MILL CREEK — Ed Rosenthal is sprinting up the field in pursuit of a soccer ball when he crashes hard to the turf, 15 feet in front of the goal.
Almost as quickly as he fell, the 64-year-old gathers his crutches — he calls them his “sticks” — and gets up, back on his left foot, steadying himself for a run back to the other side of the field.
Rosenthal momentarily lost his balance. He hasn’t lost the perspective of a man who has lived the majority of his life with only one leg.
“We’re not fragile,” said Rosenthal, a former player for the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team. “Just like any other athlete, you get up and you start chasing the guy with the ball. You can figure out later if you’re hurt.”
It’s a lesson he is hoping to pass on to a new generation of amputee soccer players. Rosenthal, the director of Northwest Youth Amputee Soccer, will host a free introductory clinic for kids who have experienced limb loss from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Friday at Arena Sports in Mill Creek.
His goals aren’t about developing skills to shoot a soccer ball into a net. It never really has been for Rosenthal. For him, the pursuit is the goal; the achievement is trying.
And that initial leap, he says, can be a daunting hurdle for some amputees — or for parents who might be reluctant to let their child play.
Speaking from his own experiences, Rosenthal said discovering amputee soccer was liberating.
The sport was born in Seattle in the early 1980s. The idea came to Donald Bennett, a Mercer Island resident who was watching his kids play basketball. He was on his crutches, standing on his good leg, when he instinctively kicked the basketball back on the court. If he could kick a basketball, he realized, he could play soccer.
Soon, coed teams were organized in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia, and they regularly played each other. Prosthetic limbs are not used in amputee soccer. Field players are missing either a leg or a foot, and they propel themselves on runs using their hands and forearms on their crutches, which cannot be used to touch the ball.
Bennett, still living in the Seattle area, is now in his 90s, and Rosenthal extended an invitation to Bennett to attend the clinic on Friday.
“This is a chance for us to get together and recreate,” Rosenthal said. “And I think when you see other people with limb loss running around on crutches, and maybe you thought you were fragile — this helps you rethink that proposition. Some people might look at this as the chance to get into a really cool, competitive sport that’s played internationally and has a World Cup.
“But my intent is more about just opening up people’s hearts and giving them a chance to play a little bit and have some fun together.”
Rosenthal lost his right leg in 1987 after a motorcycle accident on Interstate 5 near Northgate Mall. One of his nurses at Harborview Medical Center, Dee Malchow, was an amputee herself, and she introduced him to soccer.
He wound up playing for the U.S. amputee national team at the 1992 World Cup in Uzbekistan, and again as a 44-year-old midfielder when the World Cup came to Seattle in 2000, with a number of international events mixed in.
“It sounds strange,” he said, “but it wasn’t a setback in the way that most people would think it is. And that just has to do with my lived experience. What I got more than anything (from soccer) was fellowship from these people. They were living a rich life. And being an amputee wasn’t the defining aspect of their lives; it was an act of their lives. And this is why I get so jazzed up about helping kids because I was a young man … and I was fortunate to be fairly healthy through the whole thing.
“I think for kids, it’s really about, hey, let’s open that door and have them realize, ‘Oh, I can live a full rich life — I can pretty much do anything.’”
The quote Wayne Gretzky made famous — “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” — has resonated for Rosenthal, and it has in many ways been a guiding force in his life. His wife of 37 years, Jill, has been an enthusiastic supporter — and occasional participant — in “Ed’s activities.” And there have been many of those beyond soccer.
He took up body building in his 50s and won a regional 40-and-over open division competition — at the age of “59 and a half.” A few years ago, he ran 8 1/2 miles down Mt. Baker. He retired a few years ago after selling his small technology consulting company, and he and Jill take regular hikes at the expansive Lord Hill Park near their five-acre property outside Snohomish.
In 2018, at 62, he got an itch to pick up soccer again — so he went and tried out for the national team once more, after years away from the sport.
“This is the way I am,” he said. “My brain said, ‘You should do this.’ And I said, ‘OK, do it.’ I don’t think, ‘Oh, you’re 62, you’re hypertensive, et cetera.’ I’m just like, ‘I can do this.’ And, you know, it’s fun as hell.”
He didn’t make the team. Two hours into the first day of tryouts, he pulled a hamstring in his left leg. He played on anyway.
“The people at the upper levels of the sport are remarkably agile and quick and fast,” he said. “They can do things with a soccer ball that you almost can’t imagine they could do.”
The new connections he made during the tryout reengaged him in the sport, and prompted his work with Northwest Youth Amputee Soccer. His outreach with kids is his attempt to pay forward the confidence and camaraderie the sport gave him. He’s trying, always trying.
“I’ll tell you, that feeling of getting with other people who are joyful and running around on the field, for a new amputee that can be really transformative,” he said. “It certainly re-energized me.”