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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Eckel rises to life's challenge

357 days ago
Brian Rice | Tennessee Athletics
Photo: Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If the script had gone according to plan, Julie Eckel wouldn't even be at the University of Tennessee right now.

Her senior year should have played out a year ago, with another stellar season putting her at or near the top of every statistical category for goalkeepers in Tennessee history. She would be out in the working world, a proud alum of her home state school.

But life, particularly a sporting life, rarely plays out the way the script is written. A season-ending injury prior to the 2014 season may have actually put Eckel exactly where she needed to be with the support she needed to lean on during the most challenging time in her life.

A Season Ended

Eckel had all of Tennessee's goalkeeper records in her sights heading into her senior season.

Her career to that point had been a stellar display of maturity and growth, combined with pure athleticism and ability to play her position that had not been often seen in program history. Eckel came to Tennessee in 2011 from across the state in Cordova, just outside of Memphis, and seized the starting job in goal from day one.

"Julie is a focused young lady in whatever aspect of her life she is working towards," said Joe Kirt, Tennessee's goalkeepers coach for the last nine seasons. "That has been consistent throughout her time here. She is focused and goal-driven. When she came in, she was very solid. As goalkeepers grow, they get better, experience helps them. Every year she has taken strides to get better."

Her first game in goal resulted in a pressure-packed 2-1 overtime win at Kansas. Nine days later, she held 18th-ranked Texas A&M scoreless for the first shutout of her career. From that game, she stopped 23 consecutive shots on goal as Tennessee shutout five consecutive opponents, a school record.

Over her first three seasons, Eckel would start 61 matches, recording 254 saves and 23 shutouts. All of those numbers had her almost assured of breaking UT records with a solid senior season.

But she did not even make it to the first practice of her senior year before injury struck.

On the first day back on campus for summer workouts, she planted her foot to change direction from backpedaling to running forward and felt a pop behind her ankle. Her Achilles Tendon had ruptured and the anchor of the Volunteers' defense was on the shelf for the season.

She looked ahead at a seven-month recovery from surgery. A fierce competitor that played three sports at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School was not only out of the game, she could not even put weight on her injured leg for six weeks.

"It was a really different perspective for me to see the team from the sideline," Eckel said. "It was a chance to grow as a leader and a teammate and as a person."

There was no doubt that she would invest everything she had in her recovery. Eckel scheduled her physical therapy sessions around practices so she could still be there for her teammates. But the injury still left the question of whether she would be the same player when she came back.

"It was a question mark," Kirt said. "It is not an injury that we see very often in our sport, so we didn't really have any personal experience with how players respond to that type of injury."

Eckel had her own concerns, but they quickly went away as she was slowly cleared to resume training.

"I was worried about my vertical and my explosive strength," Eckel said of two of the traits that make her so special in goal. "By the time I started walking, my leg was half the size of the other one. But through our normal strength training and everything our staff did, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It came back pretty quick and I'm back to where I want to be physically."

A Moment That Changed Everything

The next step in Eckel's recovery was getting back on the field for Tennessee's spring practices.

She had seen classmates Allie Sirna, Cheyanne Spade and Brittney Wade go through senior day without her, but getting back on the field and in goal was worth the wait. Through the spring schedule, she continued to make progress toward becoming the Julie Eckel that fans, coaches and teammates expected.

"It was a coordinated effort between our staff, our sports medicine staff and Julie to be in communication about what we could do each week, how could we progress early on," Kirt said of her recovery. "It was a lengthy process, but we didn't want to push anything. We fit in what we could in every moment and I think that was the key to her success."

She was standing in goal when news came that would change her life forever.

Eckel's parents had called her roommates trying to get ahold of her. They were able to reach head coach Brian Pensky on the practice field with the message.

"We were in the middle of a scrimmage and he told me to come there, so I adjusted my position, thinking that's what he was telling me to do," Eckel said. "I went over to the sideline and he said `We need to start walking toward the locker room.' He had me call my parents and that's when I was told."

Eckel's brother Brad, a 2013 Tennessee graduate in Mechanical Engineering had passed away after suffering an epileptic seizure in Houston, where he was a proposals engineer for OneSubsea. He was just 24 years old.

