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A ‘miracle’ child who coaches thought would end Jessica McDonald’s soccer career saved it

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 3/15/2022 Alex Andrejev, The Charlotte Observer

Jeremiah Stuart was born on March 7, 2012. He was named after his mother’s favorite Bible verse, Jeremiah 1:5.

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Jessica didn’t refer to Jeremiah as a prophet, but she and others see him as her unexpected savior. While Jessica was pregnant with Jeremiah, she continued a strict physical therapy regime and returned to playing soccer once medically cleared, and her injured knee began feeling better and better.

The men’s soccer coach at Phoenix College, Dave Cameron, remembers the process well. He worked with Jessica while she was a student training with his men’s team, and watched junior college springboard her to the University of North Carolina and beyond. He points to her success as an example of the stabilizing role junior college athletics can play in the lives of students from under-resourced homes.

Cameron was also an early supporter of the secret dream Jessica harbored. Her goal was to make the U.S. women’s national team. Until then, he believed she could overcome the unlikely odds as a junior college transplant, but with the injury and then pregnancy, even Cameron lost hope.

“There’s the nail in the coffin,” he said. “All right, you’re a mom now. It’s over. There’s no way. Everyone thought that.”

Can pregnancy hormones heal injuries?

But Cameron kept the doubts to himself and supported Jessica by bringing her on as an assistant soccer coach at the school, which allowed her to continue playing soccer with a source of income. She joined the men’s team’s practices and women’s amateur tournaments in the area with a small baby bump. Cameron ordered his players not to get too rough with her, and over those months, he said he witnessed something like a “miracle.”

“I think there’s something when you’re pregnant and you get all those hormones to develop a human being in your body that it’s like legal steroids,” Cameron said. “And it completely healed her body. Ever since having Jeremiah, she felt like a million dollars. Her knees stopped hurting.”

The idea that having Jeremiah helped Jessica physically heal might sound like a poetic notion, but there is some plausible although relatively unexplored science behind Cameron’s theory.

Gabby Gilmer, a clinical researcher in the MD/Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh, is at the forefront of related research in a field known as regenerative rehabilitation. She highlighted two hormones, estrogen and relaxin, that are involved in the healing of ligaments, joints and tendons like the patellar tendon, that also fluctuate during pregnancy. Gilmer said that given the changing weight distributions of pregnancy and what’s known about the influx of various hormones, what Cameron suggested about Jessica’s recovery was possible.

“We don’t know for sure, is the short answer,” Gilmer said. “But what these coaches are speculating, and this observation, definitely seems plausible that there could have been some kind of hormonal influence that helped her healing.”

So call it science or call it fate. Everyone around Jessica expected motherhood would bury her athletic career. Instead, it saved it. At least, that’s the way she and Cameron see it. Cameron called Jeremiah “heaven-sent” to keep Jessica’s body functioning. Jessica said that since having Jeremiah, she’s felt younger than before.

“I feel like my son has just given me so much from when I was pregnant with him,” she said.

“For me, to be able to play 90 minutes at (34) years old, it’s kind of impressive. And I truly believe my son, literally, healed me.”

Resuming a sport that was put on pause

After Jeremiah’s birth, Jessica said she felt physically better than ever, but she was struggling financially. She considered her options and the expectations of her friends and family members to “settle,” “be home,” “just be a mom,” and “get your nine-to-five going.” But Jessica had only known sports up to that point and she was reminded of how her mother’s young pregnancy stunted her athletic career. She wanted things to be different for her and her son.

As she considered “settling,” a prominent figure in Jessica’s life reached out with an opportunity to do the opposite. UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance emailed Jessica that a striker on the Melbourne Victory in Australia’s top women’s league tore her ACL and the team needed a player to fill in.

“I had to really let it sink in first,” Jessica said. “I slept on it. And it might have seemed like an easy yes, but I’m like, my knee, my son. Holy crap.”

Jeremiah wasn’t a year old at this point, but Jessica considered that she would only be away for a few months and could at least send paychecks home by playing instead of coaching. She sacrificed the first holidays with her son, leaving him with his father in Arizona to move more than 8,000 miles away and join the Victory for the 2012-13 season.

