Post courtesy of NJ.COM
Location: Columbia, Md.
Date Of Injury: 2015
The fire nearly killed her. The recovery nearly broke her. But in seven agonizing months, a determined high school soccer star willed her way back onto the playing field. This is her story….
At Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., three dozen bobbing ponytails burst across Field No. 1. They are stretching, chattering and clapping as they prepare for another game in another soccer tournament over another Memorial Day weekend.
In the anxious moments before the visitors from New Jersey take on a team from Frederick, Md., the teenage girls are sizing up each other.
Before long, most of the eyes lock on the girl from Union County wearing No. 16 for F.C. Copa. Like the others, she’s athletic, lean and long-legged. But jagged patches of skin mark her thighs. Deep scars of purple, pink and red cover her hands. And a bulky black brace protects her left knee.
She looks more like a wounded soldier than one of New Jersey’s best young athletes.
As Eryka Underwood, the 16-year-old defender, squints in the early morning light she knows she will have to get used to the stares. The third-degree burns that nearly killed her 208 days ago have left their mark. On her and others.
None of that is supposed to matter this morning. Today is about new beginnings and the miraculous possibilities of the human body, which in seven months can be pushed from near-death to elite athletic competition. Eryka will not dwell on the other girls — carefree, unscarred and beautiful in a different way than she now sees herself. She will not think about the ripped knee ligament that ended her dominant sophomore season at Arthur L. Johnson High in Clark, or the backyard bonfire that left her in a coma.
As the game nears, Roberto Aguas, Eryka’s coach for the past five years, senses No. 16 isn’t quite right. Normally the loudest in the group, she is quiet, even distant from teammates who long have admired her fearlessness.
Aguas asks his toughest player how she feels.
Eryka trains her hazel eyes on him and says something he never thought possible:
“I’m really nervous,” she says. “I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”
‘EVERYTHING HAPPENED SO FAST’
It was a little after 9 on Tuesday night, Nov. 2, when Lynda Underwood texted her only child and suggested she call it a night. School was out for the week for fall break and Eryka had packed a lot into her day.
She had eaten a late lunch — macaroni and cheese at Friendly’s in Clark with a friend — and cheered Johnson High to a 4-0 victory over North Plainfield in the state playoffs. It was the Crusaders’ first game without Underwood, a star sweeper who had injured her knee three days earlier.
After changing into her American Eagle jeans and grabbing her beloved blue-and-yellow varsity jacket, Eryka and six friends headed for Westfield to see “Saw V” — a horror movie in which a large fire is central to the plot.
Eryka texted her mother after the movie. The group was heading to sophomore Ali Beck’s house on Wendell Place in Clark. They planned to gather around Ali’s large backyard fire pit, hang out in their favorite green lawn chairs and munch on Halloween candy.
The night was chilly, a touch above 40 degrees, when the group arrived at Ali’s house near the Garden State Parkway. Eryka asked Ali’s younger sister, Lauren, for a pair of sweat pants to stave off the cold. Lauren brought Ali’s navy blue-and-gold sweats from a travel softball team, the Colonia Cyclones. Eryka pulled them over her jeans and the bulky brace she was wearing to protect her injured knee, snapped the buttons up on her varsity jacket and started gathering twigs and paper scraps to get the fire going.
The kids were using a long barbecue lighter and a smaller brown BIC to light paper and drop it into the unscreened pit, which was filled with twigs and four unsplit logs. But they were having a hard time.
As the smoke built, a 16-year-old boy went into the Becks’ detached two-car garage, about 20 feet from the pit. He returned with what a Union County investigator’s report later described as a red two-and-a-half-gallon container that held a gasoline/two-stroke oil mixture typically used to power a garden trimmer or a hedger. The container had a short yellow spout.
The boy walked to the edge of the fire pit, almost directly across from Eryka.
Someone shouted “Wait!”
