PROVO — Quitting seemed such a viable option to Haley Hall Steed that it felt more like accepting reality than giving up. It felt more like she was acknowledging the truth or taking the very painful hint that life was hitting her with over and over than waving the white flag.
That's because there is such a fine line between determination and foolish futility. And sometimes a blessing looks an awful lot like a curse.
In the dark days that followed her third consecutive season-ending knee injury, the BYU point guard thought about quitting a lot. But as she contemplated giving up on her childhood dream of playing college basketball, she felt something more powerful than the disappointment that had come to define her first three seasons at BYU.
She began to feel gratitude.
"I didn't want to be known as the girl who went to college, got injured and gave it up and left," said Steed. "I just didn't feel like that was me. I just felt like I had time to play. I loved it too much."
Steed wasn't just a player who was unlucky enough to be injured so much she played in seven games in three years. She is the player lucky enough to tear the ACL in her left knee twice — once in the sixth game of her freshman season and then in the first day of practice in her sophomore year.
And then, in the first game of what would have been her junior year, she tore the ACL in her right knee.
"When it happened a third time, it crushed me," said Steed. "I thought I was done. I thought, 'Wow, I've rehabbed for three years. I don't wan to do this again. I can't do this again.' A lot of what I felt was, 'Well, I guess it's not in the cards for me to play. I guess I'm supposed to do something else.'"
Or maybe doing what she'd dreamed about since she was young was just going to be a lot different, a lot harder than she'd ever imagined.
Before starting her career at BYU in the fall of 2006, she enjoyed a nearly injury-free and storied high school career. She started all four years at Clearfield High and was an all-state selection all four seasons. In her senior season, she not only led the 5A classification in scoring, she was the 5A MVP.
"I had never had an injury that kept me from playing," said Steed, who was married in June.
Which is why it was so desperately disappointing to suffer that first knee injury as a freshman.
"The first time I didn't have nearly as good an attitude as I should have," said Steed, who's been named a team captain for two consecutive years. "The first time was the hardest for me. I'd never gone through anything like that before. I was kind of pouty, and I didn't support the team the way I should."
She battled self-pity and feeling that "it wasn't fair" — which was exacerbated by the fact that the team was really good that season.
"The second time was totally different," she said. "I changed my attitude; I was very determined and I was way more involved with the team."
Instead of losing herself in self-pity, she found new purpose in helping her teammates and studying the game from the sidelines, even from the coaches' perspectives.
"I think I finally realized, this is making me a way better person," she said. "I felt like I could sympathize with others way better, have empathy for others way better. I felt like I understood that everyone has their hard things that happen in life. I felt like now I can understand somewhat what life is about. Up until that point my life was pretty easy."
Fighting for what she loved showed her how strong she really is.
"Going through something hard was a blessing," she said. "You really do become a better person through trials."
BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins said that even he looks to Steed for inspiration.
"She taught, not just me, but she taught a lot of girls on the team that when you have a dream you go for it," said Judkins. "And you give everything you have, and no matter how ups and downs are, how you react to failure or disappointment is the key to your life. She's taught me a lot that way. As a coach, when things don't go right, I look at Haley and think, 'Hey, she's had it harder than anybody else, and she's still going.'"
Steed said she no longer slashes to the basket with the same reckless abandon that defined her game in high school. But she is smarter about getting teammates involved and picking her moment to strike.
"It's tough physically, but it's a lot tougher emotionally and mentally," she said of the battle to come back from such a debilitating injury. "Just learning to trust your body over and over again, especially when you trust it and it fails, and you trust it and it fails. It's hard to come back to really trust that it's not going to fail you again. If it's happened three times, why not four?"5 comments on this story
And while she said the injuries changed the way she plays the game, they haven't kept her from being one of the best point guards in the women's game. She currently leads the West Coast Conference in assists and assist-to-turnover ratios. More importantly, she is providing the young Cougar squad with leadership.
"I've never seen a kid go through what she's gone through and have the heart of a lion to keep competing," Judkins said. "She's finally playing her true position and I think you see how good she is and what she can do with our team. When she's off the floor, the team is not the same."