Meaghan Carrigan sat on her couch, crutches by her side, her right leg free to move and left leg locked in extension by an intimidating black brace. A black pouch hung by her side, necessary to support an antibacterial IV that was hidden by a sweater but ran from the middle of her arm to her Superior Vena Cava, which lies directly above her heart. She was as comfortable as someone could be less than one week removed from knee surgery, especially considering the absolute imprisonment that her left leg was under as it rested on her nearby coffee table. It was obvious by her slouched, comfortable posture and the surrounding pillows and blankets that she had become acquainted with the couch over the previous weeks. Her laptop sat open next to her, Netflix asking if she was still watching.
Carrigan, Richmond soccer’s starting center forward, rarely let a smile escape her face, though—not intentionally, but because of her light-hearted, matter-of-fact demeanor. “It could be way worse,” she said. “This is a knee injury. People go through way worse things.” That optimism was admirable, considering that 29 days earlier she had torn her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for the second time in three years at Richmond and would be spending at least six months following a rigorous rehabilitation regimen.
On September 20, the Spiders hosted Longwood at Robins Stadium in a non-conference, relatively low-stakes soccer game. For Carrigan, though, it ended up being a costly one, as her leg gave out while she was playing defense along the sideline. When it happened, she wasn’t in severe pain, but she tried to crawl off the field nonetheless. Her coaches stopped her and made her wait for the referees to call her out of the game.
When she stood up on it, it wasn’t as much a painful feeling as a “weird” one, she said. She could still run around, but in the back of her mind she felt nervous, recognizing the feeling from the ACL injury she had suffered two years earlier.
Still, she was unsure of what exactly had happened inside her knee until after she went through surgery. When she woke up, she looked at the doctors and asked, “ACL?” They confirmed her fear, and she began to cry. “Meaghan does not cry,” her mother, Cindy Carrigan, said. But her passion for soccer, desire to play, love for her teammates and the inevitability of a long, grueling recovery process all weighed on her at once, and she let it show in that moment.
Fast forward to that day on her couch. Her left leg lay elevated on a pillow, confined by a brace. The IV pouch hung around her shoulder. The thing is, ACL tears don’t usually require IVs. In fact, they never do. The IV was there to provide antibiotics necessary to fight a staph infection in Carrigan’s knee.
Shortly after her first surgery to repair the torn ligament, Carrigan was feeling fine. She was optimistic about her leg even though the surgery had been painful. Then, all of a sudden, she felt the worst pain of her life. She couldn’t function. She stayed in bed all day for five days, unable to focus on anything beside the pain she felt. At first, she thought it was the surgery, because this time they had taken a part of her bone to repair the ligament.
After five days she decided she couldn’t handle it anymore. “I think I have a blood clot,” she told her mother on the phone. Cindy Carrigan immediately called her daughter’s teammates and a few of their mothers who were in town, and they brought her to the hospital.
Carrigan immediately went into her second surgery in as many weeks to clean an infection in her leg, the source of the pain. When she woke up, her mother was at the hospital, having driven from South Carolina to see her daughter. The surgery went well and the infection, classified as the less serious staph epidermidis, was under control and would not resist antibiotics. She has since been back to get her knee cleaned out once more. She now wears the IV pouch, and will for a few more weeks, to eliminate the chance of the infection returning.
Doctors and athletes often describe ACL tears as devastating, mostly because of the 6-12 months of necessary recovery time and the difficulty of returning the leg to peak strength. Many athletes are never the same after the injury, sometimes because they can’t trust their leg and other times because they simply lose the physical abilities they once had. The exhaustive and tedious recovery process often strips athletes of their love for their sport, because being able to walk becomes a luxury.
But Carrigan fears nothing.
“Do you have any doubt that you want to play again?” I asked.
“No,” Carrigan said. “No, no, no.”