In the same underhanded motion used to scoop a pancake from a griddle, the boy tossed the mixture onto the fire. In an instant, a small, smoldering fire roared to life. Flames jumped the pit, shooting at Eryka and doubling back at the boy.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’ ” Eryka said. “Then I saw the fire coming at me.”
Eryka turned to her left and threw her hands in front of her face. Watching the flames from a few feet away, Ali Beck was reminded of the cliché movie scenes when the bad guy coolly walks away as a blast erupts in the background. She was brought back to reality when she felt the heat on her face.
Eryka squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t feel pain at first, but everything was hot. That’s when she realized she was on fire.
Her mind flickered with options.
She could make a run for the Middlesex Reservoir just beyond the Becks’ backyard. No, there wouldn’t be enough time.
Then she remembered all those elementary school assemblies: Stop, drop and roll.
Eryka dived on the ground and rolled frantically, eyes still closed, oblivious until something stopped her.
“Lauren was like, ‘Eryka, get out of the bush!’ ” Eryka said. “So when I heard that, I thought to myself, ‘If you don’t get out of the bush, you’re going to die.’ ”
Eryka staggered to her feet, but only long enough to find another patch of grass.
In that split-second, she had no way to know what an investigator who processed the scene would later report. The flames were particularly difficult to extinguish because of the oil in the mixture, according to Mark Chai of the Union County Fire Investigation Task Force. While gasoline becomes a vapor that burns instantaneously, oil sticks to whatever it touches and takes time to heat up and evaporate, Chai said.
As Eryka was rolling in the grass, Danny Beck, Ali’s father, rushed outside and frantically swatted at the flames on the boy’s legs. Ali Beck, meanwhile, was thinking this had to be a dream. Was that really her best friend, the girl she met in third grade, with flames still dancing on her clothes?
“That’s when I knew I had to do something,” Ali said.
She sprinted for the hose attached to the back of the house. In a stroke of good fortune, Danny Beck had gotten sidetracked a week earlier when he went to turn off the backyard water for the winter. (He had turned off the front yard supply.) Ali grabbed the hose and doused her friend.
Eryka, by her estimate and that of two friends, had been on fire between 10 and 20 seconds.
She already was in shock as she laid there on her back, looking at the sky. She didn’t feel much other than a deep pain in her buttocks and hands. The borrowed sweat pants were now blackened shards of fabric, almost completely gone. Her varsity jacket, decorated with soccer, basketball and track patches, was blackened and ruined, but its thick fabric had protected her upper body. The jacket Eryka had earned through sports very possibly had saved her life.
When she lifted her hands in front of her face, she gasped. They were mostly black, and an eerie shade of white. The skin looked “flappy.”
“Everything happened so fast,” Eryka said.
It was about 9:40 when Ali dialed 911. She looked at Eryka and noticed her hands seemed smaller. Her face appeared badly sunburned. Her little sister had run to the house and grabbed damp towels for her father to place on Eryka’s wounds. But that made Eryka hurt, so Danny stopped.
The first two Clark police officers pulled up to the one-story home at 9:45. Clark Fire Chief Andrew Beach arrived separately.
The backyard and Eryka’s clothing reeked of gasoline, according to investigators. One officer tended to the boy; the other rushed to Eryka. A third officer arrived and helped apply wet towels to Eryka’s burns.
As responders worked on Eryka, Ali prepared to call Lynda Underwood. Ali could feel the nerves in her throat as she went over what to say.
As calmly as possible, Ali said, “Eryka is alive and she’s okay, but we’re at my house and the bonfire got out of hand and she was actually lit on fire. But I put her out and she’s alive. She just might be a little bit burnt.”
Lynda listened calmly. She figured it wasn’t serious.
“Our first instinct was we got mad,” Lynda said. “We thought, ‘They were fooling around. She burned her arm or something very minor.’ ”
As Lynda, 41, and her husband, Andy, 43, navigated the two and a half miles from their home on Elm Street, a fire truck turned in front of them on Madison Hill Road. They figured that truck was the first responder. But as the fire truck moved down Wendell, the Underwoods noticed neighbors up and down the street on their lawns, gawking. As they pulled closer to the Becks’ home, they saw more and more flashing lights.
