(Photos by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- As Justin Deere lay on the side of the road, injured and waiting for help to come after a serious car accident, playing soccer was the last the last thing on his mind. Now, a little over a year later, Deere has found himself back on the soccer field, albeit an inch-and-a-half shorter.
But the night of July 15, 2006, almost changed everything. Returning from a friend's house after a storm, Deere was just outside of East Prairie when he came upon a large tree branch that had fallen into the roadway.
"When I saw it in the headlights, I swerved left, ended up fishtailing and hydroplaned off the road into a ditch," Deere said. "The car rolled and I was ejected. I actually called one of my friends to come get me and they called the ambulance."
From there, Deere said, it was kind of a blur. A trip to Missouri Delta Medical Center, where he underwent X-rays and a CAT scan, was followed by being transported to St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau where he spent 30 hours in intensive care and three days in the hospital.
While it was never really thought Deere would lose the ability to walk, it was something that crossed his mind after he was told the extent of his injuries.
"I was worried about (not walking), but fortunately I could look down and see my toes moving," Deere said. "Laying on the side of the road, when it hurt really bad to move, that was one fear that was going through my head."
After the reality of the injuries set in, Deere did begin to wonder if he would be able to play sports again, especially with his junior season of soccer no longer an option.
"Sitting in the hospital, (Sikeston soccer) coach (Derrick) Long came to see me and the first thing I said was, 'I guess I'm going to be out for the season,'" Deere said. "As disappointing as it was, I do count myself very, very fortunate to even being able to walk again. As scared as I was, luckily I had the assurance of never losing my mobility."
When Deere left the hospital, his long road back to the soccer field was just beginning. "After I was released from the hospital, I wore a turtle shell brace that kept my back immobile," Deere said. "For the first two or three weeks, I was only allowed to sit up for 15 minutes, every three hours. I had to lay down to keep the vertebrae off of each other."
Then Deere began therapy in August, about the same time the Bulldogs began their season in search of their third-straight district title. Long said Deere's absence left a big hole for the Bulldogs last season.
"When it first happened, I heard how bad the wreck was and I knew he was out for the season," Long said. "We had a real void last year without him. I thought he was an x-factor going into that district championship game with Notre Dame. If we would have had him, it would have solidified our midfield a little bit."
While Sikeston lost the district championship game, Deere was winning his battle in therapy. When he finished with therapy in January, he was ready to play sports again. However, he was shorter.
After 35 percent compression fracture of one vertebrae and a 25 percent compression fracture of another, Deere was told by doctors he may lose some height. "Literally I thought the doctor was joking when he said I may lose up to two inches in height," Deere said. "We've calculated it and I've lost about an inch-and-a-half."
A little bit shorter, Deere decided it was time to return to sports and joined the tennis team in the spring.
"Tennis was the first varsity sport I played and to be honest I was quite nervous because I hadn't done any extreme activities since the season before," Deere said. "I was just nervous as a whole. My back hurt, but as I went through the season it really started to shape up and hurt less and I started to stretch it out more and things started to fall into place and that just made it all the better."
While his back was holding up well in tennis, soccer was a different test with the physical nature of the sport. Deere tested his back in open field workouts over the summer and found that the pain wasn't too bad.
"Other than the occasional blows and the fact that my back gets knocked out of line easier now, it hasn't hurt that bad," Deere said. "Luckily I don't have any long term effects, other than maybe some arthritis in my back. But I'll take that considering I can walk.
"Soccer has been my favorite sport since I was a little kid. It was a big letdown not getting to play my junior year, but to come back was really emotionally uplifting and it was a lot of fun to come back and be with my teammates."
While many who missed a year of soccer with back injuries might lose a little bit of ability, that wasn't the case for Deere.
"He's gotten a lot better," Long said. "Every aspect of his game is better and that was from day one this year. Usually you take a step back after missing a year but he's taken a couple steps forward. I wasn't expecting him to have this kind of season this year, but he's definitely been one of our MVPs of the year so far."
One thing Deere has become is a leader of a team that is filled with young players. It is something that helped Long name him as one of the team captains.
"His work ethic is a big plus," Long said. "He is a vocal leader. Out of our four captains he's probably our most vocal guy. But he backs it up with the way he plays on the field and the way he works in practice. He's definitely taken advantage of being a captain by getting our team on the right track. He's just a big part of our team."
Deere has relished his role as a team leader on a young team that has lost several close games to state-ranked opponents.
"I've been a member of the varsity team all four years and I really wanted to step up, especially coming off of the injury," Deere said. "We only have six seniors and we are starting multiple underclassmen. To do what we've done, playing four state-ranked teams multiple times and to hang with them is phenomenal. I'm definitely proud, no matter what our record is and I'm proud of every boy that steps on the field."
But Sikeston soccer players and fans are equally proud to have Deere back on the field, even if he is a little bit shorter. "Sure everyone would like to be taller, but being able to walk and get on the soccer field, I'll take losing an inch-and-a-half any day," Deere said.