Emory Berlacher had her first surgery when she was about 18 months old. The soft spot in her skull wasn't hardening, so a titanium plate was inserted into her forehead.
Since then, Berlacher has had two injury-related surgeries and four major injuries since seventh grade, but none have stopped the senior goalkeeper from being one of the most aggressive players on the Providence High girls' soccer team, which will begin play in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs today.
"I guess I was just too aggressive as a child," said Berlacher. "I'm a little intense."
Berlacher, 18, started playing soccer when she was 4. Her parents wanted her to get involved with sports, like her older brother, Thomas, who was an all-conference basketball player at Providence High. She played volleyball, ran track and played basketball in addition to soccer growing up.
In a club game in seventh grade, she broke her nose as she slid for a ball and got hit by another player's cleats. The injury required surgery.
It's also likely she broke a vertebrae in her back during the play, but that wasn't diagnosed until her eighth-grade year. She thought it was just muscle pain in her back; her father, Mark, thought she was having back spasms.
Finally, they decided to get it checked out. When Emory's mother, Phyllis, called to say it was a broken back, Mark thought she was joking.
At that point, her doctor told Berlacher she should choose just one sport, to reduce the risk of injury. She picked soccer.
"I just have played my whole life and there's just this passion, and I couldn't imagine my life without it," she said.
She played on junior varsity at Providence as a freshman and split time starting on varsity her sophomore year. She also played club soccer at Charlotte United Football Club. Then two more injuries sidelined her for parts of her sophomore and junior years.
She tore her shoulder in fall of her sophomore year but kept trying to play through the injury. Also as a sophomore she had a concussion that kept her out for more than eight weeks.
"My mom probably freaked out the most for that," said Berlacher.
Mark said that injury worried him the most, too.
"That's a scary injury," he said. "Other ones you can surgically repair."
The summer after her sophomore year, Berlacher had surgery to repair her shoulder, causing her to miss much of her junior year.
Her parents, doctors and other family members talked to Berlacher about hanging up her cleats. She wouldn't have it.
"You don't give up until you can't move or your health is in danger," she said.
"She pushed back immediately," said Mark. "She persists that she wants to play. She loves soccer and she really loves the camaraderie. She really likes being part of something. ... We count our blessings and hope each game something doesn't happen."
Berlacher said the injuries haven't slowed her. She has kept all the slings, crutches and casts from her injuries. The physical therapy she's been doing since eighth grade actually has helped her playing ability, and she approaches the game with the same aggressiveness she did before her injuries.
"I've been injured so many times that I'm used to it," she said.
Second-year coach Timothy Long hasn't seen Berlacher get injured and hopes he doesn't have to. He can see how her aggressive play led to the injuries, but he also thinks playing tentatively will get you hurt more often.
"You want to coach all your players to play with that aggressiveness," he said.
Berlacher, 5-foot-5, has about 45 saves this year and nine shutouts, helping the Panthers to a 11-5-3 (8-4-2) record and a third-place finish in the Southwestern 4A conference. Long said Berlacher's stats are just a small part of what she brings to the team.
"She's what you expect out of a captain," said Long. "She takes her job of trying to win games very seriously and expects other to as well."
Mark Berlacher said Emory has shown she never gives up and will fight through anything. It's the way she approaches soccer, school (she's a member of Providence's National Honor Society) and life.
Next year she'll enroll at N.C. State University to major in psychology. She eventually wants to get a law degree and become a public defender for juveniles.
She might play club soccer if her shoulder will hold up.
But no matter what she does, she'll give it everything she has.
"Life's going to throw obstacles at you but you have to keep going through them before you can know what the future holds," she said.