On August 23rd, 2007 a week before Evan’s 10th birthday, his leg was broken in a brutal tackle by a fellow youth player. This was the start of a challenging road that has resulted in countless hospital visits, extended surgeries and emotional turmoil that only the bravest of human beings could endure. And if you take nothing else from this tale, know this: Evan Mundine has endured.
In investigating this remarkable saga, I found myself speaking to players like Brian Ching, Clarence Goodson, Ben Olsen and more. All spoke of their personal interactions with this young man and of how he, an adolescent battling injury, has inspired them to continue through hard times.
Eddie Robinson’s first words of Evan are simple and humbling: “That kid has been through more in 13 years than most people go through in their whole lives. Through all that, for him to stay positive is an inspiration to me.”
Those speak volumes coming from a recently retired MLS veteran.
I was first introduced to the story of Evan Mundine by a good friend of mine who played for the Carolina Railhawks, Brian Farber. Farber spoke briefly of a boy who was going through hard times. It was this passive reference that lead me to explore Evan's story, something Farber vehemently encouraged.
“Originally, I met Evan after a reserve game. He was really shy and I shook his hand. That was it. Then one day, after I’d been injured and years later I’m with my indoor team, I get a letter. That’s how it started; we’ve been friends since.”
Evan was very young when he first found a love for soccer. He found joy in all aspects of the game; watching, playing and critiquing. Growing up in a rural part of Texas, soccer fields were also known as cow pastures. Field conditions were not always ideal and the nearest professional soccer was six hours away, but none of that deterred Evan. He loved the game and his mother Frieda knew she had to do all that she could to foster that love.
|Evan's love for soccer began at a very early age.|
The Mundine family is a soccer family to the core. Even before Evan was born, his mother was coaching youth soccer. By age six, Evan had his mother driving to professional matches. This meant driving Evan six hours to see FC Dallas home games, which she did. The first match he attended was between Dallas and DC United. Young Evan had an interest in meeting Ben Olsen. It was on that day though, that he started a journey of meeting professional players that has changed his life.
While waiting for D.C. United to arrive a shy young Evan looked at his mother and immediately ran away from the buses. His shy nature had betrayed him. However, also in the parking lot was a young Clarence Goodson who was sitting in his car.
After his mother finally corralled Evan to return to the field, the teams had left. But it was Goodson, then with FC Dallas, who saw this happen and walked up to Evan. A six year old Evan looked up for what seemed like forever to see Clarence looking down at him, smiling.
Frieda Mundine recalls, “Clarence kneeled down so that he was closer to face-to-face with Evan. He put his hand out and introduced himself. He told Evan that it was nice to meet him...That was the start of their friendship.”
Goodson looks back on that day fondly, “The first thing I noticed about Evan, other than him being small at the time, was how thankful he was every time one of my teammates took a second to stop and converse with him.”
On that day Goodson searched for Evan after the match, took photos with Evan and told him to come to another. His mother sent Goodson a copy of the picture along with a note from Evan. This was a practice that started then and continues to this day. However, Goodson is one of several athletes who wrote back.
Evan and Goodson bonded over many things, including faith. “Evan loves sports and watching games. Evan also has a love of Christ and is not afraid to share his faith. He is one of the most positive people I have ever met in my entire life. Even after all he’s been through with broken bones and life threatening illness, I have never heard him get angry.”
Through Goodson, Evan met players from FC Dallas and their opponents. Soon the Mundines had a network of players throughout the league who knew Evan. His letters touched many athletes and while not all wrote back, they kept his letters in their lockers or on the wall. Evan’s love for soccer fostered his love for writing and he’s not stopped since.
“It’s different when you take a seven or eight year old boy and professional players walk by and say ‘Hey Evan’. It was then that my perspective of the game changed,” says Frieda of those early days. “These guys know Evan. If you love my son, you’ve got my love forever.”
She reflects that in other sports and other leagues it might be different, but in Major League Soccer and America’s smaller leagues the athletes are more personable. It was the willingness of the players to respond to a young boy who writes letters.
|Nothing stops Evan's love for the game.|
As if proving this point Evan reflects often on a moment where he spoke to Brian Mullan. Prior to his injuries, Evan remembers sharing a secret with Mullan about how he was once nervous to play with older boys, so much so that his stomach hurt. It was then that Brian Mullan shared his own secret: that every time he stepped on the field his own stomach was in knots. Herculez Gomez has told him the same. Hearing comments like that reminded Evan that even the professionals have their faults.
Prior to his injuries, Mundine was playing for in the Dynamo youth academies. Mind you, the Mundine family is not living in Houston and were traveling over two hours each way to practice. It was in 2007 though that his life was changed. Evan’s leg was extended in a battle for the ball when an opposing defender kicked and snapped Evan’s leg above the ankle. Immediately, Evan jumped up only to tumble down. He looked up towards his mother, the coach and yelled, “Mom, my leg is broken.” After that he put his head to the ground.