Carrigan has been playing soccer since she was 4 years old. Throughout her youth, she also played tennis, swam competitively, golfed, practiced gymnastics, and played basketball and baseball. Her baseball career ended early, though, because coaches insisted she play softball with girls rather than compete in a boys’ league. She refused.
“She was just a phenomenal athlete from the very beginning,” her mother said.
The Carrigans moved from Atlanta to Greenville, South Carolina when she was in first grade. There, she began playing club soccer at the age of 9 for Andrew Hyslop and the Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (CESA), and she exhibited a willingness to work harder than other players and dedicate more time to training. Hyslop, who coached Carrigan for nine years and still talks with her regularly, said he had seen that unique dedication from her since the first few weeks he began coaching her.
“You got a lot of good athletes in this country who are potentially talented soccer players,” he said. “You don’t have that many players who want to train every day, and she wanted to play soccer every day.”
Carrigan was admittedly undersized during those early years, and that motivated her to work harder on her technical skills to compensate for her lack of size. There was never any doubt from Hyslop, CESA’s co-director, about her talent, though, as she was playing up as a small 7-year-old in a league for 12-year-olds.
Eventually, Hyslop decided Carrigan should take on someone her own size. She didn’t like hearing that.
When Carrigan was 12, she played on the CESA 13-year-olds’ team that beat the 14-year-olds to advance to a regional tournament. After that season, though, she got a call from Hyslop as she was on her way to swim practice. He told her they needed to talk.
When she got home, her parents told her they needed to meet with Hyslop. He told her that he thought it was best for her to play in her own age group so that team could develop. “I’m literally looking at him like, you’re crazy,” Carrigan said. She bawled, allowing her extreme competitiveness to get the best of her, but the decision was not hers to make.
From that point on, Carrigan played in her age group. It was a challenge at first because her new team was not held to the same standard as her previous team, but she helped build the standard up. That team of girls, which Hyslop coached every year but the first, would eventually go on to win regionals and compete in nationals multiple times, giving Carrigan reason to believe Hyslop had made the right decision for her.
“He was right all along,” she said. “I couldn’t see it at the time but it really did help me grow as a player, having to go through adversity at that age.”
Sure enough, Carrigan would develop into a dominant forward. She was showered with awards and recognition during her time playing high school soccer at Christ Church Episcopal: two-time regional player of the year, Rookie of the Year, two-time team MVP, three-time all-state honoree. There are plenty more. She also holds basically every school record for goal scoring with five in one game, 58 in one season and 169 in her four-year career.
Despite being undersized at 5-foot-4-inches tall and not prototypically fast or lengthy for a forward, her stellar high school and club careers garnered attention from powerhouse Clemson University, a nationally ranked ACC program. Clemson, which sits just 40 minutes from Carrigan’s home, gave her an offer that she originally accepted. She quickly began to second-guess her decision, though, Cindy Carrigan said.
Although Clemson was close to home, Carrigan made sure to visit other schools. She wanted to find a school with balance, somewhere she could play soccer at a high level but also be challenged academically, have the opportunity to join a sorority and do the other things that constitute a complete college experience, her mother said. When she visited Richmond she found that it provided that balance unlike any other school she had visited. She felt at home, and from there her decision was easy.
So, to Richmond she came, hoping to excel on the soccer field while also being challenged as a business major. The academics came as expected, but she would have to wait a while for the soccer.
Carrigan tore her ACL for the first time on the second day of preseason practice, about three weeks before her first semester of classes started.
The injury was, at first, devastating. She was forced to redshirt, missing the entire season but still leaving her with four years of eligibility. Carrigan said she had often thought, “Why me?” for a few weeks afterward. She was confined to the training room for rehab, forcing her to miss out on the natural bonding and creation of relationships that her other teammates were able to have. She was, in a way, isolated from her team.
That ACL tear had as much positive impact on Carrigan as it did negative, though.
