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Smile on: Adversity sharpens FC Buffalo's Isaiah Barrett

When something you love is ripped away unexpectedly, self-pity and helplessness can push the mind to dark places.

For Isaiah Barrett, an FC Buffalo midfielder and redshirt sophomore at Binghamton University, a completely torn lateral collateral ligament and partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee had him fearing for the worst.

The timing was particularly bad, too. Barrett had started 16 games as a Bearcats freshman and had already committed to play with FC Buffalo for the summer when he suffered the tear on May 21, 2015.

Questions raced through Barrett's mind. Would he ever be able to play soccer again? Would it be possible to return to pre-injury level? What kind of set backs would he have? When he missed his sophomore season -- which seemed inevitable -- would someone step in and steal his role?

The LCL and ACL combination is a fairly uncommon injury -- medial collateral and anterior cruciate are the most frequently hurt ligaments -- and the treatment and recovery are complicated. The LCL, a ligament on the outside of the knee that connects the femur to fibula, is vital to the knee's stability; due to a lack of blood flow to the area, the LCL is a notoriously slow healer. Every athlete's recovery is different, which is why there's such a vague prognosis (3-9 months, according to Brown University) for Grade 3 tears.

FC Buffalo's Isaiah Barrett, in blue, tries to elude three Rochester River Dogz defenders in the season opener. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

FC Buffalo's Isaiah Barrett, in blue, tries to elude three Rochester River Dogz defenders in the season opener. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

With the ACL, returning too soon could risk a full tear, which often costs athletes as many as eight months on the sideline and a year or more until they're close to pre-injury form.

Barrett remembers feeling devastated, convinced his promising soccer career was over. An over reaction, yes, but not rare for someone who's suffered his first major injury. He wasted little time making the four-hour trip back to Wilson, NY, to talk to his parents and explore medical options.

The Bearcats midfielder had a tough choice: immobilize for several weeks and avoid surgery, which would allow for a quicker return -- perhaps before his sophomore season -- but with greater risk down the road, or opt for surgery and a longer recovery, but a more promising long-term prognosis.

The surgery, done June 4, 2015, is now almost a year in the past, but a roller coaster 12 months have taxed Barrett both physically and mentally.

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If you catch Isaiah Barrett near a soccer field, expect him to be smiling. Not just a normal grin, but an ear-to-ear expression of joy that would even startle the Cheshire Cat.

Isaiah Barrett with his signature grin in his roster photo. (via FC Buffalo)

Isaiah Barrett with his signature grin in his roster photo. (via FC Buffalo)

"He has an infectious energy," said Mike Ertel, Barrett's coach with Northtowns Soccer Club and then Empire United Buffalo. "You love being around someone like that. He's kind, but has a great sense of humor, too. He really lights up a room."

This isn't flattery; Ertel is spot-on. Watching Barrett's interactions at FC Buffalo tryouts and during training sessions, he is lighthearted and quick to laugh, almost jovial at a time when overly happy people are eyed warily.

You can tell Barrett takes pride in being friendly and outgoing; sure, his in-game intensity and competitiveness temporarily mask his conviviality, but he admits his personality shines especially bright when he's around the game.

"I think [the happiness] comes from an inner desire," Barrett explained. "I love sports, they're my life. Whenever I could get on a field or around a ball, I would go crazy."

And he wanted to be on a field more than anything else. Wilson is known more for its rural location on the shores of Lake Ontario than as a breeding ground for Division I soccer players, so Barrett's parents, Kevin and Anna, made the sacrifices necessary to drive their son to practices and games for teams based in Akron, North Tonawanda, southern Ontario, Buffalo, Rochester and then all along the East Coast in his one season with the Empire Revolution Development Academy U-18 team.

Barrett's size and speed gave him an edge wherever he played, but for Wilson High School, where he was also a feared tennis player, striker was his position. He earned first team Niagara-Orleans honors as a junior before foregoing high school soccer due to academy rules.

His selection to the Empire Revolution indicated that Barrett was among the top 20 premier players from Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, a tremendous achievement for a kid from remote Niagara County. He trusted the chance to train alongside the area's best and compete against Major League Soccer academy teams provided a better transition to college soccer than beating down on the Roy-Harts and CSATs of Section VI. Five goals, good for second on Ben Cross' Empire Revolution U-18s, were icing on the cake.

For an athlete whose dream is to play professionally, the puzzle pieces were fitting snugly for Isaiah Barrett. After signing with NCAA Division I Binghamton, Barrett started out of the gate for Paul Marco's team, and despite a 4-15-1 overall record, played well enough to earn America East all-rookie team honors as a holding midfielder.

[Read: Other male soccer players from Section VI who competed collegiately in 2015]

Barrett's long stride, toughness in the tackle, abundance of energy and near-dominant aerial ability suit him in the No. 6 role, yet his sense of humor is evident in admitting that his best position is not necessarily his favorite.

"I'd prefer attacking midfield because I like to score goals, celebrate and go crazy, but for my uses, I should be a holding midfielder," Barrett says, grinning aggressively.

These achievements and accolades were the backdrop to the severe knee injury on March 21, 2015, which threw everything into question.

