Bulldogs goalie Stephen Usina's return to soccer is currently unclear. But he's doing everything he can to resume playing the game he loves.
Flagler Palm Coast's boys soccer team upset rival Matanzas 1-0 on Jan. 18. It was the Bulldogs’ first win against the Pirates since the 2012-13 season — back when most of the players on the Bulldogs’ current roster were either in elementary or middle school.
The win filled the Bulldogs with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of relief. But most importantly, it filled them with belief. With the district playoffs only a week away, now was the time to start playing well.
Toppling their Flagler County rival could be the first step toward a successful postseason run.
But first, the Bulldogs had to play the next game on their regular season schedule: a noon game on the road against Father Lopez Catholic High School on Jan. 21.
The Bulldogs scored early against the Green Wave. But a scary incident midway through the first half — shortly after the game’s first water break — cast doubt on the future of one FPC player and the remainder of the Bulldogs’ 2018-19 season.
The ball skidded slowly across the grass toward Bulldogs goal keeper Stephen Usina, who stood near the edge of his goal’s 18-yard box. He bent over to scoop it up, intending to pass the ball to a teammate.
It was a routine play; one he’d performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times before in practice and in previous games.
Then he looked up: A forward from Father Lopez was barreling toward him at full speed.
Stephen — a 5-foot-8, 151-pound sophomore — already had the ball cradled in his arms, but the player didn’t stop running. Stephen didn’t have time to react. The player crashed into him, and Stephen immediately collapsed face down into the dirt.
The pain was instant. It radiated throughout his body.
His neck throbbed. His back ached. His legs tingled.
He tried to move them, but he couldn’t.
When the trainers rolled him over onto his back, his face was covered in blood that poured from a cut on the bridge of his nose.
He was in pain. And he was scared.
Leora Usina almost never misses her son’s games. Leora, as well as Stephen’s father, Stephen Usina Sr., and step mother, Mirian Usina, were in the stands at Father Lopez Catholic High when her son went down on the field.
Stephen had been playing soccer since he could walk. She had seen him collide with opposing players, fall down and get right back up countless times through the years.
She waited for Stephen to spring onto his feet and resume playing.
“I didn’t want to be that crazy parent who freaks out as soon as their kid gets hurt,” Leora said.
But this time was different.
As part of his goal keeper uniformer, Stephen wears a black jersey and pants with lime green cleats. When Stephen is typically being attended to on the field, Leora looks for his shining shoes — if they’re moving, he’s probably all right.
This time, they were motionless.
As she made her way down the bleachers and onto the field, she prayed silently to God that her son would move again.
Emergency medical technicians arrived about 20 minutes after Stephen was injured and took about another 15 minutes to stabilize him for transport. Leora traveled in the ambulance with him on the way to Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach.
“It’s not a ride that a parent should ever have to take,” she said.
When Stephen first arrived at the hospital, he wasn’t thinking about the severe pain he was experiencing. He was still focused on the game he was just taken from.
When he saw his dad walk into his hospital room, the first question Stephen asked him was if his team won.
They did. The Bulldogs scored again in the second half to beat Father Lopez 2-1.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Bulldogs coach Troy Stone said. “The fact that that’s what was on his mind first — that’s Stephen. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
However, after Stephen underwent an MRI and CT scans, doctors concluded that he suffered a fracture of the second cervical vertebra; he also had a bulging disc and a spinal concussion. He was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 24, where, depending on how well he progresses during rehab, he will endure intense physical therapy for the next few weeks. He has to wear a neck collar for the next six to eight weeks. After that, he will most likely have to undergo outpatient physical therapy to fully recover.
It’s not clear whether Stephen, who also plays lacrosse and is a place kicker for FPC’s football team, will ever be able to play sports again.
“They say with time, he should have a full recovery,” Stephen Sr. said. “But it’s the spine. You just don’t know. It’s literally day-by-day ... That’s the hard part: not knowing.”
Preventable. Unnecessary. Shocking.
Of all the thoughts and emotions that raced through Stephen Sr.’s mind when his son was rushed to the hospital, one reigned supreme: anger.
“My biggest beef with Florida high school soccer, depending on who’s reffing — it’s like they allow a certain amount of contact with goalies,” he said. “Anyone who’s around soccer knows you don’t touch the goalie.”
The most difficult part for the Usinas, however, was the crowd. Stephen Sr. said he heard one of Father Lopez’s junior varsity players say, “When’s the funeral?” after the incident. Several fans allegedly complained for the game to resume again while Stephen was being attended to on the field. And an assistant coach from Father Lopez argued with the referees because the player who ran into Stephen received a red card and was ejected. That coach was given a yellow card for that back-and-forth with the officials and was later ejected from the match in the second half.
“It didn’t seem like there was remorse from anybody,” Stephen Sr. said.
But what has made things easier has been the overflow of support from the Flagler County community and beyond.
Teachers, coaches and players have all visited Stephen in the hospital, including Matanzas boys soccer coach Rich Weber. Matanzas’ players also sent him a “get well” card.
Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly gave Stephen Sr., who is a corporal at the Flagler County Jail, a call to check in on Stephen.
The New York Bulls, his favorite MLS soccer team, even reached out to him on Twitter.
“Hey Stephen! Heard you’re down with a bit of an injury, but we know you’ll be back soon,” the tweet read. “Stay strong and can’t wait to see you back out on the field! We’re cheering for you!
“The outpouring of support from people who don’t even know him has been amazing,” Stephen Sr. said. “It’s very touching.”
Sitting in a wheelchair at Brooks Rehabilitation’s outdoor basketball court, Stephen shoots a free throw over his head, facing away from the basket.
He banked it in.
The video of it was shot by FPC girls soccer assistant coach Cat Bradley. Other videos of Stephen shooting basketballs and dribbling a soccer ball during rehab have also popped up on Twitter, bringing smiles to fans, friends and family.
Regardless, the road to recovery will be a long and grueling one with the end result still cloudy. But one thing is for sure: He’ll do anything to return to the field to stop shots and save games for his team.