that is nationally known," Roach said. "Every single day is a battle for a starting spot and practice is just as hard as the games are. Everyone pushes each other to the limit and you find out what everyone is about."
Just this past week on the Big Ten Network, the country was able to see just what the eighth-ranked Hoosiers were all about as they knocked off No. 1 UCLA, 1-0, in front of a record home crowd of 7,243 fans.
Roach said that was a weekend that had been talked about on campus and everyone was hyped for the game. He said he had never even heard of a regular-season college game with 7,000 people in attendance. But after all, this is Indiana soccer.
"I always heard a lot of good things about the school academically," Roach said. "People would always would ask me what schools I was considering and when I said Indiana, everyone would tell me they knew someone that went there. I just love this school because soccer is a major sport. I love the atmosphere and the tradition that comes with it."
It's hard to imagine that next month will be the second year since his near-fatal accident. In October 2005, he went through hell in a halo. One year later it was an exhausting fight to get back onto the field. And in October 2007, perhaps he will taste his first Big Ten Championship.
There is no question how much that rainy October evening has changed Roach's approach on life. He admits that he used to worry about everything, but now he tries "not to sweat the small stuff."
This life-changing experience was just that. And now for this college freshman, he can be just that.
"We are only three weeks in and this is the best time of my life."