First, she developed a relationship with teammate Becca Wann, an outstanding soccer and basketball player at Richmond whose career was cut short because of concussions. Wann maintained her presence nonetheless, staying positive and helping her team in any way she could. She provided Carrigan with an example of how to be a leader regardless of unfavorable circumstances, and Carrigan said she subconsciously uses that example as a team captain today, unable to play but still making a difference among her teammates.
Wann also played a role in helping revive Carrigan’s Christian faith. The two would read Bible verses together as a reminder that God had a plan for them, even though it may not have been evident at the time. Carrigan had gone to church her entire life and attended a religious high school, but the trials that her injury presented strengthened her connection with her faith and served as a sort of “wake-up call,” she said.
“It’s made me into who I am,” Carrigan said. “I know that God has control over everything, so I just have to work as hard as I can and things are going to play out however they’re supposed to play out.”
Another positive enforcement for Carrigan was communication with Vernon Smith, Marcus Lattimore’s stepfather. Lattimore was an outstanding running back at the University of South Carolina from 2010 to 2012, but a devastating knee injury cut his career short. Smith, who heard Carrigan’s story through a distant connection in South Carolina, sent her emails of encouragement and communicated about Lattimore’s recovery process as motivation.
Through her faith and the guidance she received from Smith, Wann and others, Carrigan worked through her rehabilitation process and returned to play her redshirt freshman year.
She didn’t just play, though. She dominated. Carrigan scored 14 goals in 2014, her first collegiate season, earning her Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors and ranking her second in the nation for goals scored by freshmen. She was one of two players to start every game for Richmond, scoring twice in five different games.
The first goal she scored was a weight off of her shoulders, she said, because she proved to herself that she could play at the collegiate level. Before that season, Hyslop had talked with Carrigan and set a goal for her of eight goals, even though it was unknown at the time whether she could return to be the player she was before the injury. She hit that mark in late September, and over the last month of the season Hyslop would continue to raise the number of goals he expected her to score. She continually surpassed his expectations.
Carrigan’s goal-scoring ability is a result of 16 years of playing soccer, during which she has developed a skill set and awareness not often found in collegiate players. “She’s really physical,” Lindsay Egbers and Lindsey Williams, her teammates, both said. Her strength and dribbling skills allow her to go through, around or over defenders. But it’s her knowledge of the game that really sets her apart.
Both Egbers and Hyslop mentioned Carrigan’s ability to be “in the right place at the right time.” That’s no accident. She is able to do that by moving without the ball, running at the right angles at the right times, and knowing her teammates’ tendencies so she can anticipate what will happen.
“She’s just there,” Egbers said. “The ball gets crossed and you’re just like, ‘Nobody’s in the box.’ And then Meaghan scores. When she’s in the box there’s a magnet to Meaghan.”
Carrigan is now one year removed from her stellar sophomore season. She was forced to watch her team struggle from the sideline for most of this year, especially with goal scoring, as the team ranked last in the conference with 19 goals, 18 fewer than last season. The Spiders had two different four-game streaks without a goal, and the lack of scoring ultimately cost the team a spot in the conference tournament.
Despite those struggles, Carrigan maintained a strong leadership role on her team. She sent text messages to freshmen after losses telling them to keep working hard, and she stayed close with the veteran players to try to make positive changes and win some games. Most importantly, though, she has been a symbol of strength, showing her teammates that positivity is a choice.
Sure, Carrigan has had a few bad days. Anyone would after two ACL tears in three years. The day after her second surgery, she lay in her hospital bed thinking, “Why? Why did I have to tear my ACL? Why did I have to get an infection? Why?”
Even on the worst days, though, she won’t let it show. “I’m going to get through this,” she says. She doesn’t have time for the past—next season’s on its way, and she needs to be ready for it.
“She would call me,” her mother said, “and if I was getting upset, if I would start to cry, she would just say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna hang up and I’m gonna call you back. You can’t be sad… I can’t call you and hear you be sad. I can’t undo this. I can’t make it not happen. All I can do is move forward.”
Contact Sports Editor Charlie Broaddus at firstname.lastname@example.org