Jefferson P. Nolan
It’s the sound athletes hope they will never hear: the hallow noise of your knee ripping apart from your bone structure. But that’s not all. It’s the echo of a smashed “null and void” stamp on a scholarship. It’s the sound of the last cheer you’ll hear from your parents in the stands.
It’s the sound of your shattered dream.
Brittany Woodard has heard the “pop” twice. And on Jan. 12, during the women’s basketball game against Pacific, it took a mere millisecond for the Cal Poly senior forward to recognize the sound. It all came flooding back.
“My knee went to the right and my body went to the left,” Woodard said. “I just heard a big ‘pop.’”
Woodard had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in her left knee during her sophomore year. But this time, the main difference is not the degree of pain, but the knowledge that her collegiate career has so abruptly come to an end.
“It’s really difficult right now,” Woodard said. “Obviously I have all of these emotions; It’s just a huge rollercoaster.”
Every athlete lives in fear of sustaining an injury. They can be career ending, they can impact an entire season and they can happen at any time. Injuries are athletes’ kryptonite.
When she was healthy, Woodard did it all.
“Brittany did so many things for us,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “She scored for us, she rebounded the ball and she ran the court. If Brittany were here and got hurt in my first year, there would be absolutely no hope in winning another game. Because she’s such a good player, to suffer a loss of that magnitude, there would be no chance.”
As co-captain of the team with senior guard Kayla Griffin, Woodard’s role has changed. Now the women’s team needs her to become something else.
“I just wanted to let (the team) know where I’m coming from and to let them know I’ll be supportive of them,” Woodard said. “If they need anything, I’m here for them. My whole team knows what I’ve been through. I’ve been struggling through injuries my whole time at Cal Poly. The bottom line is, they are my sisters. And they’re going to help me get through this.”
After 16 years of coaching at Cal Poly, Mimnaugh has seen countless players suffer injuries on the court. She knows it is only then that you begin to see how strong a person truly is.
“She’s been very mature and inspirational about how she’s setting aside her own disappointment and still be there for her team,” Mimnaugh said. “She still wants to contribute to the team in any way she can, and she is one of the few people that I’ve coached who is able to look beyond herself and see other people hurting around who need her support or give word and encouragement. She’s the No. 1 team player, and I would want her on my team any day. She’d be my first hire.”
Redshirt sophomore Ariana Elegado tore her medial collateral ligament (MCL) in her second scrimmage game as a freshman at Cal Poly.
“I’ve experienced injuries, and most of my teammates have experienced injuries,” Elegado said. “It can happen to anyone, anytime. Once you hear that ‘pop,’ you know. It is emotional when you go down. But then you get over it, and you learn. Everything happens for a reason.”
And while injuries have the potential to cut an athlete short of his or her career, inevitably, hundreds of Cal Poly athletes will graduate and face the dreaded question: “What now?”
For every athlete in college, there is a play clock ticking down. After the last goal, the last out, the last shot of the game, the buzzer goes off, and suddenly, it’s over.
“Every time with the seniors coming into their senior year, we talk about how special an opportunity it is to play in college,” Mimnaugh said. “Not everyone gets to do this, and it’s a great privilege and honor to be able to play. The things you learn on the court — the lessons you can apply across the board to competitive situations — are all applicable. There are so many lessons; it is a classroom on the court.”
Woodard — like most collegiate athletes — has a few different options. Currently majoring in journalism, she applied to Cal Poly’s Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program and was recently accepted to Saint Xavier University’s MBA program. If Woodard continues to further her education at Cal Poly, she hopes to serve as a graduate assistant with the team next year.
But while her injury has proven to be an incredible setback to the young athlete, she admits that basketball will forever be her passion. Depending on her recovery, the basketball standout has not ruled out the option of playing professionally overseas.
“It’s crazy to think about life after basketball at Cal Poly,” she said. “It has been all around me. My dad played and so did my mom. It’s in my blood.”
But Woodard doesn’t dwell on the dreadful sound that came from her knee. For her, Cal Poly has been all about perseverance and growth as a student, as an athlete and as a person.
“I’ve learned so much as a student-athlete from being injured to proving academically that I belong here at Cal Poly,” Woodard said. “I never thought I could do it. I’ve accomplished a lot of things here; it’s just been a blessing.”