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Perhaps part of the problem was Barrett knew success better than adversity, having his way with opponents on the soccer field as he jumped from level to level. There wasn't really a position he couldn't play. Disaster had never truly struck, and when it did, it caught him wholly unprepared.

Although he started rehabilitation the day after surgery, the ensuing months were grueling. Repetitive strengthening exercises, painful range-of-motion movements. Hours at physical therapy during a summer where he couldn't play soccer. "Distraught" was Barrett's word to describe his mental state.

Mike Ertel, Barrett's former youth coach, was very helpful during a tough time. (WNYReferee.org)

Mike Ertel, Barrett's former youth coach, was very helpful during a tough time. (WNYReferee.org)

Fortunately, he had a youth coach who'd become a friend in Mike Ertel, and Barrett wasn't bashful about reaching out in his time of need.

"I told him, 'Man, I need some help. I think my career is over,'" Barrett remembers of his initial conversation with Ertel. "'Am I ever going to play soccer again? I still want to play professionally.'"

Involved in coaching since he was 17, Ertel had developed a fascination with sports psychology and read voraciously. He suggested two books to Barrett: "The Energy Bus," by Jon Gordon, and "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," by Carol Dweck.

Not everyone resonates with books aimed toward personal betterment, but Barrett bought in, taking notes on each chapter and speaking with Ertel about the content and application each week. His former coach helped him with a physical plan, too, but most of the process was getting Barrett's mind right.

"The support was more mental, for him to stay confident," explained Ertel, who's been tasked with building the men's soccer program at Villa Maria College. "I wanted him to know his injury wouldn't define his career, that he could use the time away from the game to refine himself and work on things that he hadn't before."

Barrett's eyes will light up if you mention Gordon, whose "10 rules to fuel your life...with positive energy" were powerful enough to pull him from a dark time and shift his mind from self-pity and fear to optimism and a unquenchable desire for achievement.

Physically, though, it took much longer for Barrett's body to cooperate.

"I had to be mentally strong for eight or nine months, where I wasn't doing much work on the bike and [my knee] was still hurting after exercises," he says. "I kept thinking about where I was at before my injury.

"I set benchmarks for myself -- before, there were certain 40-yard dash or mile times I would make, and then I wasn't making those after the surgery, and after a three or four-month period I got discouraged, but I knew I had to keep grinding and it would all work out."

Watching from the sideline during his medical red-shirt year was frustrating for Barrett, who wanted to help a suddenly good team become even better. The Bearcats went 10-8-2, the program's first winning season since 2008, upset a powerhouse in Ohio State and advanced all the way to the America East championship game, in which Binghamton lost to Vermont, 1-0.

Isaiah Barrett, left in blue, eyes a Rochester free kick as part of FC Buffalo's wall. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

Isaiah Barrett, left in blue, eyes a Rochester free kick as part of FC Buffalo's wall. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

"[Sitting out] made me appreciate being able to play, because watching all the new players who came in and made an impact -- we had a really good season -- it was kind of hard sitting back and watching knowing that I could have contributed in some way to that, but I think it's only going to make me stronger in the long run," Barrett reflects now.

Finally, toward the end of the 2015, Barrett was able to train more frequently with less pain. His knee was stable, his quadriceps and hamstrings strong enough to help prevent another knee injury. He's thankful for Ertel's encouragement and direction, and he's happy he spent the hours grasping Gordon's message.

[Read: 10 other local youngsters on FC Buffalo's radar before summer 2016]

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Barrett may not even realize it, but he ended every sentence in our brief interview with something positive: "My knee started hurting less and less," "I'm at the point where I'm on the steady trend upward," "I've been busting my butt, doing anything I can get my hands on to make myself better."

Isaiah Barrett, foreground in green and black, was named to the America East All-Rookie team in 2014 before suffering a major injury. (via Binghamton Athletics)

Isaiah Barrett, foreground, was named to the America East all-rookie team in 2014. (via Binghamton Athletics)

That attitude has resonated with FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy, who likes Barrett's versatility and willingness to set aside his personal preferences for the good of the squad.

"He's selfless and cares about the team first," the club's fourth-year head coach says. "He will play anywhere or do anything we ask to help the team. [He's] never sulking or showing any negative body language if he's not starting or playing the minutes he probably deserves."

Of the 23 players to see the field for the Wolves this season, Barrett is just one of five who grew up playing soccer in Western New York, a sign to other youngsters like Troy Brady, Frank Cotroneo and Hassan Sabtow that local kids can make an impact at the NPSL level.

Averaging around 30 minutes per game this summer, the Bearcat will have another chance to impress at 2 p.m. June 12, when FC Buffalo hosts FC Indiana at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium.

[Read: Rust Belt Derby trophy continues to elude FC Buffalo]

To say Barrett had a "year lost to injury" would be a misnomer; the Wilson native needed adversity to confront pain, exercise patience and sharpen his positive outlook.

The future is bright again for the 19-year-old, who will return to the Bearcats with three years of eligibility and a season with a National Premier Soccer League club under his belt.

The trademark smile has returned, and it won't go away so easily next time trouble strikes.

Email Ben Tsujimoto, who knows a thing or two about knee ligaments, at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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