“What did it feel like going back out there for the first time?”
I ask Maddy Williams this over coffee. Purdue women’s soccer player, Maddy Williams that is. (She’s a Purdue women’s soccer player in the way Glenn Robinson is just a Purdue men’s basketball player by the way, but we’ll get to that later.)
Back out there means the first time being back out on a field since she tore her ACL in the last spring practice of what turned out to be her first senior season. Back out there means before she put the finishing touches on the greatest career in Purdue Women’s soccer history.
But before she could get there, she’d have to get through that first game.
So what was it like? A hah launched from her lips like the soccer ball that sailed off her foot at Penn State from 30 yards out that gave her the Purdue career scoring record and eventually led to a shocking tie on the road against the Big Ten powerhouse, but the silence before the second laugh told the real story: there was doubt and pain and months of rehab. There was a knee that was still swollen and didn’t feel right.
“I was not full then. My teammates would tell you that. Spring was so rough for me with just swelling and pain, I still had a ton of pain in my knee, nothing was clicking. I was like ‘ugh’ I was going to suck in the fall[when the real season started]. It was terrible.”
But this wasn’t the first setback in Williams’ career.
Flashback to Perryburg, Ohio where a high school girl committed to Purdue because of engineering, yes, but mostly for the coach, Rob Klatte.
“He was like my favorite person ever. How honest he was... I just clicked with him.”
After Williams’ sophomore year, Klatte’s contract was up and Purdue decided not to renew it.
“That was really tough. I was really upset when he left.”
Purdue women’s soccer had not had much success in the last decade. Cue Coach Drew Roff who Purdue hired to turn the program around. You don’t change a program without shaking things up, and as Maddy will tell you, she can be a bit stubborn.
“Me and Drew did not get along. Both of us. We just butted heads. I was a little tough to coach I think and I didn’t like his style of coaching when he got here.”
And here’s where the story takes something of a strange turn. Maddy Williams had finished her freshman year with every meaningful freshman record at Purdue. Ditto for her sophomore year. And her junior. She was entering her senior season with every major scoring record in sight.
And as she was playing in the very last practice of the spring before games started, she would tear the anterior crucial ligament in her knee.
It is every athlete’s worst nightmare. Instead of spending a senior season scoring goals and graduating with the other dozen seniors on the roster, she would be having surgery and rehabbing while they played.
Maddy will tell you she’s thankful. Thankful for whatever step did the damage. She’ll say it and mean it not because she got better, but because it made her better.
“Just watching the game – it sounds crazy – but you don’t get the chance to just sit out for a whole season and watch it and learn. Just my movement off the ball, which is something that people praise me for now. Which is crazy to me because I’d never been praised for that previously as a player. It’s just because I got to sit out and watch it all. ‘She should have made this run’ ‘She should have this.’ When I’m [back] in the game, finally, when I’m back, it just clicked for me. Night and day.”
Her coach, Drew Roff saw it, too. “It matured her a bit... made her realize she had another opportunity.”
It wasn’t just a time for Williams to change. “The team hadn’t done well. We were at a crossroads,” Roff tells me. “She could have felt sorry for herself instead she came back stronger.”
It’s what she wants you to know most about her journey. If it wasn’t for the injury, for the time to reassess the game she always loved, then she wouldn’t be waiting for Thursday to change her life.
Oh did I forget to mention that? At 10:00 am eastern standard time, Maddy Williams’ life will change when the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) holds their 2018 draft. There’s not much in pre-draft talk publicly or in private but she’s on their radar.
“Drew’s talked to a couple people in the league… but directly I haven’t really heard much…. There’s been a couple mock drafts released, one has me going in the first round, one in the second round. It’s so weird to think that could happen and I haven’t talked to coaches. It’s so funny,” says Williams.
You could replace funny with a thousand words ranging from terrifying to insane. If she gets drafted, training camp starts up right away. She’ll have to pack up and drop out of school and move to one of eight cities across the country.
Crazy to think of a girl that was laying in a hospital bed just a little over a year ago with months of rehab in front of her. Which is why everything meant so much to her this last year. Not the accolades really. I know that because I asked her about them. The scoring record. The points record. The assists record. She has them all for Purdue. Look at the all-time leaders list and it’s just Maddy Williams at the top of everything.
“It’s funny because people, like other athletes, and a couple girls I’m close with on my team bring it up and I just forget about it to be honest. I’ve never really been that kind of person that’s – I strive to get it—but hopefully once I get it, it’s just like eh.”
Yeah, but being an All-American?
“That was something I strived for. I think Drew – I was at the U23 camp when that came out and I got a text from Drew about it. And I just – I think I started crying. I was just like this is crazy because a year and a half ago I was laying in a hospital bed.”
Purdue fans know something about transient athletes suffering ACL tears. For some, their careers are never the same.
But for Maddy Williams, it’s the women’s soccer program that won’t be the same. The injury didn’t just help make her an All-American or Big Ten Forward of the Year. It didn’t just give her the school record in goals, assists, points, multi-goal games, shots, and shots on goal.
It turned around a program. She became ‘the exact leader our program needed,’ according to Coach Roff. “When she talks, people listen.”
A decade had come and gone since Purdue women’s soccer had played in the postseason. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Maddy Williams last ride in the program changed that. She led them into Big Ten Tournament for the first time in ten years, crossing off the team’s major season goal.
On Thursday, she’ll hope to cross off a personal one. A new goal. One she wouldn’t have believed possible before the torn ACL.
“I’ve always wanted to play [professionally] in the back of my mind, but even going in to this season I didn’t think I had a realistic chance. It didn’t hit me until after the season when my accolades were adding up that I may have a realistic chance to play, even though with my mentality I thought I could all along. If that makes sense.”
It does when you think about all the struggles she had to overcome. It makes sense when you think about Williams’ answer to my last question. The one that I didn’t know if I wanted to ask.
“What was the darkest time with the injury?”
“About 2.5-3 months out of surgery I was cleared to run and I felt like I could run for days and everything was fine but the doctor’s rehab only allowed me to jog very slowly and not very much. So I felt like I could do so much more than I was physically allowed.”
When Williams gets drafted to play for a team on Thursday, they’ll be getting Purdue’s all-time leading everything. The best player in program history.
But more than that, they’ll be getting a player that won’t settle for your limitations on her. They’ll be getting someone who knows what it’s like to be the best, but that the real battle is to just keep getting better.