She scored seven goals for the team, the third-most in the league that year, and helped lead the Victory to its first-ever final. The experience was proof that she was capable of performing when life tested her.

As soon as she landed on home soil again, Jessica found her next soccer gig. She said that she received a call about returning to the Chicago Red Stars shortly after her plane landed back in the States. Chicago wanted to sign Jessica for the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season in 2013, kicking off a period of frequent, cross-country moves for Jessica and Jeremiah.

In her first five seasons in the league, Jessica played for six different teams, each in a different state, as well as internationally in Germany one offseason.

She went from Chicago to Seattle, then Seattle to Portland, then Portland to Houston, then Houston to New York (Rochester), then New York to North Carolina (Raleigh) between 2013 and 2017 in the NWSL, repeatedly relocating with Jeremiah.

When Jessica entered the league, the consideration for player family planning was essentially nonexistent. While teams provided housing assistance, each to a different degree, viable options for single, player-moms like Jessica were hard to come by. In Chicago, she and Jeremiah lived with a host family. In Portland, they lived with a roommate. In Houston, they shared a one-bedroom apartment. Her best housing situation, she said, was in Seattle.

“They actually gave me a house on Redondo Beach (Road), and that was amazing,” Jessica said. “They also got me a rental car as well. So actually, not all of it was bad. It was just for a very short period of time. … I was only with them for a few months, so that was quick, and then I got traded to Portland.”

Abuse accusations swirl around a coach

In Portland, Jessica played for the first time with her longtime former NWSL coach, Paul Riley, who last year was one of the five male NWSL coaches accused by players of abuse and misconduct. Those allegations led to a dramatic fallout in the NWSL, and sparked what has been widely deemed a “global reckoning” for women’s soccer institutions over the mistreatment of its athletes.

Jessica was not one of the players named in the The Athletic’s report about Riley, but she corroborated accounts of the inappropriate culture he fostered in Portland, saying that he often made personal and harmful comments to her while she played for the Thorns.

“There was a point in time where he would be like, ‘Why are you playing like crap today? Because your son was up all night?’ ” she said. “It would hurt, you know. I’m OK with getting yelled at. I need criticism. That’s fine as an athlete. But when it gets personal, that’s a little more gut-wrenching.”

Riley did not respond to requests for comment following the reported allegations.

Low salaries, few benefits and childcare

Jessica said that she learned at an early age how to separate her personal life from her game-time performance, but with Jeremiah, the overlap was often unavoidable. She said that her contracted salary was $15,000 annually, which amounted to about $13,000 after taxes, during her first three seasons in the league. Unable to afford childcare at that time, she brought Jeremiah to matches and training sessions, and tried to keep an eye on him from on the sidelines while playing.

“My son has sat in my training sessions as a baby in his stroller by himself,” she said. “That could have been avoided had we had the support that we need as moms in this league.”

The NWSL’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement will take effect this year and is considered a robust stride in ensuring better compensation and resources for players. The CBA raises the minimum salary from $22,000 last year to $35,000, and guarantees free agency, eight weeks of parental leave and up to six months of mental health leave, among other stipulations designed to benefit players. Mothers in the league also receive a monthly stipend, which was something Jessica helped others advocate for before it was standardized.

“When the league started, there really weren’t any benefits or anything provided for mothers,” said Sarah Gorden, a defender for Angel City FC. “And so that was kind of a road that we had to pave, and (Jessica) was one of the OG’s of doing that.”

Gorden entered the league in 2016 for the Red Stars after giving birth to her son in college. She said that in her early years in the NWSL, she often asked Jessica for advice about navigating motherhood while playing, and experienced similar struggles tied to compensation.

“Daycare’s expensive and (my son) was just a toddler, so we got kicked out of the daycare because we couldn’t afford it,” Gorden said. “What I was making could not cover the cost of sending my son to daycare.”

Gorden said that conversations with Jessica helped give her a sense of what childcare support she could ask for from her team, and that those provisions have improved over time.

“The last few years when I’ve asked for things, even in Chicago, I’ve pretty much gotten them,” Gorden said. “Whether that was paying for my son to travel with me or asking for an allotment to have a nanny. And so those things have really developed over the years as a league.

