By Jerry Durney
If you ask any soccer player what his or her ideal final competitive game would look like, you’ll get a variety of answers: the match-winning goal, the perfect pass, the center back shutting down every attack, a player-of-the-match performance while controlling the game from midfield. No matter the outcome, they all want the same thing: to leave the game saying, “I gave everything I could.”
Everything changed for Leon Feb. 7, 2021. After the fall season had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortened spring season was just a month away. Leon was riding through Orlando with a friend whom she was visiting when another car drove through a red light and hit the side of the car.
Due to anterograde amnesia, a temporary condition that often stems from the physical trauma of a car accident, Leon does not remember much about the crash, which she considers a blessing. In the week following, her parents had to frequently explain to her the events that had brought her to the ICU, followed by another week in an inpatient therapy center.
In addition to a major concussion, Leon also suffered a cracked vertebra, a shattered disc in her back and nerve damage that caused lost motor function in her right leg for nearly a month. She says the experience was like learning to walk again because the muscle memory simply wasn’t there for a time.
As her condition improved in the following weeks, Leon and her family naturally began to wonder when or if she could play soccer again. Unfortunately, they received the answer they had feared: no soccer.
Leon felt like she had been sent back to square one. She had recently recovered from an ACL injury, but this time, not only would she have to undergo the grueling physical process of building her body back up to where it was before the accident, but she would be doing it without the reward of knowing that she could get back on the pitch at the end of the process. She credits her therapy team at Orlando Regional Medical Center for helping her stay resolute throughout her rehabilitation.
“Most of the same people who knew me from the prior recovery, I was very comfortable with, very open and honest about how I was feeling,” she says. “In addition to the physical toll, it took such a mental toll on me because I was removed completely from school, from my day-to-day, and I was not able to do anything for myself—it was very, very tough.”
While Leon was completing her demanding physical recovery, she also began to wonder what would be next for her without the potential of taking the field for Florida Tech again to look forward to. It was during this time that her teammates helped forge her new path.
“I was actually very lucky to have this group of women around me. They’re all so wonderful and amazing and were very patient with me, with my recovery process, as well as supportive,” Leon says. “They were constantly texting me, calling me, visiting me, just making sure I still felt very involved in soccer and involved in my social life, as well, because that was a very good outlet.”
Despite the accident, for the past two seasons, you could still regularly find Leon at Rick Stottler Field, practicing with the team and going through different types of agility and passing drills—not only helping her heal physically but also setting an incredible example for the squad.
“She’s so loud, so supportive on the bench during games. I mean, when we come off the field at the end of the game, and we all walk across to salute our fans, you’d think she played; she puts that much energy on the sideline,” says head coach Ryan Moon. “She is a fantastic teammate, and when she is able to warm up with us, she’s always pushing, and the quality she brings and her technical side is very good.”
Moon highly regards Leon’s contributions to the team, which was a national quarterfinalist in 2021 and has reached the Sunshine State Conference final in each of the past two seasons.
“She sets high standards for herself, and I think just by doing that, she sets an example for the team,” he says. “She’s working nights at her job and then coming out to a 7:30 a.m. practice, sometimes straight from the hospital. A lot of the players see that, and the energy and commitment speaks for itself.”
You read that right. In addition to the demands of being a student at Florida Tech and her commitment to the team, Leon also works as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne. Regularly working in the surgical ICU, Leon draws from her own experience in assisting patients.
“No one’s happy in the ICU, at all,” she says. “I think it’s very important to validate what the patient is feeling and tell them, ‘I totally understand what you’re going through because that was me, as well, and this is really hard right now. I know you’re in a lot of pain and there are a lot of emotions you’re going through right now, but it’s up from here.’”
On April 26, Leon was awarded the Martha Work Sportsmanship Award at Florida Tech’s annual Scholars Champions Leaders Award Ceremony. The award is presented to a scholar-athlete who exhibits respect, courtesy and restraint in his or her actions and remains positive in pursuit of excellence.
It didn’t seem real to her at first, Leon says, but true to who she is, Leon made sure to note that there were others just like her who could share in the recognition.
“I’m very grateful that people can recognize the work that I put in, and not only me, but also other athletes who are injured or on the sidelines,” she says. “It was super heartwarming.”
Leon’s drive and attitude are as valuable as any skill or physical attribute, Moon says.
“I think, sometimes, when you look at programs, no matter what the sport, the tendency is to look at what happens on the field—the achievements and stats, and those things,” he says. “But I think, sometimes, the real linchpins of the team can be outside of that, and I put Bella into that category. She’s so important to our program. Whether it’s for the players she’s come through with or new players getting involved, she sets an example that’s second to none, and I think that’s something that every coach wants to have in their team.”
This piece was featured in the fall 2023 edition of Florida Tech Magazine.