In a matter of weeks, Charlotte Independence defender Clay Dimick went from pure elation to utter disappointment and uncertainty. Dimick was the hero in the Independence’s win against Greenville Triumph SC on July 19, 2023, scoring the game-winning goal in the final moments of stoppage time. Just 10 days later, Dimick began feeling pain in his neck after the team’s game against Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC. This feeling began an arduous battle for Dimick and his family.
“I’ve never been injured before,” Dimick shared. “The worst injury I’ve had was a sprained ankle, so I thought this would heal itself in a couple weeks or maybe at worst get a quick surgery and be back by playoffs.”
As he faced more symptoms, starting with tingling through his arms and legs, Dimick began to realize this was no simple injury. The ultimate sign that the issue was serious came when Dimick was at practice doing a drill with hurdles, and he could not lift his left leg above the hurdle. This was not an injury that had a simple fix, and he needed to see a doctor.
In his first appointment with a neurosurgeon, the doctor told him, “If you were my son or my brother, I wouldn’t let you play again because the surgery you need to get is very intense.”
“I’m not much of a cryer and my wife will tell you that, but I broke down,” Dimick said. “It was scary because I have two kids at home, I have a wife and so much more after soccer, so to think about how my career was being taken away and how active I could be after this was scary.”
Not willing to accept this fate quite yet, Dimick decided to see another specialist for a second opinion. After all, this was a life-changing decision.
The second specialist suggested a two-level cervical artificial disc replacement. In this procedure, the two ruptured discs are removed and replaced with fake discs. This surgery provides patients with a better lifestyle after recovery compared to the fusion surgery originally suggested which inserts screws and rods in place of the discs.
No professional athletes have ever returned to playing after a two-level cervical artificial disc replacement. Two National Hockey League players have undergone a one-level version of this procedure and returned to the ice successfully, but the two-level replacement is unprecedented for professional athletes.
There were never any guarantees that Dimick would play again, but this surgery provided him the best chance to continue playing the sport he loves.
The surgery and recovery itself is a heavy weight on any family, but for the Dimick family, the circumstances were even more complex. Dimick’s second son was born two weeks before the initial injury occurred.
“All the moms, all the women, all the wives out there know that postpartum is serious,” Dimick expressed. “My heart hurt because I couldn’t be the dad and husband that I wanted to be. The doctor had advised me not to bend over to pick up our kids because with how compressed the spinal cord was, any type of strong reaction could have caused my neck to do something irreversible, and I would have lost function forever.”
Following the surgery, Dimick was bedridden with specific instructions on how much standing and walking he was allowed to do per day. Dimick’s wife, Cat, helped him with eating, using the restroom, and taking medications while also caring for their two sons.
“I’m just so grateful for who my wife is, and Cat took it like a champ,” Dimick commented. “It definitely took its toll on us as a family, but I think we came out stronger.”
Three things most people never bat an eye at during the day: using a fork, zipping a zipper, and walking in a straight line. These were all things Dimick had to teach the left side of his body to do again. Physical therapy was physically and emotionally challenging at times, especially at the beginning when the physical therapist had to move Dimick’s arms and legs to retrain them since he could not move the limbs himself.
“I was learning all these things that I’ve been doing for years, but I never think about it,” Dimick explained. “It was definitely an uphill battle because before the surgery, I didn’t know how much I lost, physically and neurologically. When I realized how much I had lost and was starting to go through physical therapy, it was like I was starting at ground zero on my left side. It was really humbling. I tried to be patient, but I’m not really the most patient, so humility was definitely something I needed and was given by the grace of God.”
These challenges fueled Dimick’s motivation to return to the pitch. The other motivation during the recovery process: his family. One of the biggest milestones for Dimick was when he was allowed to hold his children again.
“As a dad, you don’t really think about that because you do it everyday, but when it gets taken away from you, it’s a gut check, and you just want to hug them and hold them, so when I was cleared to do that, that was special,” Dimick shared.
The moment finally came in mid-January when Dimick was cleared by team doctors and his neurosurgeon to fully play soccer again. He spent the off season training with other local professional players to refine his skills again.
The Independence officially began preseason training on February 1, marking Dimick’s return to the pitch with his teammates. After the most successful finish in club history in 2023, there is more motivation than ever to win a championship this year. Although Dimick may have an altered perspective on this season on a personal level, he remains focused on the team’s goal to win a title for this club.
“The coaching staff and the owners, everyone in the club really, was super supportive and just really nice in how they went about it,” Dimick expressed. “They gave me my space when I needed it, but they were there when I needed them as well. I can’t thank them enough from Dan and Jim all the way to Mike and the staff and my teammates. Everybody knew what I needed and knew what would help me, so I can’t thank them enough because I never would have gotten through it as positively as I did without them.”
There’s unfinished business in 2024.