Alex Lee's recovery gets assist from Maryland soccer teammates

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 12:44 AM

Alex Lee can remember everything about the night of Oct. 10 except for those few horrific minutes that his memory has mercifully erased.

So it takes a teammate to fill in what Lee can't: How he darted halfway across Connecticut Avenue NW ahead of his friends as the crosswalk signal blinked; how he scampered into the next lane without seeing the car; and how he was tossed onto the windshield and into the air before crashing onto the pavement head first as traffic screeched to a halt.

"Do you know where you are?" Billy Cortes, Lee's teammate on the Maryland men's soccer team, asked as he patted Lee's chest until he came to. "Do you know who I am?"

Cortes and another teammate had been on the sidewalk, scanning traffic for an opening to sprint across the street, when he heard the impact. He called 911 and rushed to Lee's side. Help is coming, he said. Just relax. And he kept asking questions to keep Lee conscious until the ambulance came.

The accident cost Lee, Maryland's starting right back and a 2007 first-team All-Met at Magruder High, the rest of the 2009 season. It was among several setbacks suffered by the then-defending NCAA champion Terrapins, who lost midfielder Doug Rodkey to a broken foot at midseason and hobbled through with other key starters battling injury as well.

But with his players back to health, nine returning starters, an enviable class of recruits and rare depth, Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski believes this year's team should contend for an NCAA title.

No resurgence, however, is as remarkable as that of Lee's, whose ordeal offers a window into one of the less-chronicled benefits of playing college sports, in addition to a scholarship and potential path to the pros: a shared purpose and identity.

In Lee's case these last 10 months, that has played nearly as big a role in his recovery as the rapid emergency response and the care he received at George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent skull surgery the night of the accident.

Soccer was all Lee thought about, talked about and cared about upon waking up the next morning, with no idea why he was in the hospital. Told he'd been hit by a car, he blurted out: "Please don't tell my coach!" then, "Can I play soccer?"

"He just kept saying, 'I just want to play soccer,' " recalled his mother, Diane Lee, a science teacher at Magruder. "He was ready to cry, I could see that. And he kept saying: 'All I want to do is see my team. I just want to be with my team.' "

'He takes a lot of risks'

Today, the only visible trace of the accident is the crescent-shaped scar on the right side of Lee's head, running from his crown to earlobe. It's only discernible because his hair is cropped close. The 33 staples that kept the incision closed are long gone.

Apart from that, nothing made Lee stand out from the two dozen players on the field as the Terrapins launched into two-a-day training sessions last week in advance of their three exhibitions that precede the Sept. 3 home opener against Michigan State, ranked 24th in the coaches' preseason poll.

"I like testing our players right away," Cirovski explained. "I like to see where we are in the most competitive arena so we can make adjustments and improvement from early in the year. If you go into the ACC without having really tested yourself against a nonconference opponent that's a national contender, you may go in unprepared."

Cirovski's practices are efficient and intense, with no dithering between drills and no time wasted on conditioning (it's a given that his players show up in shape). Hawk-eyed, he surveys all before him and barks out corrections and commands with a drill sergeant's vigor, drowning out the din of nearby bulldozers and backhoes.

"That's garbage!" Cirovski yells when a pass displeases him. "Bad decision! Too risky!"

"Keep the ball moving! Let's go!"

"Move the ball!"

"Next line: GO!"

Lee, who led Magruder to the 4A state title and a 19-0 season as a striker before Cirovski converted him to a defender, also is vocal as he works on the back line, yammering directions at his mates.

That confidence, along with his overall athleticism (he was Magruder's star point guard, too), is what Cirovski loved about him as a recruit. It's also why he decided he'd make a great defender, with the speed and instincts to counter opponents' top strikers.

"Like a lot of young kids, he's pretty immature," Cirovski said of Lee, 20, with obvious affection. "And, I think, like a lot of young kids, he suffers from what I call the 'Superman Syndrome.' He's very aggressive on the field. He takes a lot of risks. That's one thing that makes him a very good player."

'He's in good hands'

The night of the accident, Lee and his friends had dinner in the District and were heading to the Metro for the trip back to College Park. Cirovski got a call almost immediately from one of his assistants whom Cortes had phoned from the scene. Cirovski, in turned, reached Lee's parents, and all converged at the hospital.

Lee was unconscious when they arrived but, stunningly, had not broken any bones. After an MRI exam and CT scan, the doctors explained he needed surgery right away to remove a blood clot. It wasn't until they reviewed the possible scenarios - including the worst case, that he might not come out of surgery - that Diane Lee felt her own body sink.

Cirovski prayed.

But the surgery went smoothly, over in two hours.

The next morning, the entire soccer team went to Mass at noon. And they wore wristbands with initials and number, A.L. #18, during their next game.

By then, Lee's Facebook wall was plastered with get-well messages from teammates and classmates. Waves of visitors inundated the ICU, where Lee was limited to two guests at a time. Cirovski orchestrated it all, keeping spirits up while ferrying friends in by twos.

"I think Alex saw like 60 people that day," Diane Lee said. "He was exhausted. But so many people wanted to see him. That's when I realized he's in good hands at Maryland."

Lee can't recall any of the conversations that day, but he remembers who came and how concerned they seemed.

"I just felt, to be honest, real bad for all the people - what I put everyone through," he said. "That was the thing that made me most upset."

Once Lee was released and recuperating at home in Rockville, teammates kept him company, happy to hang out on the sofa while he slept. The massive headaches stopped after the second week. Within a month he was back in class. And after a battery of cognition tests and follow-up visits to the surgeon at the three- and five-month marks, he was cleared to rejoin the team for workouts in April.

That's when his fellow Terrapins gave him with a new nickname - "Wolverine," after the X-Men character known for his superhuman healing powers.

Asked what he saw when he looked across the field at Lee last week, Cortes said: "I saw a man that was given a second chance. You can tell he's doing everything right these days. He's got this extra motivation to make sure he comes back stronger than ever."

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