Jeff Attinella #2, Memo Rodriguez, Timbers @ LA, 3.31.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

A weird shift: From cleared to play to self isolation to new baby on the way, Jeff Attinella "feels blessed"

“It’s been a really weird shift,” Jeff Attinella says, though as he has already conceded, there is a new context to the professional part of his life. “The gravity of everything going on in terms of the world, [it’s] something that is so much bigger than sports.” Within sports’ narrow focus, though, Attinella’s last 11 days have been more of a roller coaster than most.

On March 12, the day Major League Soccer eventually announced a suspension to its 2020 regular season, the Portland Timbers’ goalkeeper was back on the training field, participating in full practice for the first time in eight months. Surgery last July had left his shoulder immobilized, held together by pins, commencing a comeback that would prove more difficult than he originally envisioned.

That short time ago, his professional life was close to normal. His return to the field was a final audition before, hopefully, being fully cleared by the team’s medical staff. Barring an unforeseen setback, Attinella was about to become an unhindered, fully functional player, once more.

Then, the soccer stopped. Beginning a series of steps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Soccer suspended its season. Days later, teams’ training centers would close, with the league eventually extending the season’s delay beyond its initial 30 days. With MLS on pause, Attinella’s comeback is paused, too.

“[For so long,] My main focus was getting back to the field,” he said, “and once I got back to the field, it was just like, alright, immediately shift your focus to family, shift your focus to doing what you can to try to help people through this time. To be honest, I haven’t even fully grasped the irony of being cleared the day that the season gets postponed.”

By the time Attinella finished training that Thursday, the writing was on the wall. Through one outlet, the news had already broke. Perhaps Attinella’s soccer life was to return to normal, but to what end? In a world of social distancing – where all non-essential contact was about to be discouraged – how do you even go about getting a doctor to clear you?

“I felt really good about where I was at,” he says. “I was really good, comfortable back in net. I was so excited to announce I was going to be cleared that Friday. And then when all that news just dropped, everything took a backseat, and it went from the excitement of being cleared to trying to figure out if I could get cleared via phone call or via FaceTime, so that I didn’t have to go to the doctor for fear of not doing the social distancing and being around an environment that wasn’t controlled.”

For a professional goalkeeper, a shoulder has peculiar importance. Ten out of 11 players on a soccer field could play without moving their arms. Perhaps they wouldn’t play as well, but they could play. For a goalkeeper, though, the joint is essential. Beyond extending arms and providing the power for penalty-box brawls, shoulders absorb a body’s fall every time a `keeper goes to ground. On a player’s dominant side, it’s the engine behind every throw. In emergencies, it’s the barrier that keeps an oncoming attacker from a `keeper’s prized possession: the ball. A major surgery to that part of the body renders a goalkeeper’s career rebooted.

Within this moment, though, it would be a bit strange if Attinella was dwelling on his shoulder, and not only because of the COVID-19 precautions Oregon is undertaking. Those precautions are part of another reality, one Attinella and his wife, Kendall, have been preparing for since near the time of his shoulder surgery. In the coming weeks, the parents of one – a daughter, three-year-old Remy – are expecting a second child, with Kendall now in a window where delivery could begin at any moment.

“We’re on high alert over here,” he says. “It’s super-strange to be expecting. It’s normally a time where you’re nervous for the lack of sleep, or ‘I hope my dog and the new baby get along when they first meet.’ Now it’s a different type of nervous that I don’t think many people ever have to deal with.”

Attinella’s word, flattened by a transcription, could be read as carrying trepidation. They don’t. On the contrary, the late stages of his wife’s pregnancy have forced the family to be especially attuned to the public health’s. Their new world isn’t a drastic change. It’s one they’ve lived in for weeks. While lives in the Portland area began changing within the last two weeks, the Attinellas had adopted social distancing practices before they became the norm.

“When you’re having a new baby, you’re kind of on the lookout for things that are going on healthwise, anyway,” he explained. “For Kendall and I, this is something that we’ve been taking note of and diligently washing our hands, and trying to stay out of crowded places. We’ve been doing this for three and a half, four weeks now.”

Even under normal circumstances, that extra time with the world at arm’s length would give Attinella a unique perspective. But his perspective also comes after a run-in with his athletic mortality; after that mortality was faced with news of another child’s arrival; and after a fight to get back on the field was paused in its later rounds.

“I’m excited to get back on the field whenever that is, but my surgery process – having to deal with the step forwards and the steps back; getting cleared by the doctor but the season gets suspended – the wave of emotions that I’ve had to deal with through the whole process has put me in a better position to be prepared for what we’re going through as a family,” he says. “Right now, it is such a wave of things. Things feel like they’re getting better, but then this happens.”

He knows the parallels aren’t perfect, but there were lessons throughout his recovery. There were questions. There were doubts. He had to address each of those to get back to the field. With a second child, the questions will be different – and the questions the world is facing, now, are from a separate, incomparable world – but the process to answer each is similar. You don’t start with solutions, but you have to on in order to find them

“It’s something I dealt with all throughout the surgery process,” he admits. “I’m trying to apply that to life at home, right now, with the family, too. I learned a lot through the recovery process. It made me feel like I’m prepared for this moment.”

In the coming days, Jeff and Kendall will temporarily leave the unknown COVID-19’s given us, briefly return to a place they’ve been before: the moments before a blessing; when their lives will change forever; and the happiness they felt when Remy arrived is renewed. In the years that follow, they’ll tell stories of their second child's birth, as well as the unique, temporary world that was. Within that tale, though, the perils of now won’t be the stars. The stars will be the Attinellas, and their family growing from three to four.

“Kendall and I spent a lot of nights talking about it, that this is such a unique position ...,” he says. “This is such a big issue, it’s so much bigger than anybody in the world has had to deal with. But Kendall and I actually feel super blessed that we’re adding to our family …”

Blessed, and thankful. “We’ve been enjoying our time at home,” he admits, reverential of the past weeks with his wife and daughter. He had a similar spell after his surgery, albeit a spell with one functioning arm. Now, he’s fully healthy, as are Remy and Kendall. Like the rest of us, they’re in isolation, but they’re in the isolation of their home, where circumstances have given Attinella a chance to savor the moment.

“Everybody in the country, everybody in the world could be sitting at home with their families and not going anywhere, and you have nothing to do,” he says. “If that’s your situation, you can try to make the most of it. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re really trying to take the time to create memories and enjoy the little things you take for granted when the world is going on around you.”

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