The last time Kurt Diederich watched his son play soccer was during a tryout for a professional development team in Austin.
At 17 years old, Nathan Diederich played among college and post-college athletes hoping to break into the professional sports world.
“Nathan was the toughest guy out there and he was also the fastest guy in speed and agility skills,” Kurt said.
He made it past the first cut for the all-star team and although he wasn’t among the three soccer players who made the team, it gave Nathan and his family hope that he was on his way to fulfilling his dreams.
But the next day when Nathan went to the doctor for an MRI, that hope was shattered.
Nathan had another blood clot in his brain.
“It all came crashing down,” Kurt said. “That dream at 12 years old is one thing, but the reality at 17 years old — that was hard to watch that get ripped away.”
A lifetime in soccer
Growing up in Africa, Diederich spent his childhood playing soccer, or rather football, at least three hours a day.
After moving from Cameroon to Killeen when he was 10 years old, Diederich, like most children who grow up playing the sport, dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player.
“Probably my first dream or goal was to play in college and hopefully play in professional leagues,” said Diederich, a senior at Ellison High School. “The ultimate dream was to try and play in Europe somewhere. I wanted to make it a life, a career.”
He spent hours after school practicing his craft daily, running drills in his backyard, taking his gear to the soccer field and kicking the ball into the goal.
With a mix of talent and work ethic, Diederich’s dreams continued as a freshman, where he scored seven goals and won the District 12-5A newcomer of the year award.
This year, Diederich missed his entire senior season, and the Eagles are fighting to make the playoffs without him on the field. The Eagles are currently in fifth place, two games behind Harker Heights for the final playoff spot.
Nathan is still helping the Ellison soccer team this year, though, as he sits on the sidelines, viewing soccer through a different lens and helping his teammates improve their game.
“That’s the hard thing about watching or coaching because you know you can maybe affect the game this way or play with the guys, but ... knowing the fact that you can’t do anything about the situation,” he said. “I’d love to still be playing, but I guess I’ve accepted that and just try to do as much as possible to keep into it. It’s really all I can do.”
This year wasn’t the first time the Eagles faced a season without their star player.
Soccer dream ends
Kurt heard his son coughing as he was getting ready for school. But when the sounds didn’t stop, he went to the bathroom to check on Nathan.
“He collapsed in his bathroom getting ready for school and he was vomiting,” Kurt said. “He was rolled up on the floor, just in terrible pain. He was crying. ... He was nauseous, dizzy, in terrible pain so we got him dressed and ran to the emergency room.”
Kurt and his wife, Julia, waited as doctors ran numerous tests and transported him from hospital to hospital, trying to figure out what was causing the pain.
“It was just a mystery really, all day,” Kurt said. “It wasn’t even until the end of the day that they had identified what was wrong.”
Nathan had a blood clot on his brain. And, after six months of blood thinners, he was cleared to go back to soccer.
During his junior year, Nathan led in scoring and assists and Ellison secured a spot in the playoffs — the school’s first since 2001.
Nathan was named by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches to the All-Region team and he made the Killeen Daily Herald’s All-Area first team.
With recruiting offers coming and promises from coaches that Nathan could start his freshman year, Nathan’s dreams of playing pro soccer on some level — any level — were that much closer to reality.
But by the end of his junior year, Nathan complained about shoots of pain through the right side of his head.
“It feels like there’s a rope inside your brain and someone’s trying to pull on it, like those finger-trap things,” Nathan said.
And after his parents took him to the doctor for an MRI, the future Nathan envisioned for himself was shattered.
Doctors found another blood clot. This time, he was put on blood thinners for the rest of his life and it was no longer safe to play contact sports.
“I cried a lot,” Nathan said. “But it was weird. ... I was still in a lot of pain and just on the couch all the time because I couldn’t move. It was easier to handle that because I was still not fully recovered.”
Nathan spent most of that summer before his senior year bedridden and taking high doses of medication to relieve pressure behind his eyes and shoots of pain through his head.
“He did so much individual work,” Kurt said. “He would just work so hard at it and then all of a sudden he was laying on the couch with a blood clot on his brain.”
Some of Nathan’s pain has subsided after doctors put a lumbar peritoneal shunt in the right side of his back in July 2013, which Nathan said saved his eyesight.
The tube is constantly regulating and draining cerebral fluid to help the blood move through his brain, but the pain never fully goes away.
“I basically just live with a slight pain, pounding pain,” he said.
Without the need to perfect his skills, Nathan has more free time and is slowly adjusting to his new lifestyle. His days are much different. He used to fill them with hours of watching soccer, but now he’s slowed down.
“Everything is material and one day will go away,” he said. “It made me realize soccer is not everything.”
Nathan plans to attend the University of Texas-Arlington to study exercise science with specialty in strength and conditioning, followed by a masters in athletic training which will allow him to be a part of the soccer family as a trainer.
“It’d be fun to be on a team and travel with the guys,” Nathan said. “The biggest thing I miss is just the team aspect of it, the camaraderie with the guys and the big trips and stuff was a real fun part of it, besides playing.”
Nathan’s mom, Julia, said his family also had to adjust to the lifestyle of not watching their all-star son play.
Since he stopped playing, Julia said his son seems more relaxed, and he’s taken up new hobbies, like training for triathlons and participating in the state archery competition, which lets him be competitive and get back in the routine of practicing.
“At first, I was having fun with it, but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself just being competitive,” Nathan said.
“I just learned not to — just relax and just have fun with it because I wasn’t even expecting to do archery.”
Julia said she’s seen many good things in her son’s life — he’s healthy and alive.
Still, the last three years have not been easy as she watched Nathan’s health falter and his dream of playing soccer disappear.
“We had to mourn Nathan’s and our loss. I think there were two nights in a row over the summer when I laid down to sleep and cried myself to sleep. The tears just wouldn’t stop. I think that’s how it hit me. You never want to see your child suffer,” she said. “It’s hard, and sometimes it hits you at different times where you see something and you go, ‘Aw man, I could just see Nathan doing that,’ but you know it’s not going to happen. ... It’s hard to see him give it up, knowing that he’s so skilled.”
Ellison senior had to give up soccer, but he’s discovering other competitive outlets
firstname.lastname@example.org | 254-501-7549 | @SarahRafique