She fell to the ground on the sideline, Pensky by her side to help her into the locker room.

"He was planning his flight nearly a year out to come in for senior night," Eckel said of her brother. "He was really excited about certain events for this season, like coming in for a football weekend and everything that comes with being at Tennessee."

She went home to prepare for the services with her family, her Tennessee family grieving for their teammate from afar. The team had scrimmages against Duke and Georgia scheduled for the weekend, but this was more important than any game they could play.

"There was never a doubt in any of our minds," Kirt said. "We asked the players and it wasn't even a question. We needed to be there for Julie. I think it speaks volumes for the character of our team and who we are."

Instead of a bus for competitions, the team boarded vans for a trip to the Memphis area for the funeral.

"To see the whole team load up vans and have the coaches drive them there was unbelievable," Eckel said. "I was blown away. After the service, people told me that seeing the team there was unbelievable. That was huge for me and for my parents. I can't thank them enough for that huge gesture."

The injury and the redshirt year had kept her in the Tennessee family, and they were there when she needed them most. After 10 days at home, she returned to Knoxville with the knowledge that her team was there for her at every moment of the day.

"Julie is such a rock," junior Emily Morrow said. "She is the rock of our team and is one of the strongest people I have ever met. Losing a family member is heartbreaking and devastating and her strength is unbelievable and has inspired all of us."

The soccer family came together to welcome her back to campus.

"It was a difficult time for all of us," Kirt said. "It's one of those moments in coaching that you never think about and there's no way to prepare for it. You just want to be there. You develop relationships with your players and you want the best for them. You have something like that happen and it's hard for everybody. You just want to do everything in your power to make it better."

The support meant everything to Eckel.

"It was definitely the darkest time and the hardest thing I've ever dealt with, but I had the support from all angles," she said. "They gave me everything I needed to deal with the situation. Having the team and my friends and my family and the coaches, it really helped me get through it."

Back In Action

Instead of summer school, Eckel remained home with her family for much of the summer, but returned for her final preseason camp ready to finish the season that never got off the ground a year earlier.

The first thing she had to do was make peace with the soccer field. The same place that had ended her season a summer earlier. The same place where her life had changed.

"It was an adjustment for me going back to the soccer field," Eckel said. "When I'm on the field, I see that spot where I was told the news and it brings back memoires."

If there was any question whether she would be the same player, they were quickly answered with three consecutive shutouts to start the season. She did not allow a goal over the first 396 minutes of the season.

"Even last year having the year off, she probably saw some things that she hadn't seen when she had been playing," Kirt said. "I think the little things that she has picked up along the way have helped. I'm really proud of her for the steps she has taken. She has been so consistent this year and it goes back to her focus and her mental approach. She has been so focused on being great."

Those records she was chasing? She nearly has every one. She passed Ellen Dean for the top spot in matches started with 78 and counting. Her 31 shutouts have Eckel one away from taking the top spot from Vanessa Phillips-Bosshart, who she already passed for No. 1 on the minutes played list.

"She brings a lot on and off the field," said midfielder Carlyn Baldwin. "She is a great leader vocally and she leads by example. She is an amazing teammate and an amazing friend. What she's gone through is something we can't even imagine and seeing her strength and her ability to keep positive during one of the darkest times she has ever been through is inspiring to all of us."

Her teammates are quick to credit Eckel, but it is those teammates that she has relied on the most.

"I wouldn't be able to have the season I'm having and be able to play for Brad if it wasn't for all of the people that have been there for me," she said.

She has played for Brad with his initials on the tape on her wrists. Fellow senior Susan Ferguson had black armbands made with the initials on them that the entire team wore in the opening match of the season. For the rest of the year, Eckel's teammates have joined her in writing Brad's initials on their wrists. Eckel plays for her brother, her teammates play for her.

"Seeing her out on the field and being so passionate about the game makes us all want to play harder," Morrow said. "For ourselves and for her."

And on senior day, the day her brother had long planned to share with her, Eckel had another record to break. She finished with five saves to take the top spot on Tennessee's career saves list from Dean.

One more honor and another match dedicated to him.

"It has given me a different perspective of not only soccer, but my daily interactions and relationships," she said of how the last year has changed her. "I'm more conscious and aware of being in the moment."