Broken But Not Beaten: Gary Smith Knows His Captain's Pain
NASHVILLE - The memory of seeing your leg broken is not something that ever goes away.
As Nashville SC captain Michael Reed lay injured on the pitch on August 7 at First Tennessee Park, head coach Gary Smith couldn't help but think back to a cold and rainy January day in Cardiff, Wales. Smith, a 24-year-old for Barnet F.C., attempted to shield the ball from a Cardiff City forward and was the victim of a reckless challenge. His leg got caught between the Cardiff City player's legs as both tumbled to the pitch.
Smith has never seen a replay of what happened. He doesn't need to.
"I fell awkwardly with my leg trapped," Smith said. "It just snapped my shin in half, and the bone tore out of skin. I can tell you that, in my scenario, I was completely out of control and just went into complete shock."
The injury was devastating. Because of the severity of the compound fracture, there was fear that Smith would lose his right leg. After multiple surgeries and reconstructions, Smith's leg was saved, but his playing days were not. In his early 20's, Smith's soccer career as a player was over.
Flash forward to the 4' minute of Nashville SC's match against Hartford Athletic on August 7. In a similar scenario, Reed attempted to shield the ball with his body and was hit with a challenge. It took everyone on the pitch and in the stands a few seconds to realize that Nashville SC's captain had not taken just a normal knock. Reed's foot was unnaturally angled towards the side, and he was not getting up.
However, that didn't mean that Michael Reed stopped being the captain of Nashville Soccer Club.
"He wasn't writhing around in agony. He wasn't screaming in pain. He wasn't showing any of the signs that you might well have done if you had fractured your ankle, broken your leg," Smith said. "I did ask him the other day how he felt when he had done it, was he in pain? And he said, 'I was in pain, but I wasn't in excruciating pain.'"
While Reed was calm, many of his teammates were not. The sight of the team captain being seriously injured on the pitch affected Nashville SC. Numerous players were visibly shaken immediately following the injury. While Reed was down and being worked on by team doctors and trainers, Smith called the team over for brief huddle to try and settle the minds and nerves of his players.
"My words were, if I remember rightly, 'Guys, look. It's not a scenario that anyone would have wished for, or anyone would have wanted, but we somehow have to put it out of our minds, and you've got to now try and focus on the game and not on what just happened," Smith said. "'Now you've got to compartmentalize this and get ourselves in a better mental place and work towards halftime where we can maybe address this a little bit more.'"
The first half of the match between Nashville and Hartford was lifeless, and it was clear that both teams were shaken by what they had witnessed early in the match. The teams combined for just two total shots on target, neither particularly threatening, and it was obvious to all involved that Nashville SC needed a reset at halftime.
"The only thing that I did say [at halftime] was, 'This situation, we're not going to be able to affect it right now. We can go and offer our support after the game, but at this point, the only thing that we need to be focusing on is improving our performance, and how do we do that?' That's easier said than done of course."
Smith accomplished it by changing the shape of the team coming into the second half. The reason for the change in formation was mental as well as tactical, getting his players focused on their shape in the second half rather than their captain's injury. The tactical switch was prophetic from Smith as Nashville SC scored four second half goals, led by Reed's substitute Ken Tribbett's header to give Nashville its first goal of the match.
Out of the hospital after a successful surgery, Reed has already been back around the team. HE wants to see out what he played a major part in starting as one of Nashville SC's first signings prior to its inaugural 2018 season - winning a championship. He's an integral piece in a locker room that is as much a family as it is a group of professional athletes. Being a close-knit team where friendship runs far deeper than just on-field connections, the Boys in Gold have rallied around Reed as he begins his recovery. Meanwhile, the captain is still leading his team.
"Michael was asking me what more he could do," said Smith. "Could he support the team in any other way? What type of effect could he have around the players, if anything, to help the process of winning the championship? That's a testimony to the character of the person. These are some of the sacrifices our players have made to try and be in a better position and win silverware."
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