A year ago, O’Brian White was the happiest he had ever been as a professional soccer player.
Just seven matches into his first season with the Sounders FC, the Jamaican-born, Canadian-raised forward was having his best season since coming to Major League Soccer with Toronto FC in 2009. He was pacing the Sounders with two goals and two assists, starring for a club that had shown a belief in him that he hadn’t yet experienced.
Then, quickly and without much fanfare, it all came crashing down.
He had numbness in his left leg and in moments during training and games, his leg would get so tight that he said “it felt like it was going to explode.”
White was diagnosed with a blood clot in his left leg after the Sounders posted a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids on April 22, 2011.
“Everything was going good,” he recalled, shaking his head. “Then the blood clot issue came from nowhere.”
He was hospitalized in Seattle at the same hospital that housed midfielder Steve Zakuani.
Like Zakuani, White would suffer a setback. After returning to training in June, he played in a reserve league match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on August 9, only to quickly discover that the clot had returned.
He underwent a second surgery and maintained hope that another comeback wasn’t far away, but knew in the back of his head that he may have played his last game.
“It’s been hard. I miss being out there on the field and I miss playing with the guys,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to take a break because of the way my leg feels. Hopefully resting it will make it feel better and in a couple of months I can do more running. But I definitely miss playing soccer.”
White was taken fourth overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft by Toronto FC after a stellar career at the University of Connecticut that saw him win the 2007 Hermann Trophy as the best college player in the country. However, he saw inconsistent playing time with Toronto FC, scoring two goals in just nine appearances in his rookie season, then two goals and four assists in 24 matches in 2010, starting just nine times.
He was taken by the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft, then traded to the Sounders, where he became a great target for the likes of Mauro Rosales and forward partner for Fredy Montero before his season was cut short.
As they prepared for the 2012 season, the Sounders FC did so without White in their plans. That became official on March 22, when the club announced a buyout of the 26-year-old’s contract.
“We will fully support O’Brian and will continue to help him rehabilitate with the hope he can resume his playing career,” Sounders FC owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer said in the announcement.
For White, that has meant trips to California and North Carolina to visit the medical centers at Stanford and Duke to determine a proper plan of action to get him back on the field.
Those doctors were just as flabbergasted as doctors in Seattle. Nobody could determine why the blood clots were occurring and what he could do to prevent them. With no return in immediate sight, White is back in Toronto to spend two months with his family, hoping that rest will help alleviate what is causing the clots.
As much of a physical toll as this journey has taken on him, it hasn’t caused much mental anguish for White. Perpetually positive, his optimism has kept him strong through the difficulties of staying out of action for so long.
“I don’t really worry about stuff I can’t control. That is definitely helping me through this,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s happening, but I hope it goes away and it never comes back.”
The Sounders, he says, have been incredibly supportive, from Hanauer, head coach Sigi Schmid and technical director Chris Henderson to the players that played alongside him to the staff. That support is one of the primary reasons he accepted a buyout of his contract.
“I really love this team. I don’t want to be selfish and sacrifice a spot for another person,” he said. “I’ve been ok with it because it will help the Sounders. They’ve done everything to help me, so it wasn’t a hard decision at all.”
White will continue to do cardiovascular training, but will avoid soccer-specific training for the time being. If he is unable to get back on the field by the end of the year, he may even consider retirement.
“If at the end of the year, I still can’t do it, I might think about it,” he said. “I don’t think I want to do another surgery on my leg, so if that’s the case, it may open up a new adventure for me.”