“But of course, it could continue to improve. I feel like when I think about male athletes — and obviously it’s different being a father — but when I think about male athletes, they don’t have to worry about a lot of the things that I’m still worrying about as a female athlete mom.”

A return to soccer in North Carolina

Jessica said that she often tried to minimize any personal issues around others so that it didn’t impact her soccer performance, and has found a way to juggle her training schedule while shouldering primary childcare responsibilities.

“I think she’s super strong in that,” Jessica’s former North Carolina Courage teammate Lynn Williams said. “But I think at the same time, society has made people do that, and feel like being vulnerable about being a mom is bad when it shouldn’t be that way at all.”

By 2018, Jessica achieved relative stability playing for one team in one place for more than a year with the Courage. Statistically, it was one of the best seasons of her career alongside Williams. Jessica contributed a league-leading eight assists and scored 10 goals, two of which were during the NWSL Championship. The Courage won that 2018 title and Jessica was named MVP of the match with then-U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis watching.

Jessica said that she received a congratulatory text from Ellis after the game, and remembered seeing the word “tremendous” flash across her screen in the message. That rekindled her hopes for making the national team.

From the outside, it seemed like everything was clicking for Jessica that season. Her former club, the Western New York Flash, relocated to North Carolina the previous year after being bought by new ownership, which meant she was settled back in the Tar Heel state. She was part of a core group of players who made the transition from New York to North Carolina after winning the 2016 NWSL Championship together. That group included national team players like Williams, Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, and played under former Portland coach Riley, who also moved from Western New York to North Carolina.

A different definition of Courage

But while Jessica was finding professional success with the Courage, she struggled privately through a tumultuous attempt to rekindle a relationship with her mother, Traci McDonald, over the course of that 2018 season. The period involved Traci living with Jessica in North Carolina for about half the year and Traci helping take care of Jeremiah.

Jessica called it “refreshing” to see the generations mesh and have a re-established relationship with her mother, but as time passed, she said that she noticed behavioral changes in Traci that reminded her of the past.

“I could see these episodes,” Jessica said. “Her blurting out something that didn’t make sense or her attitude toward me.”

The “episodes” came to a head in the summer of 2018, when Jessica said Traci refused to leave her home one night. Jessica said that she called the police and her mother eventually left, but the sting of the failed attempt to mend the relationship sticks with Jessica to this day.

Traci did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

A few days after that fallout, Jessica said that she asked Riley whether he thought she had a shot at making the U.S. women’s national team.

“He was like, ‘There’s no way,’ ” Jessica said. “But then he did commend me that week for having the best training session he’s ever seen me have.”

“I don’t know why this happens,” she continued. “Why adversity has happened in my life and I’m able to just unleash something incredible out of me.”

Playing internationally on the national team

In the months after the rift with Traci, Jessica’s biggest soccer successes followed. She was called up to the national team for abroad friendlies in the fall of 2018 after the NWSL Championship. She scored the only goal for the USWNT in its 1-0 victory against Portugal, and earned a returning spot on the roster through January camp, more European games and the SheBelieves Cup.

But it was one day in a doctor’s office when she received the news that she’d long been waiting for. She got a phone call from Ellis, who told her that she made the roster that would represent the U.S. women at the 2019 World Cup. At the time, Jessica was receiving a standard check-up on the knee that once threatened her soccer career.

“I’ll never forget waiting for that phone call at 31 years old,” Jessica said. “Waiting for Jill to let me know if I made the World Cup team or not.”

“Immediately tears started flowing down,” she said. “She was just like, ‘You’re going to the World Cup.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. Finally. This is it.’ ”

Abbie McDonald, Jessica’s grandmother, was the first person she called to share the news. She celebrated the milestone with Jeremiah and her close family friends, the Rockaways, who they’d been living with, later that evening.

The Rockaways would go on to watch her team win the World Cup final in France that summer with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands. Jessica didn’t play in that match and made only one appearance during the tournament, but she celebrated the win all the same with her son, surrounded by sparkling confetti. She said that moment was the “cherry on top” of a soccer journey marked by so many setbacks. Around that time, she became involved in a larger movement.

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