NORTH HAVEN >> North Haven senior Joe Russo waited his turn to become the Indians’ starting goalkeeper.
He sat behind Zach Tabak the last two years. As a sophomore, Russo said he was surprised he made varsity. Now he’s an integral part of a North Haven club bound for the postseason.
“At any time if Zach were to have gotten hurt, we were never worried if that scenario happened,” North Haven coach Federico Fiondella said. “I knew Joey would have his big year. Every practice, Joey gave everything he had. The attitude, the work ethic, it was all there.”
But Russo’s story is about much more than a kid waiting for his turn. It’s about someone who has undergone four surgeries in 11 years for a condition that affected his ability to walk.
When he was 6, Russo began to feel pain in his right hip. Nine months later his left hip started to hurt. The diagnosis was Legg-Calve Pethes, a condition which affects the hip where the femur and pelvis meet in a ball-and-socket joint. Legg-Calve Pethes occurs when blood supply is interrupted to the ball part, or femoral head, of the hip joint. The bone begins to die, allowing it to break more easily and not heal properly.
So the Russos were given a choice.
“The doctor said either we do a double ostectomy, and hope the femur goes back into the socket, or they would have to put a brace on him from the waist down,” said Renee Russo, Joe’s mother. “(Joe) didn’t want to do that. He would have had to (be in a brace) for a whole year.”
In July 2002, Russo had his first surgery. Both of his legs had to be intentionally broken as a catalyst for the healing process. Renee said Joe was on his back for about eight weeks.
“I couldn’t get out of bed. I slowly moved around and I couldn’t bend over,” Russo said. “Some nights, I’d wake up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. I’d wake up my parents sometimes screaming because the pain was so bad.”
Russo had already missed a lot of school before the surgery, enough that he had to repeat the first grade. He returned to school in September, using a walker.
“He insisted on using just a walker (instead of a wheelchair),” Renee said.
Russo went to school and to physical therapy, but sports were out of the question.
“I was very disappointed,” Russo said. “All my friends were playing and I had to sit inside.”
Russo had a second surgery in December 2004. A total of six screws were removed from the plates in each hip. He kept going to his regular checkups and the recovery was progressing on sechedule. While playing hockey wasn’t a possibility, his doctor, Dr. Peter DeLuca, cleared him to return to soccer.
“Let him be a boy,” Renee recalled Dr. DeLuca saying.
Said Joe: “I never thought that I wouldn’t play. I kept believing I would be back out there. I stayed focused, hoping and praying I would be able to come back.”
Joe made an under-10 travel soccer team which needed a goalkeeper. He volunteered. His days of playing the field were over.
“I think back then, I probably thought because I wasn’t running, it would be easier on my leg to stand in goal,” Russo said. “And I started to like it. For some reason, when I dive it didn’t hurt that much.”
Said Fiondella: “Of all the positions, it’s the worst one he could have chosen with his condition. Think about it. He is constantly on the ground, the diving and constant body changing. In practice, he throws his body around everywhere.”
Russo continued to play without any issue. But in eighth grade the pain returned in his right hip, where it all started. The diagnosis was a hip dislocation.
“The MRI showed that the ball grew back, but with ridges and it ripped up the cartilage. It tore everything up inside,” Renee said.
Russo had his third surgery in July 2011. According to his mother, the tip of his hip was cut off and the doctors had to go in and remove all the “ripped-up cartilage and smooth the ball out.”
Also, as the ball and the femur grew back, it became apparent his right leg was longer than the left by two inches. During the same surgery, two pins were inserted into the growth plate of his right knee in order to stop the growth of the right leg so the left leg could catch up.
This time he spent six weeks on his back. Russo then had to use crutches and eventually a cane to walk. He attended physical therapy three days per week. He also had to sit out the soccer season, but served as the team manager.
The pins were supposed to remain in his right knee, Renee said, but they were getting close to protruding the skin. The pins had to come out.
So the fourth surgery took place last November. By Russo’s request, the surgery didn’t happen until after soccer season.
Eleven years, four surgeries.
At his last checkup in May, Russo was told by Dr. DeLuca that he would not have to return for a full year — the longest amount of time in between office visits since the diagnosis.
Fiondella, who also coached Joe’s older brother Antonio, visited Russo in the hospital. If there is anyone involved with the North Haven soccer program who can relate to what Russo has endured, it’s Fiondella.
In December 2006, the Register detailed the story of Fiondella’s son, Fabrizio, who was born three months premature. He was given little better than a 50 percent chance of survival. He underwent so many surgeries that Federico lost count.
Federico said his son spent 363 days at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He has since become one of the chosen Wall of Hope children, a display of photographs and stories at Yale for those who stayed at the hospital for extended periods.
Fabrizio, now 8, still deals with chronic lung disease. The Fiondellas travel to a children’s hospital in Cincinnati for annual checkups, and will every year until Fabrizio is 18.
“I can definitely understand going through something that you deal with your whole life,” Fiondella said.
Russo will turn 18 in November. He wants to go to college, but is not sure about continuing to play soccer. Hip replacement surgery is likely in his future.
But for now, Russo is focusing on being the last line of defense for the North Haven soccer team, attempting to turn away every ball traveling in his direction.
“Joey fought to get here,” Renee said. “He never gave up
Said Fiondella: “He will not tell you that he is in serious pain. He wants to do everything the rest of the team does and doesn’t use it as an excuse.”