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Elli Stafford’s Never Say Die Spirit

Elli Stafford smiles a bit when asked if she has ever been stopped at an airport security check point for setting off the metal detector.

“No. Not yet,” Elli Stafford said with a laugh.

Stafford, now 17, a co-captain on the Williamsville North Lady Spartans is one of the most skilled and highly regarded players in the state.

Already committed to play for DII power house Edinboro University, Stafford is looking forward to continuing down the road that is leading her to her childhood dream of playing collegiate soccer.

But when Elli Stafford looks in the rear view mirror she sees more than endless hours or practices, games and miles of traveling that got her to this moment.

She sees the battle of a lifetime. A battle that has made her the fearless young woman she is today.

At age seven, Elli was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine that afflicts roughly 1% of the population in the United States.

Of that 1%, only one-tenth require some kind of special treatment or surgery. Elli’s curvature was so alarming that she fell into that category. She had to wear a rigid back-brace for 23 hours a day, every day for four years until she was 11 years old.

“The spine stops growing at age 11,” said Elli’s mom, Lisa Stafford. “So she couldn’t have the surgery until her spine stopped growing. When she turned 11, that summer, she had surgery.”

Sleeping, sitting, walking, eating, reading, watching T.V., whatever she did Elli was locked in her brace. Elli said after about a year the brace became a familiar part of her day and grew used to having it on. But those first few months were very challenging. Elli not only dealt with the discomfort of the brace, mentally and emotionally she was dealing with the fear and uncertainty of what was happening to her body. Elli’s only wish was that she could be like every other kid her age.

“At first I felt restricted. I couldn’t be a normal kid. I couldn’t play on the playground with all my friends. Run up and down hills,” Elli Stafford said.

“After a year I wouldn’t want to take it off. I needed it tighter all the time because I got so used to it.”

But when Elli turned 11 and the time came to seriously start planning the surgery the Stafford’s found themselves facing an unexpected hurdle. The local doctor they had been seeing for nearly four years projected that after surgery Elli wouldn’t be able to play soccer for at least a year. For Elli, 12 months without the game that made her tick was unthinkable.

“‘What am I gonna do? I love soccer. I’m not having the surgery,'” Lisa Stafford said, as she recalled Elli’s protest.

“I said Elli you really need to have this surgery. Your curve is up to 58 degrees. It will be very harmful for you if you do not have the surgery.”

But Elli, the eldest of Lisa and Neil Stafford’s three kids, which also includes Lily and Adam, didn’t budge.

She held strong to objection to surgery and refusing to miss a year of soccer. So the Stafford’s found themselves in search of a second opinion from Dr. Paul Rubery at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Who estimated a much quicker recovery period of just three months. A time table that pleasantly stunned the Staffords.

So, at the age 11, Elli underwent surgery in July in which two stainless steel rods and several screws were inserted into her back.

Knowing that Elli was an active soccer player, Dr. Rubery initially didn’t want to go too far up Elli’s spine, because he wanted to allow her the needed flexibility in her upper body/neck to play the game. The hope was that the final part of Elli’s spine up to where the fusion stopped would fall into place naturally.

But when that did not occur Elli faced the reality of having to go in for a second surgery.

Elli returned to Strong Memorial in October for a second procedure in which the rods and screws were removed and redone. Elli now has two stainless steel rods and 18 screws in her back that stretch from the T-2 Bone near her neck down to the L-1 Bone by her lower back.

Elli said that through it all Rubery, and other doctors, had always been encouraging and tried to assure her that she would still be able to play soccer and continue to live a normal life. Still though, there were times, especially alone in quiet moments, when Elli couldn’t help but wonder if the game she loved so much was being ripped from her world.

“There was always a part of me that thought I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play again,” Elli Stafford said.

The October surgery was a full success and, just as Rubery promised, Elli was back on the field 12 weeks later.

“The first day back on the field in practice, everyone was worried about her back,” Neil Stafford recalled.

“I turned my head for a second and I heard the (other) parents yelling out ‘go get Elli!’ I’m thinking something really bad happened. I look over she’s holding her nose and blood is streaming down. One of her teammates broke her nose swinging an errant arm or fist-I looked at her and I said ‘oh she’s ok. It’s just her nose.'”

While the Staffords could laugh off that moment as being minor compared to what Elli had gone through, the true test that Elli was her old self was in a scrimmage a few days later. Elli, one of the most skilled and toughest defenders in WNY, made a textbook slide tackle on the girl she was marking, then rolled into a somersault, and popped back up to her feet without any issues. While Elli’s recovery of 12 weeks was remarkably quick it was still by no means easy. As even just a short walk from the front door to the mailbox seemed like a daunting task. Her recovery period also saw Elli get a bout of pneumonia, because she had spent so much time on her back.

With the tenacity of ten pit bulls packed into her 5-foot-3, 130 pound frame, It’s a common sight to see Elli go toe-to-toe with bigger girls on the field without ever backing down. Elli showed that same desire during her recovery. Before she knew it, small, steady walks to the front of the house were gradually transitioning into longer walks around the block.

A member of Empire United at the time, Elli would make every single practice, in her Empire gear, and would do whatever she could to contribute to the team.

From her support network of family, friends, classmates, teammates and long time friend and teammate Tahelah Noel, who now plays at Valporiso, Elli said she can’t say enough thank you’s to everyone who helped get her through those difficult days.

Especially John Opfer, her trainer from Proformance Sports, who pushed Elli to her limits and never stopped believing in her.

“He was the one who said ‘never say never. You can’t give up,'” Elli Stafford said. “‘This is where you want to be and you’re gonna get there.'”

Passionate about photography, taking photos of his kids, especially Elli playing soccer, has been a long time hobby of Neil’s. Thinking back to a hot July day when the family was in Fairport for Elli’s final tournament before her first surgery, Neil said he was feverishly documenting that game with hundreds of photos. He wanted to capture every moment possible because he feared this might be Elli’s last game ever. But it wasn’t. Elli simply would not allow it. Moving forward in her career, Elli, who has also battled through knee injuries, has played for respected programs like WNY Flash, the Olympic Development Program as well as the Next Level Soccer Academy (N.J.) and Whitby Soccer Club (Canada).

Whenever Elli steps on the field, Neil and Lisa Stafford can’t help but smile. Not just with pride at what their daughter does on the field, but more so at the spirit that wouldn’t allow her to let go of something that means so much to her.

“I think every time Lisa and I watch her on the field it’s crazy,” Neil Stafford said. “It’s a miracle.”

The Staffords also think back to a letter Elli wrote to Neil when she was in fourth grade. In this letter Elli thanked Neil for “being her coach” and how her dream was to be a pro soccer player. Completely fearless to shoot for any goal she sets her heart on, Elli Stafford is living proof that playing sports does not build character. Sports reveal it.

“It’s a proven fact and you can’t tell me otherwise,” Elli Stafford said. “Don’t give up. I can’t be more thankful for how everything went.”

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