Andy watched a firefighter in full gear sprinting up the driveway.
Lynda didn’t wait for Andy to park.
She jumped from the car and started running. She made it halfway around the house when she saw the boy who had been burned. He was on the grass with people around him. She fell to the ground right then and there. She never saw her daughter at the scene that night.
“I just lost it,” Lynda said. “I’m like, ‘How can this be happening?’ ”
Andy rushed into the backyard and saw Eryka.
“Daddy!” she cried.
Andy told his little girl to stay calm and let the paramedics help. They were trying to cut off what was left of her clothes. She had severe burns to the front and back of her legs. The Clark First Aid Squad and the Clark Fire Department wrapped Eryka in dressings, loaded her into an ambulance and headed for Kumpf Middle School around 10 p.m. Once there, Eryka and Andy would be airlifted to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
The young man, meanwhile, was taken by ambulance to Saint Barnabas and has since recovered. No one else was injured.
The last thing Eryka remembered was paramedics on the helicopter forcing a tube down her throat. The morphine would take over before she even reached Saint Barnabas.
Abraham Houng, an attending surgeon in the burn center, knew a 15-year-old was coming in and thought of his three children at home. When he saw Eryka, he knew he was in for a long night.
“This looks like a pretty bad injury for anyone,” Houng remembered thinking. “Let alone a 15-year-old.”
It would be several days before Eryka Underwood woke up again.
‘TAKE DEEP BREATHS’
No. 16 sits in the middle of the metal bench at Field No. 1, her hair blowing in the late May breeze, when her coach shouts her name and points to midfield.
With that, an elite player who hasn’t been part of a meaningful soccer game in 211 days , adjusts her knee brace and sprints down the sideline to warm up. As she crouches to stretch her thighs and calves, her eyes narrow into a thin, focused stare. Her chest dances with nervous energy.
Will she be the same player? Will she be as fearless? Will she be as confident?
And, of course, will she make a fool of herself?
Lori Berman, the F.C. Copa assistant coach, walks over and softly tells Eryka to “take deep breaths” and to “just focus on your touches.”
Eryka nods. She walks to midfield and waits for a stoppage in play. The referee waves her into the game.
As she jogs onto the field in the final minutes of the first half against F.C. Frederick, a crowd of parents from New Jersey, including Lynda, claps and shrieks. Lynda had imagined she would be fighting back tears, but a sense of joy washes over her.
It doesn’t matter how Eryka plays, Lynda thinks to herself.
This moment is a miracle.
‘THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING’
It was about 10:30 p.m. when the helicopter touched down at Saint Barnabas. Inside, Eryka Underwood, whose clothes and flesh had been set on fire 55 minutes earlier, was unconscious and unaware of the excruciating physical pain and immeasurable emotional hurdles ahead of her.
There was no way that Abraham Houng, the surgeon who met the helicopter, could have known the girl on the gurney had been a gifted athlete from birth. That nothing rattled her. Houng only knew his team of nurses and burn technicians had to move quickly, so they wheeled Eryka to the tank room on the second floor — a sterile, classroom-sized trauma bay.
For about 90 minutes, the team assessed Eryka’s airway, breathing and circulation. They hooked a central IV line to the femoral vein in her groin that carried lactated Ringer’s solution — a salty liquid similar to the body’s fluid composition. Eryka also was placed on a mechanical ventilator so she didn’t have to waste energy breathing for herself. She was sedated with Ativan and given large amounts of morphine.
After Eryka was stabilized, the team peeled off her dressings and went to work on the burns. “Unfortunately, they were mostly third-degree,” Houng said. “They were very deep.”
Houng noted most of Eryka’s wounds were dry, white and leathery, a characteristic of third-degree burns known as “eschar.” When skin is severely burned, it appears white because heat denatures the skin and the chemical composition changes.
