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Mexico City Nightmare: A Father's Worst Fear

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You never want your phone to ring after midnight.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Godfrey?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"My name is Dr. Amini from Prince George's Hospital Center in Maryland. Your son Jack was assaulted tonight and suffered a serious injury to his head -- a massive subdural hematoma. We're going to have to perform an emergency craniotomy. We're going to remove a portion of his skull to alleviate the swelling and then insert that piece of skull in his abdomen. Do you understand me?"

"Is he going to be OK?"

"Your son is in very, very critical condition. You need to get here as soon as possible."

A conversation like the above is horrifying anytime, anywhere, and under any circumstance. But when it's 1:45 a.m. and you're in Mexico City with your wife and you've just filed your story on the United States men's soccer team's scoreless draw against Mexico and you're beyond exhausted and you don't speak Spanish and your return flight to the U.S. isn't scheduled for another four days and you can't believe what you've just heard, the initial wave of nausea quickly transforms into a feeling of desperation and paralyzing helplessness.

A number of people have asked me why I was not in Columbus, Ohio, for Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Mexico.

This is why.

Pacing the floor of our tiny boutique hotel room in the Roma district of Mexico City, I struggled to gather my thoughts. My wife, Jack's stepmother, tried to comfort me. But what can you say or do in a situation like this? I knew I had to find the next flight back to the East Coast. I started there.

I called Delta, but the toll-free number didn't work. Neither did any of the other numbers I had with me.

I tried going online to book a ticket on the next flight I could find. But the hotel's WiFi wasn't cooperating.

I heard myself making involuntary moaning sounds. I was outside of my body, commenting on my pointless behavior, and yet incapable of stopping it.

Thinking, thinking, panicking, thinking. How do we get back?

It was now after 2 a.m. on Wednesday March 27. I knew the United States soccer team's charter flight was probably leaving early Wednesday morning. I had no idea if it was possible, but I thought maybe we could hitch a ride.

So, I called the U.S. Soccer Federation's Senior Manager of Communications, Neil Buethe. He had been in the press area with the media throughout the match, providing in-game updates and other information. It rang. He picked up. And then I explained my situation.

The upshot: Neil was a lifesaver. He said that while he wasn't sure he could get us on the charter, he would do everything in his power to make it happen. He told me we had to be at the hotel by 3 a.m. at the absolute latest so our passports could be processed for the private plane. It was 2:15 a.m.. The team hotel was about a half-hour away. We could make it.

Five minutes later we were loaded up and heading to join the team's charter.

Or so we thought.

After a few minutes on the road, nothing looked familiar. I had just come from the team hotel a few hours earlier, and while hardly an expert on navigating the D.F., everything felt wrong.

And then I saw a sign for the airport. I realized we were going in the exact opposite direction.

The cab driver didn't speak any English, and even though we told him the name of the hotel three times, he saw our luggage and assumed we were heading to the airport. Wrong. So we doubled back. And I checked the time. And I yelled as gently as I could for the driver to please hurry up.

We made it the hotel just in time to hand over our passports for the return trip to the States. We were going to make the flight. We were going to be back to the U.S. as quickly as possible -- faster than my wife and I could have possibly imagined.

As relieved as we were, the next few hours were torturous. Waiting in the lobby for the U.S. Soccer Federation bus to take a handful of us to the airport, there was little to do besides sit and worry. Neil helped us find a connecting flight, and even offered to put it on his personal credit card. The hospital called at one point to tell us that Jack was being prepped for surgery. I gave them several opportunities to reassure me about his condition. They didn't.

Finally, just as the sun was rising, we boarded the bus and headed toward the airport. Michael Kammarman, the U.S. Soccer Federation Press Officer, came over and offered his support. The players, coaches and a few executives were in a separate bus, just ahead of ours.

Our daredevil police escorts helped both buses navigate the Mexico City traffic -- which was already building even though it was still only 6 a.m. Thanks to our motorcycle assist, we got to the airport quickly and slid into a side entrance at Benito Juárez International, circumventing the typical airport madness and congestion. Everybody piled out of the buses to go through immigration.

And it was there, while waiting in line behind Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez, Jozy Altidore and the rest of the national team, that I got the call I had been waiting for. Jack had come through the procedure successfully. Though still in extremely serious condition, the skull flap was removed, the hematoma was evacuated, and he was now out of surgery.

The physician's assistant never used the word "stable" during our conversation, but her tone was impossible to miss: this was good news.

I hadn't shed a tear up until that point, but I instantly started sobbing uncontrollably.
I don't know how long I was shaking in my wife's arms, or whether I made any audible noises during this time, but when I regained my composure and looked up, I couldn't help but notice that quite a few people were watching me. I caught Michael Bradley's sympathetic gaze just before he looked away.

I didn't care.

My son, I was now convinced, was going to live.

After we passed through immigration and approached the chartered plane, Tom King, U.S. Soccer's Managing Director of Administration, introduced himself to my wife and I. He asked if there was anything he could do, he expressed his profound sympathy for our situation, and he made sure we were treated like VIPs.

Like Neil and Michael before him, Tom was just incredible. I will never forget the compassion they showed us that day.

I'm not the rah-rah type. I call it like I see it and I never hesitate to critique the team when I think it's warranted. And these three men all treated me like a member of their extended family. Their generosity was, and is, greatly appreciated.

Jack is doing much better now. When my wife and I arrived by his side later that day, he was breathing through a ventilator, wearing a C-spine, and was so drugged up that he couldn't communicate with us.

But since those first few dreadful days, he has rebounded remarkably well. A steady stream of medical professionals have used the words "miracle" and "miraculous" to describe his recovery. He was in Prince George's Hospital Center's Intensive Care Unit for seven days. He was then moved to a step-down ward for two days before being transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C., where he stayed for an additional eight days. And then he came home, to New York, where he spent the summer rehabbing, recuperating, and seeing more specialists than I care to count.

Jack now has a prosthetic skull covering his right temporal lobe, attached by titanium screws, that covers approximately 25 percent of the surface area of his skull. He has had two MRIs, two neurosurgeries and so many CT scans we've lost count. He has a 16-inch oblong scar across the top of his skull.

A criminal trial awaits us in October, and the man who viciously attacked my son will soon face the consequences of his actions.

But the biggest post-script in all of this is that Jack, my 20-year-old child, a student at the University of Maryland, returned to school last week. He's taking a lighter course load than usual, but he's back in the game -- long before most of us thought he would be. His favorite class this semester? Journalism: Sportswriting and Reporting.

As for me, I still jump a little every time my cellphone rings at a strange hour, but I'm moving closer to normal every day. Jack is doing better, which means I am too.

And that's why I decided not to travel to Columbus for yesterday's big World Cup qualifying showdown.

I've had my fill of U.S. vs. Mexico matches this year. I needed to sit this one out.

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now.