RICHMOND, Va. – The network of scars on Mario Herrera Meraz’s left knee weave a tapestry of pain and doubt, and bear evidence of a gauntlet of trials. He muses as he leads me on a tour through the tangled mess of scar tissue.
Herrera Meraz’s kneecap is surrounded by skin marked by surgeon’s knives. There are four large scars roughly the size of postage stamps that form a perimeter around the knee, as well as several small dot marks, evidence of the torn meniscus he suffered when he was 16 that kicked off a “Groundhog’s Day”-like series of injuries that threatened his soccer career. The final scalpel stroke, a narrow, four-inch highway down the center of the knee, is from his most recent brush with injury. He had a screw inserted the last time, and with direct contact, the area can go numb for a few moments.
From 2006-2012, the VCU senior endured four major surgeries on the knee, three to repair a torn ACL. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. If not for a cacophony of shredded soft tissue, it’s entirely possible Herrera Meraz would be playing professionally by now, as well as a member of Mexico’s national team.
Despite adversity, Herrera Meraz breezes into the room unfailingly polite and buoyant. Eight years since his first visit to the operating room, the wiry, 5-foot-8 midfielder can still find a smile while recalling a vicious cycle of success, injury, disbelief, recovery and self-doubt.
His torn ACL in the 2012 Atlantic 10 Championship Match and the collective toll of four surgeries, hung like a black cloud over his 2013 season. His confidence shattered, Herrera Meraz was a shadow of himself as he wandered through the season like a man in the wilderness.
If his early play is any indication, Herrera Meraz has found his way back to the 2012 form that allowed him to score six goals and assist on eight others. Following an impressive preseason, including a two-goal performance in an exhibition match, Herrera Meraz matched his goal total from all of 2013 in VCU’s season opener with a laser shot from 40 yards out in the Rams’ 3-0 win over Fairleigh Dickinson on Aug. 29.
VCU Coach Dave Giffard says while Hererra Meraz was physically healed during the 2013 season, the injuries had made him cautious, if subconsciously so. Instead of reacting and attacking in certain situations, he would often veer away from dangerous spots.
“Anytime someone gets hurt in contact sports, you have that trepidation to put yourself in that area again until you feel really confident,” Giffard said. For him, that was a step and it took some time.”
Perhaps Herrera Meraz’s warm grin is of relief, that he’s back to playing soccer with a confidence that allows the Mexico City native to make the type of plays that vaulted him through his country’s national program.
“All of the sudden you get into a situation where he feels very comfortable and confident he starts doing a lot of things and now, 40 yards and in, he’s looking to have a go,” says VCU Coach Dave Giffard. “The goal he scored against Fairleigh Dickinson, he can do that any time he wants, when he feels good. Last year, he could’ve played for six months in a row and never scored that goal or even taken that shot.”
DETOUR ON THE WAY TO STARDOM
Herrera Meraz’s soccer career was on a fast track. As a teenager, he earned spots on Mexico’s U15 and U17 National Teams. He was 16 when he tore the meniscus in his left knee. Three years later, it was his ACL. A year after that, following months of rehab, he tore the ACL again. Some people began to have doubts about his career.
“One of the doctors was like, it’s going to be hard for you to play again,” Herrera Meraz recalled. “If you’re able to play, you’re going to be really lucky.”
A short time later, his club team was relegated and needed to trim younger players from its roster. He didn’t make the cut. The U17 team had also moved on with out Herrera Meraz, leaving the former soccer star without a team. At 19, his career was at a crossroads.
“My family and friends, they encouraged me to keep doing it because I was good, and they said I should never stop,” he said.
Herrera Meraz endured rehab again, and when he was healthy, decided he needed a change of scenery. Although he had virtually no knowledge of college soccer, he set out to land a Division I scholarship. Starting at the top, he says he began emailing schools based on the NCAA’s RPI rankings. Herrera Meraz estimates he emailed about 50 coaching staffs, but only received replies from “three or four”. Given his history of injuries and no highlight reel to speak of, coaches didn’t have much information to assess Herrera Meraz’s playing ability.
After a series of bad breaks, he was hoping for just one good one.
LESSONS FROM THE HOTEL SHUTTLE
One of the most valuable lessons Dave Giffard ever learned about coaching came on a hotel shuttle. It was the early 2000s and Giffard was an assistant at UAB. Following a loss in the conference tournament in Saint Louis, a man struck up a conversation with the young assistant coach. The man, the father of a Cincinnati player named Josh Gardner, recalled his son’s initial interest in UAB.
“He emailed you three times, and you wrote him back to tell him thanks, but we were full, so that’s why he went to Cincinnati,” the man told Giffard.
“And we were full, but…”
Giffard’s voice trails off. Gardner became and All-American and enjoyed a long professional career with Major League Soccer. Giffard says he vowed not to make that kind of mistake again.
“Over the course of 20 years, however long I’ve been doing this, I’ve made some mistakes with not answering every email or assumed that, something’s not real or not accurate,” he said. “Twice was enough for me to get burned, for me to follow up. At the end of the day, you just never know.”
Herrera Meraz’s email landed in Giffard’s inbox during the summer of 2011. He’d never seen Herrera Meraz play, but Giffard offered him an opportunity anyway. The Rams were holding an open camp later that month. Giffard extended Herrera Meraz an invitation. There were no guarantees, just a chance for Herrera Meraz to prove himself.
At the end of July in 2011, Herrera Meraz flew to Richmond with his father for the three-day camp. He was out of shape and hadn’t really played competitively in a year.
“The first day was not the best day for me,” he said. “I thought that maybe they thought I was lying.”
Despite Herrera Meraz’s brutal self-assessment, he impressed Giffard and his staff.
“It took about 10 seconds for me to say, okay, this guy is exactly what he says he is,” Giffard said. “He just looked like a guy that hadn’t played. By the end of the first night, I was intrigued. By the end of the first session of the second day we were trying to figure out how we could add him for preseason a few days later.”
Herrera Meraz didn’t make preseason camp, but he did manage to get his paperwork in order in time for the 2011 season.
ONE MORE COMEBACK
The adjustment to NCAA soccer and the United States, not to mention the fact that he was playing himself back into shape, proved more difficult than Herrera Meraz originally anticipated, and he muddled through the 2011 season with little fanfare.
By 2012, however, he was a force on the VCU attack. In October, he appeared to hit his stride with a goal and two assists in an upset of a ranked Charlotte squad. In the A-10 Tournament that fall, he scored the game-winning goals in the Rams’ quarterfinal and semifinal victories.
Early in the championship match against Saint Louis, he was defending the ball when he planted with his right leg to make a cut. Herrera Meraz says he heard “a pop” and dropped to the turf. He knew immediately what had happened. In the ensuing moments, his mind swerved through fear and grief before it finally landed on defiance.
“A lot of things were going through my head. First, I was thinking, am I going to be able to play again? Why now? Why in the final? I was going to miss the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “The help and support from everybody, in that moment, especially from my teammates and coaches, the fans that were there, other guys’ parents…I thought, ‘I went through the other [injuries], this is not going to beat me. I can do it again.’”
Nearly two years removed from that night in Saint Louis, Herrera Meraz is starting to look like the player he was before the injury, and that’s good news for the Rams, who are shooting for a third straight NCAA bid. An offensive catalyst like Herrera Meraz could go a long way toward making it a reality. Either way, the VCU senior’s career appears back on track. Through eight matches, he’s second on the team with four points.
“Everything they said, that I couldn’t play anymore, I showed them I could,” he said recently. “One more shouldn’t take me away from playing. I just wanted to keep playing.”