Her face was a different story. It was pink and moist and dotted with superficial blisters, usually a sign of second-degree burns.
Houng and the nurses cleaned the wounds and slathered them with silver sulfadiazine, a topical antibiotic. Eryka was wrapped in thick dressings. The team would need a few days to determine which burns were first-, second- or third-degree. At that point, there wasn’t much else to do. Eryka was wheeled into a room in the Intensive Care Burn Unit, her home for the next month.
Andy Underwood, an electrician who had been unemployed before finding a job two weeks earlier, had been sitting alone in the waiting room, his mind spinning. Fifteen miles away, Lynda hopped in a car with a Clark police officer and made her way to the hospital.
The Underwoods waited together another 30 minutes or so before Houng walked out and told them, “Eryka has very serious injuries, very deep burns and it’s potentially life-threatening.”
Eryka would be in intensive care for a long time and would need multiple skin-grafting procedures, he continued.
As Lynda listened, she imagined this was someone else’s life; it couldn’t be hers. Still, she stayed composed and impressed Houng with her questions.
About 45 minutes later, Lynda and Andy got to see their daughter. She was wrapped in thick, white dressings like a mummy. They could only see her eyes and the tip of her nose.
“This can’t be happening,” Lynda said.
‘IS IT COMMON TO BE THIS TIRED?’
It is something she has done a million times: See the ball. Control the ball. Move the ball. And that’s exactly what Eryka does when the ball finds her during that first minute of game action in seven months.
Eryka plays five and a half minutes in the midfield — a different position for her because Aguas, her coach, wants to minimize any possible mistakes and protect her fragile confidence. As the half is about to end, Eryka collides with a girl from Frederick. The impact feels good, she thinks. She pops up and takes another feed near midfield. She makes a nice, low pass to a teammate just as the half ends.
As she trots off the field, her lungs are screaming and her face is streaked with sweat.
“Is it common to be this tired?” she asks Aguas as they walk off for halftime.
‘THE WORST PAIN I FELT’
Amy Carneiro has been taking care of burn victims for 12 years. She knew more than one disoriented and uncomfortable patient had awakened and yanked out their breathing tube. So Carneiro moved her desk and chair to the doorway of Eryka’s room in the days after she arrived at Saint Barnabas.
Lynda Underwood, herself a nurse, was worried about Eryka becoming septic and developing a massive, life-threatening infection. She sat there with her daughter day after day, her eyes fixed on the thermometer.
One day, Eryka’s temperature crept almost to 104.
“They have ice packs on her, they have fans on her, and you’re sitting there praying, going, ‘Please, please, please just let it come down,’” Lynda said. “You’re watching it go lower and you’re saying, ‘Thank God. Thank God.’”
Eryka doesn’t remember much about coming out of sedation because she was so heavily medicated. Her first memory is seeing friend Nicole Brougham next to her bed, crying. She doesn’t remember the rest of that day. When she was finally able to process her thoughts, she knew where she was and understood what had happened.
“I knew I was supposed to be there,” Eryka said. “There were multiple things that just sucked. Like not being able to see my friends, not being able to live my life how I wanted to, not playing soccer the way I wanted to. And my (driving) permit got delayed.”
On her fifth day in the hospital, Eryka was taken off the ventilator. Two days later, skin from her left leg and thigh was grafted onto her hands, fingers, right leg and right ankle.
Three days after that, on Nov. 11 — and a few days before another graft — Carneiro grabbed every hospital staffer she could find, picked up a cake with white icing and a strawberry on top and packed the group into Eryka’s room to celebrate her 16th birthday.
The nurses clapped in unison and belted out “Happy Birthday.” They presented the cake with unlit candles to shield Eryka from any semblance of fire.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have your Sweet 16 in a hospital,” Carneiro said. “That’s pretty depressing.”
Eryka would heal quickly, but the hospital stay sapped her spirit. She missed her friends, she missed socializing in the hallways at school and she missed playing soccer.
