Photo: Chicago Fire/Brian Kersey Chicago Fire's Steven Kinney, a Norcross grad, has spent the last 21 months rehabbing injuries in an effort to get back into the lineup.
In the midst of an unbelievable, and easily disheartening, string of injuries, Steven Kinney played bingo with kids at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
In the morning, Kinney showed up before practice at the MLS Chicago Fire's facility. He went through his rehab and then stayed to watch the rest of the team work out.
In the afternoon, the Norcross grad regularly went to hang out at the hospital. It's just a few blocks from the home he shares with a teammate near Lincoln Park. The visits kept things in perspective for Kinney.
"It gets your mind off it, but also you look at the sick kids there and think, 'I can walk. I will run again,'" Kinney said. "They're so young and so sick. Why am I so upset with my injury when I'm living the dream?"
Not that what Kinney has gone through was easy.
A standout defender, he started all but one game during a four-year collegiate career at Elon. The only game he missed was the last one.
Kinney hurt his ankle in the conference semifinal as a senior and sat out the next game. Elon was eliminated and that was the final game of Kinney's college career. He graduated that December and a month later was at the MLS Combine. Kinney was drafted by the Fire and though his ankle wasn't 100 percent, it was good enough.
He made his debut against Real Salt Lake on July 8, 2010 and played 90 minutes. Kinney also hit both posts off set pieces in a 1-0 loss.
"I couldn't believe my luck," Kinney said with a laugh.
He appeared in another 11 matches in the second half of the season, starting the majority of those and getting his first goal -- the game-winner -- on Sept. 29 against San Jose.
Kinney was making a successful transition from college to pro, playing with big names like Brian McBride and Freddie Ljungberg.
"That was fantastic," Kinney said.
He learned from the veterans, including how to survive a season that's nearly three times as long as college.
"Come summer, the rookies all hit the wall and you're not even halfway through the season," Kinney said. "We had a lot of veterans on the team and they told me before it even happened that my performance isn't going to be where I know it's supposed to be and you just have to grind through.
"Sure enough, I pushed through and for the last third of the season I started getting playing time."
Then he went up for a header during the last game of the season on Oct. 23.
"As I jumped, it felt like someone ran up and kicked me as hard as they could in the back of the leg," Kinney said.
Which is what Kinney told the trainer who rushed out onto the field.
"He said there wasn't anyone within 10 yards of me," Kinney said. "That's when I knew it was bad."
Kinney ruptured his Achilles tendon.
"That was 21 months ago," he said.
Kinney had it surgically repaired and began what his doctors predicted would be six to eight months of rehab. He was nearly at the end of that last summer.
"I was running on the field and, we believe because I'd had so much time off, the other muscles in my body weakened and I got a sports hernia," Kinney said.
More surgery. More rehab.
"They told me the Achilles would be six to eight months, so you gear up for that," he said. "At the end of that, something else hits you. That was probably the hardest part. I was shut down completely for another four to five months."
Just as he was coming back from the sports hernia, the other tendon in his ankle started to swell as it overcompensated for the repaired Achilles. That was this winter.
"From there, it was, well, whenever it's my time to come back, it's my time," a resolute Kinney said. "You put it in God's hands.
"I started to learn more patience. You learn to take it a day at a time. There are so many ups and downs that if you ride those, you'll mentally exhaust yourself."
Now, finally, everything is working again.
"I've been in full training for the last three weeks," Kinney said. "Before that I was running on the sidelines for a month. Now I'm back out training with the team.
"But it's still up and down. I'm practically going through preseason."
He's aiming for a return the middle of August in a reserve game."Hopefully I can make a push to get back in the lineup in September and October," Kinney said. "For now, it's all about recovering my fitness. It's just day-to-day. I've got to work twice as much as the other guys. That drives you to push through everything."
The joy of being back on the field far outweighs any muscle aches and pains.
"There are days where my legs are killing me and I remember two months ago I would have given anything to be out there," Kinney said.