Last night the New England Revolution enjoyed a Pyrrhic victory over the New York Red Bulls, as Revolution goalkeeper Preston Burpo (pictured above during a May 15th match against San Jose) went down during the first half with a catastrophic break to his right lower leg: a broken fibula and tibia reminiscent of the gruesome injury that ended Joe Theismann’s football career in 1985. The Revolution won last night’s match against the Red Bulls, 3 to 2–their first win since April 10th–but no one really felt like celebrating afterward. How can you celebrate after watching your goalkeeper writhing on the field with what could be a career-ending injury?
We normally watch Revolution home games from aisle seats about 20 rows behind the home bench: a front-and-center view of the action. Last night, however, we watched the game in a third-floor luxury suite along with 50 other season ticket holders: an informal event intended as a thank-you to the team’s most faithful fans. Watching last night’s match from Gillette Stadium’s swanky third floor meant we were too far up to clearly see what happened as Burpo landed in a impossibly tangled heap on the field…but since our suite was filled with wide-screen, high-definition televisions tuned to broadcast coverage of the game, we saw Burpo’s injury–or at least the gruesome aftermath of his injury–replayed over and over on TV.
Seeing someone completely break their leg–both of Burpo’s lower right leg-bones snapped so his lower leg jutted sideways at an impossible angle–is freakish and unnerving. You’re so accustomed to seeing how the body is supposed to work, your brain simply can’t understand what you’re seeing when a body assumes a position it clearly isn’t designed to assume. Simply put, legs are not designed to bend at the shin. If a leg happens to bend sideways at the shin, that’s shocking enough; if it then flops loosely in the opposite direction, as rubbery as a wet noodle, your brain boggles at the sight. Your brain simply can’t believe what your eyes seem to be seeing, and you watch the replays incredulously, as if seeing the evidence one more time will somehow help it make sense.
Reading one published account of the injury, we now know that “Burpo broke his right tibia and fibula after colliding with the New York Red Bulls’ Dane Richards,” but we didn’t know (or couldn’t process) that information at the time. Despite the numerous times we saw Burpo’s injury being replayed on those suite TVs, we couldn’t clearly figure out what caused the break, being too fixated on its horrific anatomical aftermath. Did Burpo run into someone? Did he take a hit? That previously mentioned published account of Burpo’s injury calmly notes that “Replays showed Richards stepping on Burpo’s leg above the ankle,” but frankly, that’s not what we saw in the replays. Instead, all we clearly saw (or all our brains allowed us to remember) was Burpo diving to the ground in an awkward slide, one leg bent uncomfortably (but not impossibly) beneath his body while the other leg flopped freakishly in his knee sock. Logically speaking, Burpo must have taken that sliding dive after colliding with Richards, but I honestly can’t say I saw that. All I saw–all I can clearly remember–is the anatomically impossible flopping of Preston Burpo’s right lower leg after he fell.
I was there to witness Burpo’s injury, but I’m not a reliable witness. Humans in general are unreliable witnesses: they focus on the wrong things, and their memories are muddled by emotions. In one famous experiment involving “inattentional blindness,” test subjects were asked to notice the number and kind of basketball passes in a short video, and half of these witnesses failed to notice a woman in a gorilla suit who wandered through the game. I don’t know what kind or number of basketball passes I was paying attention to last night, but I didn’t actually, immediately see Burpo’s injury when it happened: apparently my attention was directed elsewhere. What exactly was I doing–where exactly was I looking–when Burpo got hurt? I don’t know; I don’t remember. Was I taking a sip of soda or nibbling the last of my French fries? Was I glancing at the TV broadcast, which was on a several-second delay, or was I glancing at the scoreboard and its shots of rabid soccer fans? Was I looking down at my match program or up into the sky? Did I look away for one second or several? I don’t know; I don’t remember.
What I do remember, though, was being jolted back to the game–back to the gorilla I’d managed to ignore–by a sound I can’t quite describe. A collective gasp? A groan? A shriek? I didn’t hear the sickening pop of both of Burpo’s lower leg bones breaking, as some fans in the stands and certainly many players on the field reportedly did. Instead, I heard a shocked, stunned, horrified reaction from the crowd–a sound I can’t quite describe–that indicated in an instance that something was very, very wrong on the field three stories below.