She missed her life.
To pass the days, she rested her laptop over her stomach on a tray. She punched out messages on Facebook and tried to connect with the outside world.
Meanwhile, the Johnson High girls soccer team was in the middle of a historic run. Even without their best player, the Crusaders advanced to the Group 2 championship for the first time in school history, losing to Mahwah. The entire postseason, players scribbled Eryka’s jersey number on athletic tape and wrapped it everywhere. They carried her jersey onto the field and broke huddles by shouting “Eryka!” Despite her late-season knee injury, Eryka was the only Johnson player named All-Union County first-team.
Back in and around Clark, people were coming together for her.
The Firehouse Eatery and Pub in Rahway, where the Underwoods had scheduled Eryka’s Sweet 16 birthday party, held a silent auction. Johnson High hosted a blood drive. Shops and stores around town put out piggy banks for donations.
All told, about $30,000 was raised. (Bills from Eryka’s hospital stay are in excess of $400,000 and the Underwoods have filed a claim in Superior Court in Union County against the Becks, according to Jon Bramnick, the family’s lawyer. The boy who threw the gas/oil mixture on the fire is listed as a co-defendant.)
While the people around her rallied, Eryka struggled during her time at Saint Barnabas.
She was heavily medicated — morphine and Percocet for pain, Ativan for anxiety, Pepcid to prevent ulcers. At times she drifted into a catatonic state, her eyes glazed. Above everything else, she most dreaded the daily trips to the tank room, where her burns were cleaned. Just the thought of the room — with two gurneys in the center, and wash tubes and bright operating lights hanging from the ceiling — made Eryka nervous and antsy.
Despite the medication, stripping the dressings from the burns, cleaning them and wrapping them again was excruciating. Carneiro and the other nurses and burn technicians tried to make the procedure as comfortable as possible. They scheduled Eryka last so they could go slowly. Carneiro brushed her hair and told jokes.
“I dreaded that part of the day every day,” Eryka said. “I was just paralyzed mentally from going in there. It was just awful. That was the worst pain I felt in my life.”
‘YOU DID A GOOD JOB’
It is hot in Maryland this Memorial Day weekend. Eryka and her teammates are pushing together under a small canopy for a water break at halftime of their first game.
Before coach Aguas goes over the second-half game plan to take down the strangers from Maryland, he has something important to share with the girls from F.C. Copa.
“Let’s give Eryka a hand,” Aguas says. “You did a good job.”
Eryka played her five and a half minutes in the first half without incident to earn the praise. In the second half of what will end as a scoreless tie, she enters in the 26th minute. This time, in her four minutes, she shows flashes of the brilliant technical skills that her coaches said made her almost certainly an NCAA Division 1 player in college.
When a long pass bounces upfield, Eryka launches herself and deflects it to a teammate with the crown of her head — a small, yet difficult play to make.
“Yeah E!” her teammates shout.
For Eryka, it will be one of the best plays she makes all weekend.
‘FEEL THE BURN!’
Eryka was discharged from Saint Barnabas on Nov. 30 — 28 days after the fire.
On the morning of Dec. 1, she returned to the hospital a little after 9, wearing loose-fitting athletic pants and a white hooded sweat shirt. Her frayed, blond hair spilled over her shoulders. Her face was dotted with blisters. Her tender, burned hands awaited their first day of occupational therapy.
At the hospital’s Rehabilitation Center, Catherine Ruiz, a therapist with a quick smile, greeted Eryka. They sat and Eryka gently stripped off her beige Isotoner gloves and placed them on a white blanket.
Her hands were purple and pink and looked like they belonged to a woman five times her age. A sharp, slightly diagonal line, about an inch above the wrist on the back of her hands, showed where the skin grafts were placed. Some of the grafting extended to her fingers and palms. Tiny bits of skin were peeling.
Ruiz asked Eryka about her background and measured her range of motion.
