PROVO — Jeff Judkins claims his senior BYU point guard may be tougher than he is; that many elite athletes may have quit their careers rather than confront the lengthy, painful rehabilitations undergone by the diminutive, gutsy Haley Steed.
The former Clearfield High star will lead the Cougars into the semifinals of the WCC Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas this weekend at Orleans Arena. That she's even on the court is a tribute to modern medicine and Steed's mental strength.
Three times in her career, Steed underwent surgery to repair the ACL in her knees, twice in her left leg.
As a freshman, Steed entered Judkins' program and tore up her knee. She spent the rest of the year undergoing extensive rehabilitation to repair the damage fixed by surgery.
Then, on the first day of basketball practice the following season, she tore it again. Discouraged and disappointed but determined, she climbed back on the weight machines, cautiously underwent rehabilitation and prepared to make a comeback.
In her third year, ready to step up for Judkins, in her first game, she did it again. Her knee incurred another ACL tear, an injury to the knee's major supportive ligament, and she was done for the season.
Three strikes, and most the time, a person is done. They quit. They turn to art, music, academics, test tubes, research, teaching, coaching or whatever. They don't come back again.
On Tuesday, the WCC named her to the all-conference team after a sterling senior season in which she has 215 assists and 66 steals. She is the flesh-and-bone compass that guides Judkins' squad.
"It was super discouraging," said Steed of her knee injuries.
"I won't lie. There was definitely a time I thought I was done with basketball. I couldn't go on any more. But there's something about this place and this program that is inspiring. I love it here. I didn't want to feel like I was done playing, and I had a drive and dedication left in me.
"Looking back, it's just crazy. I just feel grateful. One thing it did teach me is you can't take it for granted. You have to play each day like it's your last or you aren't going to play anymore."
You ask Judkins about Steed, and he doesn't hide his admiration. He speaks of her as a Marvel Comics character, a Wonder Woman, if you will.
"The mental part of injury is worse than the physical," said Judkins.
"I have never seen a kid be able to do what she has done mentally. It shows the kind of character she has. I'll be talking about her to other players for years. Look at the heart, look at the determination, the love of the game Haley has. She's a great example.
"If you talk to anyone who knows Haley, she's always been this way. She is a very tough kid in everything she does."
Judkins, a former NBA player and collegiate All-American at Utah, said Steed has made him realize many things as a coach and has made him a better coach.
Three ACL surgeries in three years and come back?
"I don't think I could have done it," said Judkins. "I think I'm pretty tough and I couldn't do it. I saw a lot of athletes who got a knee injury or some other serious injury and never made it back."
Judkins says Steed has played as well as any point guard he's coached. She's had chances at double-doubles and almost had a triple-double. A typical Steed game is eight assists, eight points, three steals and two turnovers.
"More importantly, she sets the tempo for the game on both ends of the court," the coach said.
And in all humility, Judkins admits: "She's taken a lot of pressure off me. She gets the players together, takes over the team and communicates with them. That is what she does."
For Steed, she knows the score this week in Las Vegas.
"This is all that matters now," Steed said of the WCC tournament.
"Everything up to now has been a fun season, but it doesn't really matter. Our season pretty much comes down to two games."
Steed knows something about getting to the bottom line about basketball.
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