Defying the odds: soccer forward keeps life in perspective

Story ImageFrom far away, you cannot see the scars on Alec Purdie’s face.

A slit below his left eyebrow, a knot next to his temple, blue speckles of gunpowder on his eyelid and along the brow — reminders of the accident from only three months ago and evidence that the junior forward’s soccer career should be over.

“To put it mildly, it was very scary,” Lona Purdie, Alec’s mother, said. “To us it was a second chance at life.”

On a Saturday night in August, only one week before players reported for training camp, Alec and some friends were playing with fireworks left over from the Fourth of July. They had mortar shells, used for large-scale fireworks displays and known for their enormous explosions. It was Alec’s turn to light.

“They have the long wicks so you have time to get out of the way because they are big,” he said. “I leaned over and I lit it, but as soon as I lit the lighter, it just shot up right in my face. It hit me on my head on my left side, dropped and just blew up right next to me.”

The force of the blast split the skin below his eyebrow and burned his face. His friends took him to the emergency room for stitches, which was thought to be the extent of the injury that night, Lona said.

A day later, she said, the swelling from the burns on Alec’s face made him
unrecognizable.

“If it hit his temple, it would have killed him,” she said. “I looked at him not knowing if he would ever see again. His face was very disfigured.”

The greatest concern for the Purdies was Alec’s vision. Both eyes were swollen shut, and it was five days before the swelling went down and doctors were able to test his vision.

“It takes me back to when I was lying in bed, and I couldn’t see anything,” Alec said. “I was lying there praying to God I can get at least one of my eyes back.”

It was easy for the Purdies to rule out soccer in those first few days as Lona guided her blinded son around the house for menial tasks. The main question on the family’s mind was whether or not he would get his life back.

“As a parent, you feel so helpless,” she said. “You hope and pray that he will be normal again.”

But after a few days of uncertainty, Alec said he’d had enough.

“By Tuesday I was just nervous so I ripped my right one open and realized I could at least see somewhat out of my right eye. I was just kind of nervous, and I wanted to see, so I pulled that one open. By Thursday I was able to rip my left one open, and I went to the doctor.”

In the following days, Alec’s vision improved to normal, proving no structural damage to his eyes. The second-degree burns scabbed, the swelling subsided and life began to return to normal. He even refused to reschedule his haircut to donate his 12-inch ponytail to Locks of Love.

“When he went to get his hair cut off, he was scabby and still had stitches in,” Lona said. “That was always the plan to donate then. He had made up his mind he was going to do that. He’s a pretty amazing person. A person who appreciates the blessings in life.”

A week after the accident, Alec was back in Bloomington, never missing a day of
training camp.

Now, three months and 18 soccer games later, the Hoosiers are the No. 14 seed in their 35th NCAA Tournament appearance, and Alec played in every regular season game. He even scored against then-No. 25 Michigan and recorded the game-winner at then-No. 11 Creighton.

Watching those first few games and seeing her son in his regular uniform with his regular teammates living his regular life again, Lona said she was sure to appreciate the little things more.

“That first week, you thought he was going to be scarred for life,” Lona said. “The first couple times I saw him on the field in uniform was very emotional. I had a hard time even talking about him playing again at first.”

IU coach Todd Yeagley, who coached Alec as an assistant under then-coach Mike Freitag during Alec’s redshirt freshman year, said the accident taught Alec a valuable life lesson that applies to team philosophy.

“Focus on now and enjoy it because something could happen,” Yeagley said. “You want to really live now. That’s been somewhat of a theme this year — really enjoying today.”

And Alec does.

“I approach every day differently now,” he said. “Even the days when I’m tired, my body’s sore and all that, I just don’t feel like I’m in the best shape to play, I just think about when I was lying in bed, and I never thought I would walk on the field again. It definitely puts things into perspective. It was a life-changing experience
for me.”

On Sunday, the Hoosiers begin play in what some soccer experts consider to be one of the toughest roads to the College Cup. The Hoosiers potentially see No. 3-seed Akron, No. 6-seed California or No. 11-seed Connecticut before even making it to the field of four in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The odds are certainly against the 9-7-2 Hoosiers.

But after the mortar blast that night in August, Alec could have been blind or dead. Instead he gets one more chance to defy the odds and help deliver IU to another College Cup.

And while a few operations can remove the gunpowder from his face and the welt on the side of his head that won’t go away, Alec said the appreciation to live a normal life cannot be removed.

“I had ruled soccer out completely,” he said. “I just wanted to be able to see again, come back to Bloomington, go to school and do all that stuff. I definitely think about
it constantly.

“I put everything in the hands of God and just hoped he could make everything fine for me. Now every day I thank Him and try to enjoy it as much as I can.”

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