Eryka struggled to stay interested.
“My butt’s starting to hurt,” she said. “Can I have a pillow?”
The sessions lasted three weeks and Ruiz eventually had Eryka tossing a heavy ball against a vertical trampoline and dribbling a basketball.
“I’m starting to sweat!” Eryka cried one day during the trampoline exercise.
“You getting tired?” Ruiz asked, tugging at Eryka’s competitive spirit.
“No,” she replied. “I’m just breaking a sweat.”
Eryka and Ruiz — a motherly, 22-year veteran at Saint Barnabas — also shared tender moments.
During each visit, Ruiz gently massaged a Vaseline-type ointment called Deep Prep II into Eryka’s hands. She used the downtime to whisper support, make sure Eryka was doing schoolwork and offer advice on dealing with strangers.
“The most important thing is you look at people,” Ruiz said. “Be nice, be kind and say as much or as little as you like.”
Each day after occupational therapy, Eryka walked across the room for an hour of physical therapy with Dana Fleming.
The two razzed each other incessantly.
“Dana, you’re a minute late!” Eryka scolded one morning.
Quick to dish it back, Fleming greeted Eryka each morning as “Eureka” or “the soccer queen.”
Fleming worked Eryka with light exercises and stretches. During a visit in early December, Eryka yanked up her athletic pants to show Fleming her legs. They were a startling battleground of reds, purples and pinks mixed in next to her natural skin tone. Her right leg, burned the worst, had purplish skin grafts crawling over the back and inside of her thigh. There was more grafting on her ankle and inner calf. There were faded pinkish strips on the front of her left leg from the donor sites where skin was removed for grafting.
Regardless, Eryka and Fleming were determined to laugh their way through therapy.
“Feel the burn!” Eryka shouted one morning as she worked on an elliptical machine.
“You okay?” Fleming asked.
“No, I’m not okay.”
“Are you in any pain today?” Fleming asked.
“Physically or mentally?”
Eryka made it through rehab by finding humor wherever she could.
While on the elliptical: “Where’s the radio? Where’s my jams?”
While doing light squats: “This is harder than school!”
On new fashion improvements: “I wore jeans yesterday. Twice. I’m stepping up my game.”
On having third-degree burns to 31 percent of her body: “I want to know where the 1 percent came from? Why?! Why?!”
On the peeling skin on her burned legs: “I’m a snake. I’m shedding skin.”
On the burns to her legs: “I’ve got pretty legs. Say it loud and proud!”
‘A LOT OF HARD WORK’
Eryka rides the bench the entire first half of her team’s second game during the Memorial Day weekend tournament. F.C. Copa is playing Yankee United F.C. Blaze, the top-ranked team in Connecticut. When she gets the call with about 10 minutes left, a high, long pass finds her.
She lifts her leg, but the ball whizzes past harmlessly.
Later, she tracks down the ball twice along the near side of the field and tries to cross.
Her first pass is intercepted.
The second is knocked away.
Aguas pulls her from the game moments later and Eryka trudges off the field looking like a teenager trying to figure out why her cell phone has just been taken away.
F.C. Copa goes on to lose, 1-0, ending any chance of winning the tournament.
“This is not going to be an easy road,” Aguas says of Eryka. “It’s hard enough to come back from an ACL tear. But for Eryka, there’s much more to it.
“It’s going to be a lot of hard work.”
‘SHE JUST HAD A MAJOR BREAKDOWN’
Lynda and Andy Underwood were fidgety and tired.
They had dug through 15 inches of snow to get out of Clark this late January morning. They had waited for two hours while Eryka had another surgery, and they had spent several more hours sitting around listening to music on their iPad, playing Scrabble and firing off texts.
Eryka, meanwhile, sat in a side room at the Center for Ambulatory Surgery in Mountainside, sipping ginger ale and munching animal crackers. An IV dangled from her arm, and her legs were covered in white blankets. The torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee had just been fixed and she was trying to be positive, grasping for any reason to imagine a normal life. “I just have to get back on the field,” Eryka said.
