Nearing the end of eighth grade, Eric Tai’s dreams of becoming a professional soccer player had never seemed more attainable. The Success Academy Harlem North Central scholar had just landed on the radar of multiple professional soccer clubs, was playing the best soccer of his life, and his Success Academy team was competing in the largest Futsal Competition in the United States.
As the minutes ticked away in the U.S. Futsal North East Regionals, Eric was acutely aware that the eyes of professional scouts were locked on his every move. Sprinting up the court, Eric spotted an opening for a shot; he took it, but just missed. Shifting back to defend, the unthinkable happened: in a blink, he was on the ground clutching his knee.
Eric screamed, the anguish of pain bursting from his lips. His mind wandered. How serious was the injury? What did it mean for his soccer career? And what about prom? Would he still be able to dance? He tried to get up, but couldn’t. With help from his coaches, Eric was carried off the court.
The soccer standout had torn the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his right knee. He’d need to have reconstructive surgery. Once his surgery was completed, there was a 9-12 month recovery period before a return to the soccer field. Academics posed another issue. With just four months left of middle school, including Regents exams, the 13-year-old had no choice but to balance his looming rehab with his coursework.
But Eric was ready.
“My parents told me everything happens for a reason,” Eric reflects. “As soon as I found out the diagnosis, the only thing on my mind was doing what I had to do to get better.”
“A Community of Understanding”
Eric had to miss the remaining games in the Success Academy season, but he was never too far away from the team, which proved critical in the year of recovery ahead. His close friends and teammates, which include Yacouba Bamba and Moussa Daho, other SA soccer stars scouted by professional squads, were all a part of the original cohort of soccer scholars at Success Academy. Eric’s still friends with many of the scholars from the team and attends high school at HSLA–Harlem with some of them today.
“They aren’t just teammates. This is a family,” said Bradley Williams, SA Soccer Program Manager. “When the going gets tough, they use these relationships to get through to the other side. ”
Those words were demonstrated ten-fold after Eric’s injury. With the help of Success Academy, which put him in touch with a physical therapist, Eric started therapy even before his surgery to keep his injured leg moving. After his surgery in April, he was home-bound, but friends, teachers, and the school leadership team — everyone — jumped at the chance to support him.
Eric was rarely alone — teammates and coaches frequented the Tai household — and updates on the SA soccer team, banter about Premier League games, and a FIFA 22 match or two became just as important a part of Eric’s rehab as his physical therapy.
School leadership also allowed him to complete homework and tests online through Google Classroom and provided him with off-campus support. A month post-op, Eric returned to class with crutches. The school kept him on one floor and allowed him to enter through a different staircase with less traffic. The soccer star proved his mettle off the field, passing every class and exam.
“It really took a community of understanding,” Williams said. “Everyone jumped on board to make sure everything was in Eric’s best interest, and he did the rest.”
The Long Road Back
Despite the support, Eric still had his work cut out for him with physical therapy — namely, making the long trip from Harlem to the MotivNY office in SoHo, multiple times a week. That meant going after school, even on days when his friends begged him to hang out.
The trek to physical therapy was draining, but over time became second nature. A half-mile walk to the 125th Street station. Twenty-minute ride on the D train to Broadway-Lafayette. Another half-mile walk. Most of the time, Eric spent the commute catching up on sleep.
During his first few sessions, Eric was reserved, his communication largely limited to head nods. The days were long and his progress was slow, but he was determined.
“Sometimes you just have to keep the distractions away and focus on what you have to do to get better as a person,” Eric said. “I just took it as, ‘do this now, and live life later.’”
Physical therapist Jess Chang steadily worked with Eric and, in an effort to boost his morale, finished every session with a fist bump and a few words of encouragement. A soccer player herself, Chang incorporated her personal ball into Eric’s rehab. It was slow-going: At first, Eric only used the ball with his hands — to catch and practice his balance.
Eventually, during a later session, it was time to touch the ball with his feet, as he did on the field. As the two lightly passed the ball to each other, Eric began to smile uncontrollably. Soon, their goodbye fistbump tradition evolved, with Eric now the one initiating the fist bumps —not only with Chang but also with everyone he knew in the room.
“Seeing Eric open up like that, after putting in so much hard work for not just weeks, but months — and thinking about having to do that for a year or more — was truly such a beautiful moment,” Chang said.
From Sidelined to Star
Eric made his debut with the Red Bulls’ U15 squad on March 18, 2023, 392 days after his last match and one day before his 15th birthday. Since then, he’s been named Red Bulls Academy Player of the Month and his team has won the MLS NEXT Cup Tournament.
Since he joined the academy team, his schedule looks a bit different — practices are in New Jersey every weekday except for Wednesdays, and games are on weekends. During the school year, Eric used Wednesdays to focus on his learning by staying late and working with teachers on anything he has questions about.
But he’s not doing it alone. Eric carpools to practice with Yacouba, who was signed by the Red Bulls just one month after Eric’s injury. No one would have blamed Eric if Yacouba’s signing made the injury sting that much more. Instead, he used it as motivation.
“Yacouba has always been my guy, so I was so happy for him,” Eric said. “But there was a part of me that thought, “I’m next.”
In just a few months, Eric and Yacouba will begin their sophomore and junior years at HSLA–Harlem, respectively.
As Eric knows well, not every day is easy. But he has proven that every potential roadblock is just another opportunity to succeed.
“Eric is someone who, regardless of the obstacle, is going to find a way to figure it out,” said Enderson Mhilli, Eric’s former coach at SA Harlem North Central Middle School. “That’s a credit to his effort, as well as his family, the soccer program, and Success Academy.”