CHICAGO -- The scruffy artificial turf football field at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the North Side could use a makeover. Each footstep kicks up little black pellets that find their way into shoes. The black track, where the Warrior Games running events were held last Sunday, is newer and in much better shape.
Brant Ireland, an Army sergeant first class and a Green Beret who lost his left leg in Afghanistan, won a silver medal in the 200 meters for above-the-knee amputees, running with a blade prosthetic similar to that popularized by the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Ireland is a bear of a man, with close-cropped graying hair and a tattoo of a tattered American flag across his right shoulder and upper arm.
After receiving his medal, Ireland, 37, walked lengthwise down the middle of the field toward the far end, where his Special Operations Command teammates gathered under a canopy to escape the sun. At around midfield, Ireland's blade caught hard in the turf and he tumbled, landing in a heap. But within seconds he was up and moving.
"I'm not used to having spikes on the bottom of this," he said. "I've had a lot worse falls than this."
Top of the list: the fall that cost him his leg and sent him to a dark place.
Ireland and his Special Forces unit were in Nangarhar province in northeast Afghanistan in June 2013, running an operation in the mountains occupied by the Taliban and "assorted bad guys," as he put it. Ireland, on his sixth deployment, described it as a normal mission. "Nothing extra special, except I was weighted down with a little more ammo, a little more weight than usual," he said.
The Chinook helicopters landed at night, kicking up dust. Visibility was poor. "But you get off the bird and you move in the direction you're supposed to be moving, because you don't always have that much time," he said.
Not long after Ireland set out, there was a drop-off in the terrain that he never saw. "It wasn't a cliff by any means," he said. Reflexively, he stuck out his left leg to break the fall. But the knee couldn't support all the extra weight. It collapsed.
"My knee dislocated out and folded back to where I pretty much kicked myself in the groin area," he said.
"I couldn't believe what had just happened. In disbelief, I got back up, took another step, and there was absolutely nothing there to support. So I ended up landing back down on my foot, rolling over."
The knee was a mess. The dislocation destroyed all the soft tissue -- ligaments, muscles, tendons, menisci. The tibial plateau, the weight-bearing joint at the top of the tibia in the lower leg, shattered "like a vase," he said. While his unit continued on, Ireland was loaded onto a Chinook and flown to a military hospital.
Once Ireland returned to the U.S. and doctors learned the extent of his injuries, he was given a choice: fusion or amputation.
Ireland had been athletic and active his whole life. He played football, basketball and baseball at Stillwater High in Minnesota, then four years of baseball at Indiana Tech, an NAIA school. He wanted to join the Army after 9/11 but graduated college first, fulfilling a promise to his family. He loved his country and loved serving with his unit. Now they wanted to cut his leg off? No way. No fusion, either.
Two years of extraordinary surgical measures followed as Ireland explored every avenue to save his leg. Nothing worked. His wife, Tanya, then a pediatric trauma nurse, suspected early on it might be fruitless.
"When he first got medevaced and I saw the results of CAT scans, I was a little bit shocked they were trying as many surgeries as they wanted to because they didn't make sense to me," she said.
"It's not my leg, though. It was hard. As a nurse, I could see: What are we doing here? This isn't working. But I also needed to remove myself from the medical career and be that supportive wife.
"When the surgeries would come around, we would all have a lot of hope that it would actually work and kind of bring my husband back to who I knew he was, and the father I knew he was and could be."
With a rebuilt knee and a special brace, Ireland even redeployed with his unit in a support role. However, three months in, he felt the knee collapsing. Ireland limped through the rest of the deployment but knew the time had come. Surgeons amputated in June 2015 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Three subsequent surgeries followed, the last in March 2016.
The loss of the leg left Ireland despondent. Learning to walk with an artificial leg wasn't any easier.
"I knew what I had to do," he said. "I could sit here and be in extreme pain and have very little function, or I could have no pain and the world's the limit as far as mobility and function.
"But when you look down and see your leg missing, it's a little bit different. I knew it was the right decision. You know you have a big hill to climb to this point, or past this point. At first it's completely unnatural, trying to make something move that isn't a part of you. Then with phantom pain and limb pain, your mind and body not knowing what's going on, trying to figure out where that leg went, and those kind of things ... It was definitely hard, ups and downs."
Recuperating in San Antonio, Ireland learned of Operation Comfort, a nonprofit that provides occupational therapy and financial support for wounded soldiers and their families. Janis Roznowski, the former American Airlines flight attendant who founded the program, introduced Ireland to his first adaptive sport: sled hockey. Ireland loved it. When he returned to his unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he took a sled with him.
"When I was at a very low point, sled hockey kind of found me," Ireland said. "I was kind of closed-minded to adapted sports because I wanted to play real sports. 'Those are for people who can't compete at real sports, but I'm going to find a way to compete at real sports.' Looking back, how silly I was and how wrong I was.
"[There were] two or three Paralympians from Sochi. As I was falling all over the place like everyone does when they first start, I saw these guys flying around the ice and handling the puck like they're in the NHL. I saw the potential. They were every supportive and very encouraging: We got hurt, we're in same position you were, but we had a passion for it and worked at it, and look where we are now."
Said Tanya: "A pretty special feature about Brant is, when he puts his mind to something, he can do it. It was kind of fun watching him fall and flop around a little bit, because he's been good at every sport he's ever tried. I kind of enjoyed that a little bit. Sure enough, after a few more practices, it became a passion for him."
There is no sled hockey at the Warrior Games, so Ireland entered almost everything else -- track, field, cycling, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. "I wanted to make sure that I tried everything possible that was out there," he said. "And I wanted to do everything I could to help Team SOCOM. There aren't many sports adaptable that I don't enjoy doing. Anything athletic with an opportunity to compete is right down my alley."
On July 5 at Soldier Field, Ireland won golds in the standing shot put and discus. Between events, he walked over to the stands and greeted his wife and their daughters Reece, 10, and Mackenna, 7. Tanya calls them Team Ireland. "We're pro-Brant," she said. And Brant, finally, is very much pro-himself. He lost a leg but regained a life, for himself and his family.
"After the last [surgery], I just saw a little switch," Tanya said. "He worked really hard to come off the medications that they prescribe you. I really can say I owe it a lot to adaptive sports because it gives them a sense of purpose to just awaken that soul again, to get up and get moving. To have that freedom again, and that camaraderie of a team, there's no prescription for that. So we're really proud of him.
"Brant is Brant again. And that's the best feeling in the world."