Once I managed to direct my attention to the field beneath us, I saw that Burpo was down as another player (the Red Bulls’ Richards?) tumbled away from him, presumably from the momentum of their collision. I didn’t see the ball the two of them were presumably both racing toward; in the aftermath of the injury, the ball seemed entirely irrelevant, a gorilla worth ignoring. After Burpo went down, the Revs’ trainer darted onto the field, toting an orange carrier of green water bottles as he always does when a player is down. Since soccer is a sport without time-outs, the only chance players get to hydrate during a 45-minute half is when a player is down and the trainer races out with Gatorade. This time, though, the trainer was running so frantically onto the field, he tossed his Gatorade carrier, and green bottles flew everywhere. As silly as it is to admit it, that is my most vivid visual memory of Burpo’s injury, apart from the televised footage played and replayed on our suite’s wide-screen TVs. The moment I really realized that something bad was happening was when I saw a half dozen Gatorade bottles tossed to the ground.
If it seems odd that I could have witnessed such a gruesome injury without really realizing it, here’s even better proof of the power of inattentive blindness: for the first three or four times he saw Burpo’s injury replayed in high-definition, J failed to see the obvious (and alarming) flopping of Burpo’s foot in his sock. Time and again, our suite-mates winced and groaned when the footage was replayed…and time and again J claimed not to have seen the break. Finally, J named the gorilla in the room, noting incredulously, “I see he landed awkwardly on his leg, but I don’t see how his leg is necessarily broken.” During the first three or four times J saw Burpo’s fall, he was watching the wrong leg, entirely convinced that the goalkeeper must have broken the leg he’d landed on.
“The next time they show the footage,” I suggested, “watch the other leg, the one in the air.” And sure enough, they showed the footage again…and although by then I couldn’t bear to watch it, having replayed the gruesome scene too many times in my mind, I knew the second when J saw what the rest of us had. “Oh my God,” he exclaimed, then after a pause, “It looks like rubber.”
It looked like rubber indeed. This morning, I finally mustered the nerve to look through the pictures I’d taken of last night’s game, viewing them on my camera’s tiny view-screen as a way of bracing myself for when I download them to my laptop. In one grainy picture, I see Burpo crumpled on the field while one of the Red Bulls–Dane Richards?–careens away from him, his limbs flailing like a pinwheel; in the next blurry image, Burpo is on his back like a bug, his knees curled to his chest while his right foot juts to the side, his body a sickening swastika of ungodly angles.
Other hurried images show the team trainer, medics, and a team doctor racing onto the field; there is the requisite stretcher, and those half-dozen tossed water bottles. Revs captain Shalrie Joseph stands over Burpo in several pictures, his palms pressed together in front of his mouth: is he praying, or stifling sobs? In another image, Burpo’s right leg is covered with a towel, as if to shield it from horrified fans; in the next, it lies swollen and limp, monstrous, in the team doctor’s hand while Burpo lies on his side, his face twisted in pain. These are pictures I took but cannot share: they’re too raw and awful, a private moment of intense agony that should have never happened, much less in front of a cheering crowd. Our bodies are private places, and pain is an indescribable mystery. What kind of blasphemy is it that photos and video snippets Burppo’s injury will probably make the usual email rounds, a bit of YouTube freakishness shared over the work watercooler?
Last night I watched those video replays over and over the same way I watched footage of the Twin Towers crumble on 9/11: I watched because my brain couldn’t believe my eyes. There is a kind of watching that is voyeuristic, and there is a kind of watching that is sympathetic, like that shared gasp, moan, or shriek I heard from fellow fans while I was looking elsewhere.
Looking through my grainy photos of last night’s game, there’s one picture I’m glad to have snapped. It comes from early in the first half, as Preston Burpo dove sideways to deflect a ball headed toward but not into his goal. In the picture, several players blur in the background, as does the deflected ball; in the foreground, Burpo hangs aloft as he flies, his body and arms outstretched in a moment of lithe athletic mastery. Is it this image, not the one of him lying crumpled in an impossible, flopping tangle, that I want to remember of what might be Preston Burpo’s last professional soccer game. In this image, he is agile and triumphant, defying gravity as his arms reach and his back arches, both of his legs stretched long behind him, straight and strong.
Click here for the complete photoset from the New England Revolution’s May 15th match against the San Jose Earthquake. I’m not sure when–if ever–I’ll get around to sharing photos from last night’s Pyrrhic victory against the New York Red Bulls. Some pictures are just too gruesome to revisit.