The free kick was zipping through the air in her direction, and as it drew closer and closer, one thought flashed through Kim Mignone’s mind.
I’m getting that ball.
She had beaten her defender and was all alone with the goalkeeper, the moment belonging to her. The Montclair State women’s soccer team was playing Army in a spring scrimmage, and while the game would not count toward the Red Hawks’ season, beating a Division I opponent was still a major accomplishment. Mignone, a captain heading into her senior season, knew this was her chance to make that happen with the game tied and just 10 minutes left.
“I planted my left foot and shot the ball with my right,” the Chestnut Ridge, New York, native says, “and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground screaming.”
She was flat on her back, her body tangled with the Army goalkeeper – who, in her own effort to reach the ball, had careened into her left leg. Mignone, in the most intense pain she had felt in her life, looked down and could only see the bottom half of her shin. From there, her left tibia and fibula had snapped, a grotesque injury that left her foot pointing 90 degrees in the wrong direction.
Her coach, Pat Naughter, rushed onto the field and pinned her shoulders against the turf so she wouldn’t panic looking at the injury. He had suffered his own broken leg as a player and knew, from his own experience, that she would face a tough recovery in the coming weeks.
“When you first hear ‘broken leg’ in soccer, you think we’ll be signing casts and six weeks later she’ll be jogging,” Naughter says. “This kid has caught every bad break you can catch.”
He had no idea the ordeal that awaited Mignone – the seven surgeries, the month in the surgical ICU, the weeks of rehab and the still-uncertain future. How could he? How could anyone? The injury would end her career as a player but, in a way she could never imagine, teach her even more about the value of being part of a team and the strong bond of the Montclair State women’s soccer program.
Oh, and that final shot? It ended up in the back of the net. Mignone was in the back of the ambulance on her way to the hospital when she learned she had scored a goal.
The few months that followed that moment at West Point required a deep reservoir of toughness for Mignone, and she knows exactly where she found that strength. It came from a Red Hawks soccer program, she says, that was built on the idea that while it might not always be more talented than the team on the other side of the field, it will never be outworked or outhustled.
That comes from Naughter, a Bloomfield native in his seventh season as head coach. He arrived at Montclair State and surveyed the landscape of the sport and found it was dominated by elite private schools like Amherst and Carnegie-Mellon. He knew the Red Hawks weren’t going to get the same polished recruits, but that in some ways, this could work to their advantage in creating an identity.
“If you look at the teams over the last four years that are in the top 20, we’re the only ones with ‘State’ in our name,” says Naughter. “We’re proud of that. We like that. We’re going to outwork you, we’re going to be fitter than you and tougher than you, and we’re going to love each other more. We don’t care if they have more all-state players or kids who played on better club teams. We’re going to beat them up.”
That attitude has helped Red Hawks women’s soccer become one of the most consistent programs on the Montclair State campus and in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. The team had an impressive 70-9-8 record from 2012–15, reaching the NCAA Tournament each time. Naughter, who played on the men’s team at Montclair State from 1996–99, doesn’t believe there is a ceiling for what the Red Hawks can accomplish. And yes, that includes winning an NCAA championship.
“It’s not if we do it,” he says. “It’s when we do it.”
But even he learned something about his program in the days and weeks after Mignone fell to the ground at West Point. That was on April 23. The next day, at Nyack Hospital, she had surgery to repair the break and insert a titanium rod in her leg.
Naughter and Erin Sullivan, Mignone’s best friend on the team, visited her that day. They found her suffering even more than she was in the minutes after the break, complaining about the pain and a tingling sensation. Sullivan called her mom, a registered nurse, and told her about her friend. “Something’s not right,” her mom told her, and the next day, they figured out exactly what was wrong.
Mignone had compartmental syndrome, an increased pressure in the muscle compartments that sometimes occurs after a serious injury. She needed fasciotomy surgery to relieve that pressure, and with the fear of infection, she spent a full month in the ICU at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York.
She didn’t know it at the time, but the fear that she would lose her leg entirely was real. She was still holding out hope that she could return to the field in time for her senior season.
“I wasn’t focused on the soccer aspect of it because I didn’t expect to not play,” she says. “I didn’t know that was a possibility. The only thing that was on my mind was getting through the pain every day. I was in a lot, a lot, A LOT of pain every day. I had to force myself to eat. I didn’t eat for a long time.”
The only thing that carried her through the difficult days were the daily visits from her teammates and coaches. Naughter was there every day, making the 30-minute drive from campus to the hospital so often that all the nurses knew his name. The players made that same trip as often as they could, too, bringing news from campus and, most of all, friendly faces.
Mignone, sitting on a bench near a grass practice field at Montclair State, looked out at her practicing teammates as she remembered how much those visits mattered to her.
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
“When something as traumatic as that happens, you find out who’s there for you,” she says. “Every single person standing on the field right now, including all the coaches, was there for me 100 percent. Seeing them made my day every day. I always loved to see who was going to walk into the room next because it took my mind off the pain.”
And that’s when she made a decision: Whether or not she could play the sport she loves, she would be there for them this season, too.
Her voice is a regular fixture at practice now, offering words of encouragement when teammates show good form or a gentle nudge when they don't. don’t. It would be impossible to fault Mignone if she decided to step away from soccer and focused on completing her degree in child advocacy with a minor in social work.
She did the opposite.
“It’s amazing,” Sullivan says. “I couldn’t even imagine what she’s going through, but every single day she hasn’t missed a practice. She hasn’t missed anything. She will never stop fighting and give up on this team even though she can’t be on this field. I know it’s hard for her to watch and know that she could be out there.”
Mignone still walks with a limp and has what she calls a “pretty crazy scar” extending from her calf down to her ankle. The compartmental syndrome and surgeries caused nerve damage in her leg. She can’t feel anything from her lower leg to her toes, and the frustrating part is, she has no idea when – or even if – the feeling will return.
Most sports injuries, even the most serious ones like an ACL tear, come with a timetable for recovery. Mignone? “She has the mystery of never knowing when it’s going to get better,” says Sullivan. Still, her teammates marvel at her attitude.
“Her spirit is unbreakable,” says Naughter. “She’s the toughest kid I’ve ever been around. Sometimes we talk about a loss or giving up a goal as adversity. That’s not adversity. Adversity is being 21 years old and doctors don’t know what your leg is going to look like in six months. That’s adversity.”
Mignone tries to even look at that as a positive. She found strength in a motivational quote during her recovery: “Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
This is part of her journey, she says, and she’s just grateful she has her team with her.
“I think this team makes me a better student, it makes me a better friend, it just makes me a better person in general,” she says. “I think they taught me a lot about myself throughout this whole traumatic experience because I don’t think I would have had the strength to get through it if I didn’t spend my career here. I really don’t think so.”
She has resisted the whole win-one-for-Kimmy deal. It’s just not her personality to make anything about her, but her presence is enough. Her teammates have seen firsthand how quickly the sport can be taken away from them, and in the process, learned to value every minute on the field.
“The way these guys care about her, the way these guys love her, it’s in everybody’s mind every day,” Naughter says. “We can’t make her leg better but we know if we keep this thing going, there’s not going to be anybody happier or prouder than her. And she’s going to be a huge part of everything we do.”
Montclair State women’s soccer, a program built on toughness, doesn’t have to look far to find its inspiration.