User ID: Password:

September 11, 2009

Time heals all for Alex Baden

By: Matt Kovatch

After an injury forced him to spend a year on the sidelines, Alex Baden is ready to get the young Hokies back to their winning ways

Alex Baden

“I would have bet everything I have, and probably my mom’s life.”

His mother’s life.

That’s how certain Alex Baden was that an opponent had taken him out on the field that fateful day two springs ago. That some random Hoosier from Indiana had potentially ended his career – in a meaningless exhibition game, no less – by slide-tackling right through his left knee.

Well, it’s a good thing that game took place in the middle of Indiana and not near a Las Vegas casino, where Baden may have had a chance to place a quick prop bet. It’s also good for poor Mrs. Baden that her son was being facetious when he said what he said because he was completely wrong. That’s how much pain he was in at the moment – he had no idea what had happened.

Jimmy Lawrence, the Virginia Tech men’s soccer team’s athletic trainer, still has the proof right there – almost 15 months later – within an arm’s reach of his computer. A quick study of the frame-by-frame still photos provided by the videographer shows that no one had touched Baden on the play. There was an opponent nearby in a race to the ball, but Baden had done it to himself, simply taking a terribly unfortunate step before collapsing into a heap on the ground. His left knee had given out, so much so that it was his right knee that looked like the damaged one, folding under the pressure of his 6-foot-2, 182-pound frame.

Maybe it was the soccer gods getting even with Baden and the Hokies. Tech had had simply enjoyed way too much unexpected success the season before, cruising all the way to the College Cup, soccer’s version of the Final Four. But the soccer gods had done more than get even; they had been downright mean. Not only was Baden lost for that upcoming fall, but leading scorer Patrick Nyarko was headed for the pros, veteran Charlie Campbell saw injuries end his season after just a few games, and the team experienced massive roster turnover when one-year foreign wonders suddenly bolted back overseas. The Hokies struggled to a 5-13-1 record, including an 0-8 mark in the ACC, and head coach Oliver Weiss unpredictably resigned this past summer, ending a tumultuous year for the men’s soccer program.

But on that day in April of 2008, none of that was relevant. The damage had been done. Baden’s left knee – the ACL, the meniscus, the cartilage – it was all shredded. But he wasn’t ready to call it a career, not yet. He still had a redshirt year available, and he was planning on using it. A fifth year in Blacksburg was on the docket for the team captain, which, oddly enough, was five years more than he had ever planned on.

Alex Baden is all smiles now that he's back on the field after missing last season with a horrific knee injury.
Born and raised in Germany, Baden had never been to the United States, had never heard of Virginia Tech, and quite frankly, had never given much effort to learning English.

“I failed all of my English classes in high school,” he admitted. “I had a bad teacher at first and I just started hating it. I was not getting it at all.”

And why should he? After all, he had no plans of leaving Germany at the time, and much like the way many Americans half-heartedly coast their way through foreign language requirements in high school, Baden did the same with English.

But that all changed one random night out on the town when Baden, who had already graduated from high school, was at a nightclub (the age limit for purchasing beer and wine is 16 in Germany) with some teammates from his club soccer team. He ran into a young man named Lasse Mertins, a native of the same town in which Baden was born. Mertins had just finished up his collegiate career at Virginia Tech in 2003.

Mertins’ mother was a teacher at Baden’s school, and she had told her son of Baden’s prowess on the soccer field. Coincidentally, Mertins’ former coach, former Tech coach Oliver Weiss, had told him to be on the lookout for someone who might have the potential to make the transition overseas. So Mertins approached Baden at the bar and asked him if he might be interested in heading to the United States. Perhaps emboldened by the beverage in his hand, or perhaps not quite ready to enter the working world (he had a job lined up at a bank, with the offer acceptance sheet already signed), Baden shrugged.

“I was like, ‘Sure, absolutely,’” Baden remembered. “I wrote down my e-mail address for him on a napkin. I woke up the next day to check my e-mail, and I had an e-mail from Coach Weiss.”

Suddenly, all of those English classes that Baden had ignored, the ones he thought he would never need, were suddenly coming back to haunt him. The main barrier to Baden getting accepted at Virginia Tech was a passing score on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

“I don’t remember the exact numbers, but on a scale of 0-300, you needed, like, a 214 to get into Virginia Tech,” Baden explained. “But the first time I took it, I failed by more than 40 points – not great at all.”

Things didn’t go well the first time that Weiss came over to see Baden play either. The game got rained out, moving the evaluation to a practice session a couple of days later, one in which Baden suffered an injury after just 15 minutes.

The outlook on Baden’s new adventure was suddenly not as bright, especially once Weiss turned his attention toward the recruitment of Nyarko. But the coach still had one more trip planned to Germany, and though his scholarship offer to Baden would no longer be as good, he gave him one more chance, with a warning.

“Coach Weiss said, ‘If you don’t pass the TOEFL this time, there’s no chance for me to bring you over,’” Baden said. “So I studied, took it again and got the results back … 214. I got exactly what I needed.”

Soon thereafter, Baden’s bags were packed and his flight to America was booked.