Choked up and with a lump in her throat, his mother looks back: “I ran the thirty feet and thought that his foot should not be the way it was. There was something sticking out of his sock...”
In this cow pasture where the team was playing, there was no cell phone service for at least a mile. A makeshift splint was made and Evan was put into a van to be taken to the nearest hospital...a mistake.
The closest hospital was the, now shut down, Lakeside Hospital in Bastrop. Details here are unimportant, but suffice to say the hospital was ill-equipped to handle Evan’s injuries.
Unable to get in touch with her husband or any family, Frieda called the only person she could think of, Clarence Goodson... “I need you to pray,” she said “Evan is hurt really bad...”
Lakeside cleaned up his injuries at the point of impact, gave him pain medication, but no surgery. Bone protruding from his leg and he was sent home.
On the way home from this new set of doctors, Evan had new pain. The new pain was not where the bone was broken but in his knee. Months of casts and minor adjustments, but not surgeries, his pain was constant.
Unable to walk, Evan was given a wheelchair. The wheelchair however, was too big to fit through the doors in his family’s home. While in his house, he was confined to one room, unable to shower, forced to use the restroom in a hospital chair, unable to walk or move from place to place. All the while, he did not complain.
A moment of character truly stands out in all of this story. In a bout of sadness Frieda Mundine was speaking to a friend and asked “Why Evan? Why did this have to be Evan?” as any mother would. It was young Evan’s response that is so telling:
“Mom, who would you have chosen instead? If not me, who would you have chosen to be going through this?” said ten year old Evan. “Everyone has pain and God chose me for this.”
The family searched for doctors to help and for hospitals with insurance. The search became nearly futile and hope seemed to leave them. The reality was finances were a huge obstacle.
Unable to sleep and suffering from anxiety, Evan turned to soccer. He and his mother would stay up until all hours of the night watching soccer. Men’s, women’s, whatever soccer they could find. Further more, Evan wrote letters to players all over the country. He wrote to MLS players that he’d met, USL players he identified with and national team stars. It did not matter their fame or fortune, if they played the game, Evan was inspired.
|Where's Evan? Right in the middle. 2006 MLS Champion Houston Dynamo|
I asked Evan why he wrote these letters and he answers with a slight chuckle, “I’ve always watched professional soccer, especially MLS. I’ve always looked up to these guys...I guess I can’t give you an answer, I just care about those guys.”
Eddie Robinson recognizes this, “Evan loves, truly loves, these players and it hurts him when players leave. It genuinely hurt him when Brian Mullan was traded [to Colorado] because he loved coming to watch Brian play... he’s just so genuine.”
In November, they were able to find a doctor who would help and that would perform the surgery. Evan’s operation resulted in part of the tibia being removed and an external fixator placed on his leg. The pain in his knee persisted and it eventually came to light that his leg was set slightly wrong, which would result in more surgeries.
All the while, soccer was getting him through. In particular, soccer players. While in the hospitals he received phone calls from players from all over the league. Kenny Cooper was guilty of calling Evan in the hospital up to three times a day. Frieda looks back on the first time she spoke to Cooper, not having met him before. She received a voicemail from a rambling Kenneth explaining who he was and that was a member of FC Dallas and that he was sorry for calling unannounced. At the end of Cooper’s message was this “I’ve been through the whole broken leg thing and I’d like to talk to Evan.”
Cooper offered his advice on getting through surgeries and how he managed to deal with his fears. Evan found great comfort in talking to him. Cooper demanded that he be called once Evan got out of surgery, expected to be around 5AM so that he knew when to start praying for Evan. Throughout the following day, Colin Clarke (then coach of FC Dallas) gave Cooper and Goodson permission to have their cellphones at practice to hear news of Evan’s condition.
|Kenny Cooper and Jeff Cunningham checked in regularly with Evan|
Another touching story comes from Evan’s few moments where he rebelled and showed his frustrations at an procedure where his fixator was to be adjusted. While arguing with his mother, the hospital phone rang. On the other end was Brian Mullan.
Mullan spoke to Evan from the Houston Dynamo locker-room where all the players whom Evan had been writing to were shouting out encouragement. Upon hearing that Evan was upset, Mullan proceeded to have a private conversation with him, the result being Evan’s stating simply “For you, I’ll do it.” He allowed the doctors to adjust his fixator.
After his resulting visits to a new doctor, the Mundines were asked what had been done for Evan’s broken knee. To that point, through all the visits, they never knew his knee was broken. And so began another round of medical complications. Pins were placed in his knee, but because the doctor had no prior knowledge of how Evan walked, they did not account for a slight bend Evan naturally had before his injuries. Healing took place incorrectly.
