High-tech leg keeps soccer pro on field

8/1/2006

By Susan Christensen
Special to the Advocate

HATTIESBURG — Charlie McEwan was on Cloud 9 as he climbed aboard his motorcycle one morning in 1992. 

The night before, the 19-year-old South African had scored the winning goal in a professional soccer championship and was named most valuable player. So he was looking forward to rejoining his teammates for a light day of practice.  

But tragedy intervened at an intersection some 30 minutes from the soccer field. A driver ran a stop sign and rammed into McEwan. The accident forced doctors to amputate his lower right leg, and his fate was summed up in the morning headlines – Soccer Career Shattered. 

Thirteen years later, McEwan is still a threat on the soccer field. But nowadays he’s directing the action as a coach for the Hattiesburg Youth Soccer Association.

“On most teams I coach, nobody knows about my leg,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything to distract the kids.” 

It’s easy to see how McEwan keeps his hardware under wraps. Nothing stops him – not even busted equipment. When his artificial leg gave up the ghost during the last miles of the New York Marathon, he cobbled it together and hobbled to the finish line. 

In addition to running, McEwan plays tennis and golf and he just took up SCUBA diving. So he recently turned to the staff at Methodist Orthotics and Prosthetics in Hattiesburg to fit him with a leg that could keep pace with his active lifestyle. 

Methodist certified prosthetist Jennifer Long said he was long overdue for a more advanced prosthesis. “His old leg was heavy, it wasn’t fitting right and the suspension was horrible. He told me if someone tried to rob him, he wouldn’t be able to run away.” 

Like a lot of people who’ve worn a prosthesis for awhile, McEwan wasn’t aware of how components have progressed – until Long set him up with a high-tech Otto Bock Harmony system. 

“Technological advances happen so quickly in the prosthetic field that manufacturers are always coming out with something new,” she said. “We keep up with those improvements so we can recommend the best products for each person’s needs.” 

Long said the Harmony model was a good choice for McEwan because it has a vacuum system that provides enhanced suction and a more reliable fit. “This leg stays on when Charlie kicks the ball and runs,” Long said. Plus, it has a built-in shock absorber and a rotator that allows McEwan to pivot his foot. “We also gave him an energy-storing foot to get some spring in his step.”  

The upgrade helps McEwan keep up with his Youth-17 team, a close-knit group that first learned about his painful past last summer. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” said 17-year-old Dan Robertson, who has played for McEwan since 2003. “He said we were only the second team he had ever told.” 

The confession came during a special workout session on a Biloxi beach, and it definitely had the desired effect. “He really inspired everybody,” Robertson said. “I looked up to the guy already, and now I have even more respect. 

“It left me with the idea that it really is possible to do what you want to do … that what you put in, is what you get out. We all worked extra hard and we didn’t complain.” 

At the time of his accident, McEwan could have been forgiven for throwing a pity party. Playing professional soccer had been his dream since age 5. But seeing the pain in his parents’ eyes convinced him that he had to forge ahead. “My family is very close and I was more concerned about how they were going to deal with it,” he said. 

“I just carried on as I did before. I think because I was young and fit, I managed to have a decent gait. I was able to get a flex foot and run with it. And my activity level just got higher.” 

As has his tolerance for life’s little annoyances. “People really tend to make a meal of things when something goes wrong, but I try not to let things bother me. There’s always someone worse off than you are.” 

That laid-back attitude is one of the reasons McEwan is such a good coach, Robertson said. “Everything he says is constructive, everything that comes out of his mouth is going to help you – and not just in coaching. He’s the only coach who has ever told us: There’s more to life than just soccer.” 

For more information about Methodist Orthotics and Prosthetics, go to methodistonline.org.