The family was on edge. They were bickering, rolling eyes at each other and becoming quite accomplished at dramatic sighing.
“It’s hard, man,” Andy said. “My daughter has been a great athlete her whole life, and you see her struggle to get in and out of a car. It’s hard. The biggest thing for me is you want to be able to just do something. There are times when you just can’t do anything. It’s extremely frustrating.”
It had been a tough couple of years for the Underwoods even before their only child’s accident. Andy had been laid off and unemployed for two years before finding work in October — about two weeks before the accident. He was laid off again in December, but has since found another full-time job.
“It was a little difficult, but we’re fine,” said Lynda, a licensed nurse who works as a office manager for an ear, nose and throat specialist in Edison.
The Underwoods, married 20 years, were doing what they could to blow off steam, gathering with friends on Friday nights at the Firehouse Eatery and Pub. They ate French dip sandwiches, potato soup and bangers and mash. They would have a couple of drinks. And because Lynda was often with Eryka right after she was burned, Andy tried to send his wife off with friends on weekends.
“Andy and Lynda have a great marriage,” said Beth Adamusik, a close friend. “They’ve been together since they were so young. They’re very close and Eryka is everything for them. Together, they just make it through everything.”
By about 7 p.m. the night of her knee surgery, Eryka had moved into a wheelchair and nurses helped load her into the family car.
At home, Lynda and Andy tried to fit Eryka’s knee into a brace. They struggled to snap the brace into place, tugging, pushing and pulling on the new device.
“Stop! Stop! I’m done! I’ve had it,” Eryka screamed, tears welling. “I can’t take it anymore. It’s not fair. I don’t want to do it. I shouldn’t have to do it.”
Her parents — just as tired and just as frustrated — couldn’t say much beyond the obvious.
“She just had a major breakdown,” Lynda said. “It was the huge culmination of everything.”
‘SCARS DON’T SHOW WHO YOU ARE’
The first-floor hallway of the Sheraton a few miles outside Baltimore has been taken over by 17 teenage girls and two soccer coaches. Roberto Aguas talks some soccer before launching into a team-bonding exercise. Each player takes turns revealing a fact about herself no one is supposed to know. If it turns out a teammate knows the secret, the player must dance.
“My dad accidentally hit me with a golf club,” one girl says.
“I have a crush on my brother,” another admits.
Eryka Underwood throws her head back, laughs and slaps her leg.
As much as Eryka longed to play sports while she recovered from her injuries, it was moments like these she missed equally.
“We’re basically a family,” Eryka says.
As the Memorial Day weekend wears on, Eryka feels increasingly comfortable around her teammates — even if her play is unsteady. She says she doesn’t think about the fire, or how far she has come in seven months.
“Scars don’t show who you are; just what you’ve been through,” Eryka explains. “That’s how I’ve learned to accept myself. It is true. Scars don’t show what kind of person you are; just what you’ve been through. What I’ve gotten through. What I’ve survived.”
‘THIS IS MY NORMAL’
The locker was waiting at the end of a long hallway. She had missed more than three months of school before returning on Valentine’s Day and had climbed the stairs to the second floor of Johnson High School. After all this, a blue locker was what was giving her fits.
Eryka tilted her head and racked her brain.
“I’m definitely not going to remember this,” she said. “Wait … 13-19 …”
The locker popped open.
After dumping some books, Eryka took to the hallways. She wore stonewashed jeans, a pair of Nike sneakers and a handmade lime green T-shirt that read, “Am I glad to be back in school? Today … yes. Tomorrow … ?”
“I missed you!” Jaime Villanova said, wrapping her arms around Eryka. “Are you back for good? Are you excited?”
Just before the 7:50 bell, Eryka walked into English 2 and sat near the back. It didn’t take long, she said, to feel like a normal kid again. And while there were problems getting back into the swing of things in the classroom, she will start her junior year this fall.