Still, Evan took comfort in soccer. His letters to players continued. If not obvious by now, the Mundines are a faithful family. They take comfort in scripture and Evan has found that some of his relationships with players were faith based. One player with whom Evan has found a connection with in that faith is Danny O’Rourke (Columbus Crew).
“Danny and I have gone through a lot of the same stuff together, it helps to have someone like that,” says Evan.
O’Rourke’s words are heart warming. “We bonded over our mutual surgeries and our mutual faiths. He’s gone through more than anyone should go through in his entire life and still he remains optimistic. I try to help him with it, but he’s so wise beyond his years, he’s helping me. I get back from training sometimes and I’ll have a text saying he’s praying for me. That means everything. He’s like my little brother.”
At one time, Evan had written so many letters to the Houston Dynamo players that they had a wall in the locker-room dedicated to him. It was Glenn Davis who spilled the beans in one of his shows on this. Check out his tour of the locker room in 2007, the 2:24 mark.
The Houston players at the time even had a ritual where they’d say “305”... the address from which Evan’s letters came.
Evan’s efforts never went unnoticed. Brian Ching looks back on his interactions with him, “He was very polite and reserved. Definitely not the kid that was going to run up and demand an autograph. In fact, if it wasn’t for his mom there, I doubt he would have stopped us to talk. However, the way we got to know Evan was because he would write us letters every week. When I say every week, I mean literally every week. We would all receive a letter many times with personal messages of what we meant to him and he would encourage us on the field.”
“He truly cares about the players,” reflects Danny O’Rourke. “He just cares about them as people.”
Brian Farber echos these thoughts, “He was real quiet, it’s never about him. He’s not the typical kid, he’s always respectful. We talk almost every day and he’s amazing.”
Evan now stays in contact with many players throughout many leagues in the United States, MLS in particular. He speaks with them through text, through email and regular phone conversations. He even has a regular Bible study with guys like Eddie Robinson and Danny O’Rourke over Skype and other means.
I asked Evan a particularly difficult question towards the end of one conversation that gave him pause. I asked him if he was angry. His answer speaks volumes.
“Sometimes. Sometimes I am. I’ve tried to accept it because it’s what happens and I’m sure there was a reason for it happening. I’ll get through it...I don’t really get angry. I do get scared sometimes though...”
That is where the support of so many players has come into play. Evan was absolutely adamant throughout the entire interview process that this story is more about the players and less about him.
Countless times I’d receive text messages about a player who has done so much for him. There is true love in this young man's heart for every player that he has reached out to. And that love is clearly returned by the players. There is the kind love that my words will never do justice. This is truly a special, selfless young man.
Evan lives with his mother Frieda and his father Bobby in Texas still. His older brother Aaron lives in New England where he attends school. They continue to support Evan and his love for the game. Moreover, Evan continues to support them with his words, drive and determination.
“He’s pretty incredible,” says Ben Olsen, now coach of D.C. United. “For a kid that young to have been through so much, for him to keep his spirits up like he does is inspirational and pretty remarkable. We can all learn something from him.”
Evan’s legs are different sizes now. His chest has been operated on due to a new condition and complications have continue to arise. Still, Evan and his family continue to endure. “Everything we’ve been through would have been even more, unbelievably hard,” says Frieda “If we didn’t have the support of these players, I don’t know what we’d do.”
The funny part about her comment, is that they all say the same of him.
Brian Ching: “Evan has a strong passion for the game and I think it’s through this passion that he has been able to cope with whatever life throws his way. He has learned that life isn’t always fair through his experiences watching soccer... you have to fight at times to get through. He understands that these things make him stronger. It is because of the relationships with the guys that he understands what it takes to triumph through adversity and that is why he will succeed and get through this phase in his life.”
The truth is, there is much more to this story. Enough to fill a book, a book Evan tells me he will one day write. For now though, this brief telling is one I am honored to be part of. A special thanks to all the athletes who allowed me to speak to them in regards to Evan. Thank you to Brian Farber, Brian Ching, Ian Joy, Ben Olsen, Clarence Goodson, Danny O’Rourke, Eddie Robinson, Andy Williams and so many more.
Most importantly, thank you Evan.
Evan would also like to thank all those not mentioned who have helped him: Todd Dunivant, Jamie Watson, Justin Moore, Joe Vide, Jonny Steel, Jared Montz, Jeff Cunningham, Jimmy Conrad, Drew Moor, Matt Pyzdrowski, David Hunt, Gareth Evans, Lovel Palmer, Dean Howell, Leo Griffin and Glenn Davis.