Painful journey teaches Godly lesson

PLAINVIEW – Elyse Newland has been through a lot in the last two years. From being a highly recruited, starting point guard on a three-time state championship basketball team to a pair of knee surgeries, being dropped from recruiters’ lists and a rude awakening in the “real world,” Newland has had her share of ups and downs.

But with strong character and deep commitment to God and her beliefs, Newland has weathered her personal storm as she currently stands at a crossroads. With her basketball career on the line, facing the possibility of not playing again competitively, Newland is prepared to accept whatever decision must be made.

A sophomore at Wayland Baptist University, Newland signed a letter of intent to play basketball for the Flying Queens this fall, but continuing problems with a knee injury she has been fighting for two years could put her basketball career on hold, or bring it to an end all together.

As a senior at Plainview High School, playing for coach Danny Wrenn, Newland was excited about the chance to help her team defend its state championship in 2002-03. Wrenn had high expectations for his point guard and she accepted the challenge, opening the season at a torrid pace. Four games into the year, however, things changed. Newland was driving for a breakaway lay-up at Amarillo High during a game in which she dominated the guard play. When she came down, Newland landed awkwardly, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. While the basket was good, her night and much of her season were over.

“When I first hurt it, I was real confused,” said Newland, recalling the event. “I felt like I was playing decent. … When it happened it was really hard, but God showed me patience.”

Newland finished the season, playing sparingly on an injured knee. After winning her third straight state title, she had knee surgery and then prepared to face unanswered questions. Prior to tearing her ACL, Newland had been recruited by several colleges and universities, but they all dropped her from their lists once she was injured.

So, Newland turned to the only college that continued to show an interest in her, signing to play with Dodge City Community College in Dodge City, Kan. While she says signing with DCCC was the right thing to do, she was unaware of what she was about to face. Growing up in a Christian home as a member of College Heights Baptist Church, playing for a Christian coach with Christian teammates, Newland was shocked by what she experienced when she reached Dodge City.

“Dodge City was a whole new experience,” she said. “A lot of people drank and guys slept in dorms they weren’t supposed to sleep in. They used my shower in the morning. There were no morals there.”

Her first morning at a new school in a new town, was a new experience. Sharing a dorm room with her roommate and two suite mates, it was no surprise that Newland had to wait on the shower. What was a surprise, however, was that she had to wait on a man.

“I was so mad,” Newland explained. She told the stranger to get out and go to his own bathroom. After he had gone, she immediately called her mother. It was a call Newland would make many times over the next few months as her family and friends back home became a constant source of support for her.

Newland’s roommate was a foreign student who had never been exposed to Christianity and whose beliefs clashed with what Newland believed. She was playing for a coach whose leadership style was totally different than the Christian leadership she had grown accustomed to from coach Wrenn and she was on a team with girls who partied seemingly every night, drank and weren’t afraid to express their sexuality.

Newland and one other member of the basketball team never participated in the wild activities of her teammates and while she got along with them and liked them, her actions were a source of ridicule and scorn.

“A lot of people thought I was a ‘goodie-two-shoes.’ They always made fun of me for not doing other stuff, but I just kept to what I believe in,” Newland said.

On many evenings, the team would load a bus, affectionately termed the “party bus,” and drive out and park somewhere and have a party. Newland’s choosing not to join them became a point of contention.

“They would get mad at me for not going,” she said. “They wouldn’t talk to me for a week just because I wouldn’t go. But I wasn’t going to put myself in that position.”

Newland wasn’t immune to the pain, however. Many days were filled with tears for the 18-year-old, but she found a way, not only to deal with the issues personally, but to have a major impact on her surroundings.

While her teammates were out, Newland would stay in her dorm room and study her Bible. She found a good church and became friends with the pastor and his family and the elderly members who would bring her cookies. She also relied on her assistant coach who was very supportive, something she never felt from the head coach.

One day, after a profanity-filled tirade directed at the team, Newland decided to speak to her coach.

“I was crying because I had never had a coach cuss at me,” she explained. “We did something wrong and he told us to get on the baseline and he started cussing … every word you could think of. … After practice I just asked him if it was necessary to tear us down like that.”

That was the last time the coach did something like that in Newland’s presence.

Although Newland admits she is not perfect, her Christian witness began to wear on her teammates as well. As the team was eating at Braum’s one day, Newland’s roommate began to question them about their Christianity. Several of the teammates professed to be Christians.

Newland was not afraid to say that she didn’t believe in drinking, partying and premarital sex. Her roommate then turned to the rest of the team. After a long discussion about their behavior, Newland’s roommate finally questioned the team about the kind of example they were setting for others.

Newland hopes the questions made her teammates stop and think about their behavior, but as it turns out, she wasn’t at Dodge City long enough to determine the impact.

In early January 2004, Newland once again hurt her knee, sending her to the sidelines. She returned to Plainview to have it evaluated, expecting to be able to continue to play after two or three weeks of rehabilitation. The news wasn’t good, however, as a partial tear of the repaired knee meant she was out for the remainder of the season.

Newland had no desire to return to Dodge City if she could not play basketball.

“That was the only thing that kept me there,” she said. “If I went up there and couldn’t play, it would have been horrible.”

As she left Dodge to return to Plainview to have her knee evaluated, her coach’s parting words to her hit home. He said she wouldn’t be back, making Newland feel unappreciated. She knew, however, it would make her decision about returning much easier.

“I could tell God didn’t want me to return,” she said.

Newland, whose mother, Darla Newland, and older sister, Cassie McLain, both graduated from Wayland, checked into taking classes at the local university. She still had financial aid eligibility through a program designed to aid Plainview graduates during their first year of college if they attend Wayland. Since Newland had only been one semester at another school, she was still eligible for the program.

“I was just going to come for a semester and take classes while I rehabbed,” Newland said.

But once again, her plans changed. Newland found dorm life at Wayland refreshing with fellow students she could relate to, and while the academics were much more stringent, the professors were always willing to help. To top it off, she began talking with Flying Queens coach Will Flemons and he asked her to join the team in the fall.

“I always told myself that when I grew up, I would not go to Wayland,” Newland said with a grin. “But now I’m at Wayland and I love it here.”

Newland looks back on her time at Dodge as a learning experience.

“God took me to Dodge, which wasn’t the best experience, but I think He wanted me there for a semester to realize what the world is like because I have been so sheltered here,” she said. “What a mission field there is out there, just to be an example for God.”

But while she is finally at a place she can call home, Newland’s journey is not over. The week before workouts started this fall, she received more bad news about her knee. As opposed to being partially torn, her ACL is virtually gone. The team doctor told her that if she plays this season it will be like she is playing without an ACL.

Newland passed a strength test on her leg which gives her clearance to play, but she still had to face the decision of whether or not it is worth it. It’s a decision that didn’t come easily. The knee injury has caused a lot of heartache for the young woman, but Newland has remained strong and is finding out that there is more to life than basketball.

“Friends … family … school and just having fun,” she said. “People like me because of who I am and it doesn’t matter if I play basketball or not because I am going to be the same person.”

Still, Newland is planning on playing this season.

“I just can’t give it up,” she said.

While she knows there is a chance that she will be re-injure the knee, she is willing to give everything she has to the Flying Queens. Through her ordeal, she has also learned patience and the importance of relying on God.

“What I have gotten out of this is to let God have control,” she said. “I can’t do anything about it. My knee injury has helped me give everything to God. I have really learned to trust him and let him take over and whatever happens, just praise Him more.

“It could be worse,” she grinned, “I could not have a leg.”