“It was just an experiment,” he said of the entire ordeal. “I wasn’t sure if it would work out or not. I didn’t put too much hope into it because I don’t like to be disappointed. If I didn’t like it, I could always say, ‘Peace out, see ya later.’ It was only four months and I could go back home after one semester. But then that turned into a year. Four years later, I’m still sitting here.”

It’s been an up and down four years, to say the least. Thanks to a behavioral problem that saw the incumbent at middle back removed from the team, Baden found himself starting all 20 games as a freshman for an NCAA Tournament team in 2005.

It was the next season when he first got acquainted with Lawrence and the sports medicine staff, as a slow-healing groin injury mysteriously morphed into a massive blood clot, one that limited the sophomore to just 12 games and seven starts. He still remembers the night he got it drained – a full liter of blood was taken from his inner thigh – mostly because of the tremendous pain (“I had an exam that day, and I finished 80 questions in about 10 minutes,” he laughed).

Baden was healthy again as a junior, leading the Hokies’ defense in Tech’s magical College Cup run. He followed that up with a stellar spring, feeling primed for a solid senior year. But then came the knee injury.

“I was in serious pain,” Baden recalled, thinking back to when he was lying on the field in Indiana that day. “I’ve never had pain like that before. I was pretty sure at that moment that I would need to get carried off the field.”

“It was late at the end of the game,” remembered Tech head coach Mike Brizendine, who was still an assistant coach at the time. “When you see that, you hope that [an ACL tear] is not the case. We didn’t know how bad it was, but something wasn’t right.”

The Hokies had packed themselves into minivans for the exhibition – the last of the spring – and driven roughly eight hours to the University of Indiana. The trip back, with Baden’s leg propped up on a pile of equipment bags, was tough, but not as tough as the doctors’ diagnosis when he arrived back in Blacksburg. Recovery time was initially set at 12 months, meaning the 2008 season, at least for Baden, was down the drain before it even started.

“It was a pretty bad injury,” Lawrence said of Baden’s knee, which not only had tears of the ligaments and cartilage, but also some damage to head of the bone. “He still has issues with it. He has arthritic changes and cartilage problems that he’s going to continue to have. He’ll be able to play, but his training and conditioning will have to be modified a lot from the rest of the team. His knee will swell if he does too much. Everyone understands he’s going to be a ‘game guy.’”

For Baden, what he struggled with the most wasn’t the pain or the rehabilitation process, but rather, the notion of not being able to play the game that he had been playing since he was 4 years old. Especially since he is such an on-field general, Baden found it incredibly difficult to watch the young Hokies stumble to one of the worst records in program history.

“After the first couple of games, I thought I would have a heart attack by the end of the season,” Baden described, once again, facetiously. “It’s tough on the sidelines because you just have no impact. Especially once the game starts, you’re even more helpless – no one is listening to you. There is so much energy in your body and you can’t do anything about it. I wanted to run out there and show them [his teammates] and lead them, but I couldn’t. I’m not sure I’d ever want to be a coach.”

But little does Baden know, his coaches already consider him a coach, especially with a 2009 roster that features 17 freshmen or sophomores, and four other newcomers.

“It’s tremendous to have him back,” Brizendine said of the 24-year-old captain. “What I thought was a curse last year has now become a blessing this year. He’s like a part of our coaching staff out there. He knows what we’re trying to do and what direction we’re trying to go in. He relays our feelings and thoughts about things to the young guys.”

“He’s a leader on the field,” Lawrence added. “Even from where I’m sitting, things seem to work better when Alex is out there, and I’m not a soccer coach by any means. He’s a presence, and with last year’s team, you could tell he wasn’t there.”

Brizendine has said that Baden’s leadership alone would’ve have helped the Hokies to two or three more wins last season. Baden, who has already graduated and is on pace to earn a master’s degree in accounting next spring, is humbled by that idea, but he’s able to talk himself into understanding his importance if pressed.

“Soccer is such a team sport and you need all 11 guys,” he said. “If one guy doesn’t do his job, that’s all it takes. But maybe I could’ve helped last year – we were young. Sometimes, it helps to have someone who guides some guys in the right direction.”

He brings up the Gold Cup final match from late July, in which the U.S. got drubbed by Mexico, 5-0.

“The U.S. was so young,” he continued. “After they went down 1-0, they went crazy trying to score a goal in the next few minutes, and they ended up losing badly. Sometimes, you need to have someone who is old enough to tell the young guys to take it easy and relax, especially in a college sport where people are so young. When there is experience and calmness around you, you get more confident and everything falls into place from there. I guess that person around here is me since I’m kind of the grandpa of the team, being 24 years old.”

Baden is quick to joke, and he’s planning on having the last laugh when it comes to his final season as a Hokie.

“I keep telling myself this,” he reasoned. “My freshman year was great, my sophomore year was bad, my junior year was great, and my senior year was terrible. That means a great year is coming up! Mark my words, you heard it here first.”

The pattern seems to put the odds in his favor. Let’s just hope he’s not betting his mother’s life this time.