Few people know this, but sometimes in the middle of the night
Cherry Creek (Greenwood Village, Colo.) senior McKenzie Brown wakes up writhing in pain. Her calf muscles start contracting around her already brittle shins, making it feel as if she has excruciating charley horses deep in her legs.
The pain forces Brown out of bed and into a three-part routine designed to alleviate the discomfort and allow her to sleep. She swallows a few Advil, then goes through a painful stretching exercise to loosen her calves. If that's not working, she massages her legs with a tennis ball, pushing it as deep into the muscle as physically bearable.
Sometimes it takes 20 minutes for the pain to go away. Other times it can take two hours. Either way, the pain is usually there again when she wakes up the next morning.
This is nothing new for Brown. The 5-foot-10 LaxPower All-American midfielder has overcome three seasons' worth of leg pain to become the state's best lacrosse player.
Her first trip to the doctor came as a sophomore when she hit a massive growth spurt -- sprouting up three inches in less than a year -- and her legs started hurting. Doctors told Brown the aches would eventually go away and that she could continue to play sports. But the pain never left. She hit a low point in 2008, when stress fractures in both shins put her on the shelf for four months.
No matter what she tries to do to get rid of the pain -- and she's tried just about everything -- it still never completely goes away.
"After a lot of running they can hurt for a week," Brown says. "I wish I could play with my legs 100 percent because I think I could step my game up to another level."
That's a scary thought considering that as a junior, Brown scored a state-leading 64 goals, handed out 34 assists, earned Denver Post Player of the Year honors and put away seven goals in the state final, which Cherry Creek won for the third consecutive year.
After the stress fractures were discovered late last spring, Brown had to take the summer off from lacrosse. Unfortunately, the hiatus couldn't have come at a worse time since summer lacrosse tournaments are where college coaches watch potential recruits and decide to whom to give scholarships.
McKenzie Brown Favorites
TV Show: "Grey's Anatomy"
- Movie: "27 Dresses"
Actor: Cameron Diaz
- Musical Artist: Lil Wayne
Brown was nervous her failure to play would hurt her chances of landing a scholarship. But Notre Dame coach Tracey Coyne had a different idea.
Coyne saw Brown play during her injury-plagued junior season and
wasn't deterred by the leg problems. Instead, Coyne was impressed that Brown served as a leader for a championship team. Brown's 4.4 GPA and clear dedication to academics also intrigued the longtime coach. Throw in some amazing lacrosse skills and Coyne saw Brown as "the total package."
"People kind of rally around her," Coyne says. "When you're a leader
at a school that consistently produces champions, that's exactly what
we're looking for."
The feeling was mutual. Brown always admired Notre Dame's mystique, so when she was offered a scholarship it didn't take her long to accept. Now Brown is gearing up to compete against the top players in the nation.
"People play their best when they're going against good competition," Brown says. "My game will be brought up to another level when I get there because I will be playing against the best."
Before Brown jets off to South Bend, Ind., she has some unfinished business to attend to. After winning state titles in each of her first three years, Brown wouldn't feel her high school career is complete without lacrosse trophy No. 4. (It would be Brown's fifth state title overall; she was a starter on Cherry Creek's championship field hockey squad as a junior.)
So despite not being 100 percent yet again this spring, Brown is putting pressure on herself to perform at an even higher level than last year. And not just on the field.
At the beginning of the season, Brown gave each team member a
keychain with links to which they could attach laminated inspirational quotes she planned on handing out each game. She explained that each member of the team is like a link on the keychain, and each link is needed for the group to be successful.
"The little things we do -- giving candy, sending messages, writing quotes -- it all contributes to our success," Brown says. "I feel like it brings the team closer together."
The one place Brown doesn't pull her teammates into is her world of constant leg rehab. She doesn't talk about her injuries much because rehashing old
memories can be painful.
Short of talking it out, though, Brown has tried to get rid of the pain every way imaginable. She's tried ultrasounds, acupuncture, orthotics, ice, heat,
stretching and massages. She's even tried taping her legs tightly, eating different food and changing her running mechanics. It's to the point where Brown loses her train of thought while listing all the procedures she's endured.
"That's the type of person she is," Cherry Creek coach Cayel Dwyer says. "She'll do anything to be out on the field, and she refuses to succumb to the pain. She's going to go out there and give 100 percent to make the team stronger, knowing she's making some sacrifices."
Those sacrifices come at a cost. After Cherry Creek's first game this spring, Brown fell to the ground and started crying from pain. For the next week and a half, her legs throbbed every time she moved. And of course, painful
late-night wake-ups were routine.
Yet Brown never complained. She didn't miss a game or a practice. All she missed was a little shuteye. And that's something Brown is used to.
Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.