LaFAYETTE, Ga. — Devan Greene played his last high school soccer game Friday night. LaFayette's 3-2 loss to Ridgeland ended a somewhat disappointing season for the Ramblers, who had sights on making the state playoffs.
For Greene, however, there was very little disappointment. Sure, the self-professed soccer junky wanted to experience the postseason, but you'll not hear him complain. Greene believes his life was touched by a miracle and, well, he never will look at a soccer ball or a blade of grass in the same way.
Whether Greene was the recipient of divine intervention, a medical miracle or some fortunate combination of biological events, he and his family believe something special happened last October that cannot easily be explained.
The story began in November 2008 when he was trying to move his father's motorcycle in the carport. It fell on his right leg and broke it just above the ankle.
It was, the family was told, a fairly typical break. The bone was set, a cast was put on the leg and the healing process began.
Except that it didn't.
"It was just a perfect storm of his age, the growth plates being wide open and him having a growth spurt," said Devan's mother, Jennifer. "It damaged his growth plates from his knee down, and it caused his leg to grow at odd angles."
Months later, Devan had the first of what would be six surgeries on the leg, this one to put a screw in his ankle to tilt it so it eventually would straighten out. A second in 2010 put plates and pins in his knee so it would begin to grow straighter.
And when he could, Devan still played soccer.
"I've played soccer my whole life. It's my passion," he said, noting that no one in his family had played that sport. "I was really energetic, so we tried baseball and a couple of other sports. In baseball I would just sit in the outfield and play with rocks. I liked basketball, but with soccer I could run around the whole time and it always kept me occupied, so I loved it."
The bad news came in the spring of 2012 when Dr. Wendell Moses at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger told the family that to avoid permanent hip and back issues in the future, Devan needed major surgery. The eight-hour procedure last May inserted two external fixators to his leg -- a cage frame to his ankle and a side frame to the femur.
The fixators came with long pins that went into his bones, and several times a day Derrick Greene, Devan's father, had to use a wrench to turn them. In simple terms, the bones needed to be moved so they would finally straighten out. Turning the screws that were attached to the top of the pins twisted his bones.
Jennifer, seeing the pain on her son's face, couldn't do it and often had to turn away.
"It was very, very painful to him," she said. "Every day we would do the turns. The side frame, we had to do it for a month, month and a half. The bottom frame took longer. They could not get his knee to bend, so one day he had to go back in and they had to put him to sleep and make a big turn. That gave him enough of a stretch so that he could start working it out."
Though progress was being made, Devan also learned that the recovery time for the surgery was 12 months. He would miss his senior year of soccer.
"That was the moment I was told me there was no way I could play ... so it was tough," he recalled. "I kept telling my mom I was going to play, that this doesn't matter. I just thought about not being able to play, and I couldn't stand it."
His friends would come over and play video games, and Devan wore out his new iPad watching Netflix. But it was also during this time that he became quite self-conscious of the reaction of people who saw the medieval-looking contraptions hooked to his leg. Already shy, he withdrew from going out in public.
"It was hard for him to even go to the doctor because people would stare and say the rudest things," Jennifer said. "I know it's shocking to see that, but really? It made him very uncomfortable."
Until one day while in Gatlinburg, Jennifer's brother found a different way to deal with it.
"The only way I got through it at Gatlinburg was that my uncle said we should play a game where we count out loud when someone stares or says something," Devan said, smiling at the memory. "So when we saw someone stare we would count. We got to close to a hundred in one day. It kind of loosened me up."
Graft needed ... not
School was approaching, and in August the side frame attached to his femur was removed. However, the bone above his ankle was showing very little improvement and Dr. Moses began discussing the possibility of having to do a bone graft that would set Devan back even more. In October that possibility became a reality.
"The upper bone healed rapidly, maybe too rapidly, but the lower one didn't," Dr. Moses said. "That's not uncommon with that bone, but it was very frustrating to Devan. It was decided that in order to speed up the process we needed to change the biology of the situation with the bone graft."
Devan went for his pre-operation tests, where X-rays again showed the bone around his ankle was not regenerating at the pace it should. The graft would add two months to his recovery, and with soccer tryouts set for late January, any remaining hope of playing his senior year was dashed.
Everything changed a week and a half later.
Devan was on the operating table and Dr. Moses was ready to make the first incision when he looked at the live X-ray and noticed something interesting.
"Whether it was a delay in the regeneration or just good timing, but when we looked at it on the live X-ray he had sufficient bone growth to not do the surgery," Dr. Moses recalled. "Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise. It's not often we get to give good news like that."
It may defy explanation, but the Greene family, very strong in its faith, has no doubt what happened.
"The day of the bone graft surgery, that was my exact prayer, that the bone would be healed," Derrick said. "When they took him back for surgery, we went to get some breakfast and I told Jennifer what I prayed. Then they come out and tell us that they didn't have to do anything -- so it was like, whoa!
"It was a miracle. There is no other possible explanation."
Asked what he thought happened, Devan flashed a quick smile: "I have no clue, honestly. After months and months of it not growing back, all I can say is it was a miracle. If God wants me to play soccer, I'm going to play soccer."
Back on the field
The cage frame around his ankle was removed on Oct. 31, the sixth and final surgery. However, Devan was still far from being strong enough to play soccer, so he poured every ounce of effort into his physical therapy visits at Performance Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine in LaFayette.
The final hurdle was cleared in mid-January when Dr. Moses, who had been concerned that overdoing it would cause a stress fracture in the weakest area, declared him physically able to compete.
Not wanting special treatment, neither Devan nor his parents talked to first-year LaFayette coach Casey Payne about the leg. On Jan. 25 he went to tryouts and earned a spot on the team at his usual position, forward.
It was, he recalls, a moment he will never forget.
"I had been thinking about it for a while," he said. "I told my mom that I would do anything just to be able to go out there and lay on the grass. When I first put my cleats back on, it all started to come back to me. It was a very emotional moment. The first time I touched the ball felt amazing."
Devan played in every game this year, scoring "a few goals and assisting on some more," and admits he isn't as fast as he once was. He also believes the speed will come back with continued hard work, and he plans to attend tryouts at both Young Harris College and Shorter University.
Jennifer Greene no longer doubts the possibility of anything her son puts his mind to. After the numerous visits to the hospital and physical therapy, after witnessing her son's leg twitch in pain as his bones were being twisted and after seeing him feel ashamed of the way people looked at him, watching him the last few weeks run and jump and kick on the soccer field has been pure parental delight.
"I can't get enough of watching him out there," she said, trying to contain a sudden swell of emotion. "It's such a joy. I wish it could last forever. He eats and breathes soccer. He works so hard at it, and God blessed him so much to allow him to be back out there."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...