There were other moments that didn’t go so well.
In the weeks after she was released from Saint Barnabas, Eryka almost passed on a friend’s Sweet 16 because she didn’t want to wear a long dress to cover her legs. Her friends, she reasoned, would be wearing popular, shorter styles.
The night of the party in December, Eryka was overwhelmed. It was hard showering. She couldn’t style her hair, she couldn’t wear heels and even putting in earrings was tough because her fingers were still tender.
“It was just a very difficult night,” Lynda said.
Once Eryka got to the party, though, her outlook changed. She danced, got lost in the music and rediscovered the sensation of being a teenager. And when she got home, she told her mom she had an epiphany.
“This is how I am,” Eryka said. “If people don’t like it — too bad. This is my normal.”
As the weather grew warmer, new problems popped up.
When her friends started wearing high-cut shorts, Eryka had to stick with capri pants and longer shorts. When she went swimming, she wore board shorts instead of bikini bottoms. And to reduce scarring, Eryka was supposed to wear compression garments on her legs and hands 23 hours a day. But she gave up on that once the weather turned. She usually wore them to bed, but rarely during the day.
“It makes me mad,” Lynda said. “She’s 16 — we already argue about school and social life. Now we’ve got to argue about putting on your gloves, wearing your stockings, doing this, doing that. It’s not fair. We’re adding another layer to a hormonal 16-year-old.”
There still are times when the emotional impact is too much. Eryka changes the radio station when she hears songs that mention fire. She turns away from movie scenes with flames or explosions.
Her worst moment came in March at Universal Orlando.
One afternoon, her family filtered into the “Twister” attraction, which simulates being caught in a tornado. At one point, a truck on the screen flew into a gasoline pump, spilling fluid on the ground. Then a spark skipped across the screen.
“It literally registered too late,” Lynda said. “The whole thing just explodes and you feel the whoosh of heat and all the flames come at you.”
Eryka screamed and ran to the back of the room. Andy rushed over and held her until everyone left.
“She just started crying hysterically,” Lynda said. “Those are the little things that people don’t realize.”
Not surprisingly, Eryka would find comfort from sports.
By April 18, almost three months after the knee surgery, she was rehabbing hard at East Coast Conditioning in Clark, moving through leg lifts, biceps curls, pull-ups and other exercises in quick succession.
She wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and black soccer shorts that exposed her scars, which were morphing into a collage of colors. During these sessions, Eryka extended on every push-up and sit-up, counting her repetitions carefully. Concerns that she would be a step slow on the field fueled her workouts.
“When I get back I want to be stronger,” Eryka said. “I’m not going to come back weaker because then I’ll lose my position on the field, I’ll lose my position on the court. I want to be able to forget this and just act like it never happened and just come back and play … even better.”
Eryka missed her basketball and track seasons, but on April 30 she finally had a chance to celebrate her Sweet 16 with her closest friends.
She found the perfect dress — a tiny red one with diagonal slits exposing her stomach. The dress showed the scars on her legs, but Eryka felt confident.
After a full night of dancing, Eryka grabbed a microphone and started the candle ceremony — the customary time when the birthday girl devotes each candle to the special people in her life. She dedicated the final and most important one to five friends — Ali Beck, Kristy Pflug, Cat Hanley, Nicole Brougham and Jamie Cheeka. She then read from a single piece of paper.
“There were 28 days of hell I had to go through in November. Those days I will never forget … just because of the love and support I got.
“I can’t thank you girls enough for what you got me through.”
THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
As another day in Maryland comes to a close, Eryka and her teammates gather at a Ruby Tuesday for dinner. Aguas launches into another team-building exercise. The coach asks each player to share the most valuable gift she has ever received. The girls quiet down as they start to go around the table.
A Tiffany ring, one says.
A necklace, another answers.
Next, it’s Eryka’s turn.
She takes a second to look over the crowded restaurant before something clicks.
The words come easily: “My life.”