As he listened to his college dean tell him how proud she was of him, Alecko Eskandarian felt about ready to burst. But before the wave of good feeling ever had a chance to wash itself over him, he was flattened by the undertow.
It was a crash he never forgot.
But finally, it is one he can erase.
When Eskandarian takes his part in University of Virginia's graduation ceremony May 22, his degree in anthropology in his hand, he will do more than fulfill a promise to his himself and his parents that a professional soccer career would not stop him from finishing college. He will erase the sting left by a professor who didn't think he had it in him. And he will defeat a medical opponent far scarier than any on-field defender, succeeding as a full-time student with a brain repeatedly rattled by concussions.
For a man long defined by how many times he could put the ball in the net, this is the goal that overshadows them all.
"It was my last semester before I went pro and I was so focused on soccer that I was struggling in the classroom. I know I was being an idiot I had my head in
the clouds," said Eskandarian, who is of Armenian descent.
One of his classes was taught by a dean, and with his hat in hand, the struggling student approached the teacher to apologize. He admitted he hadn't done his best and professed a willingness to do whatever necessary to make it right. Like the dynamic, creative player he was on the field, Eskandarian was certain he could score this last-second goal in the classroom.
The professor stopped him cold.
"She pulled me aside and said, 'Alecko, I'm so proud of you,"' he recalled, his detailed recollection 11 years later serving as strong evidence of the impact of that short conversation. "'You're still going to get a bad grade, but you're going to do what you love as your job. School is not for everybody. Not everybody goes to college and graduates.'
"I left that meeting fuming, thinking, 'Wow, she thinks I'm an idiot,"' the Montvale native said. "'She thinks I'm a college reject.' That lit a fire under me."
Eskandarian has always found motivation in proving doubters wrong, from silencing the ones who thought his body was too small to excel at soccer to answering those who thought his ultimately prolific athletic career would preclude any academic accomplishments. Yet the personal road that seemed so smooth -- the one that led from an All American high school career at Bergen (N.J.) Catholic to his Herman Trophy-winning tenure at Virginia to an MVP trophy for leading DC United to a Major League soccer title -- has had more than its share of detours.
Eskandarian hasn't been on a soccer field since July 2009, when a fourth concussion shut him down for good. Playing for the L.A. Galaxy in an exhibition game against AC Milan, Eskandarian took a ball to the face. It broke his nose and shook his already fragile brain. Doctors prescribed complete rest. He has not been cleared to play. He might never be.
There was an understandable wave of grief.
"It's torture. It's absolute torture," he said. "For any athlete, let alone a professional athlete, not being able to do what you love, it's just awful. If you tear an ACL, you have a rehab timetable. With concussions, there is such an element of the unknown."
He deals daily with an aggregate of symptoms doctors call post-concussion syndrome, which can include headaches that range from strong, sharp bursts of pain to long, lingering aches, vertigo, nausea or lethargy.
"It's taxing. It's taken its toll, mentally, physically, emotionally," Eskandarian said. "Every aspect of my life as been affected by my injury, and my friends and family have been affected too. It's like a piece of you dies. You can't be the same person you were before. If I have a conversation that's too intense or laugh too hard, it can trigger headaches."
Yet he refused to let that be the defining chapter of his life. Boosted by the mantra that guides him "If you're not living, you're dying" -- he gathered up the credits he'd compiled during his professional days at UVa, American and El Camino College, and headed back to Virginia to earn the 80-plus hours he still needed. He joined his former team as a volunteer assistant coach, delighting in being the bridge between coaches whose wisdom he respects and players his success inspires.
And in that courageous ability to move forward, the goal that once seemed so far away is here. The days he once wondered, "Is this ever going to happen," are replaced by the day he'll don a cap and gown and walk by his mom Ava, dad Andranik (the former Cosmo) and brother Ara, degree in hand.
"He's been a great student," said Rachel Most, the new dean Eskandarian found when he returned to school, an anthropology professor who didn't merely guide his course selection but believed in him, too. "He's incredibly smart, highly motivated, was a frequent participant in class with good questions and great comments. I'm really looking forward to watching him walk at graduation."
Eskandarian hasn't committed to anything beyond graduation, but a future in coaching would come as no surprise. He was a remarkable player, one whose Bergen County record 154 goals, 50 college goals and numerous appearances with the U-17, U-20 and U-23 national teams seemed destined to get him on last summer's World Cup roster. Now? Who knows.
"I appreciate and understand why people want to know if I'm going to play again. I want to know too, every day," he said. "But with the more we understand this injury, I understand why doctors won't clear me. There are no answers and it's scary."
Whether Eskandarian plays again or not, he already has scored the biggest goal of his life.