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Zopf: Carlton proves heart matters
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In sports, an athlete’s success is often predetermined by numbers.

Whether it’s in the number of seconds you can run a 40-yard dash or in the number of miles per hour you can throw a fastball, in sports, numbers measure your greatness.

Most of the time.

Sometimes numbers have nothing to do with how successful an athlete can be. In fact, the one thing that truly determines how great of an athlete you can be is immeasurable. That one thing? The size of your heart.

Heart, and for that matter desire, can’t be calculated, but they can be displayed in a multitude of ways: The desire to put your teammates on your back when they most need it, the desire to win at all costs, the desire to do anything in your power, no matter what is trying to keep you down, to play the game you love, and play it at a high level.

With all that in mind, it’s safe to assume that North Hall senior soccer player Sarah Carlton has a huge heart.

A soccer player since the age of 8, Carlton has wanted to do nothing but play soccer and perfect her game; perfect it to a point that she would one day be able to play college soccer.

During her sophomore season at North Hall, her dreams appeared to becoming true.

She led the Lady Trojans in scoring and was named offensive MVP for the second straight season. And colleges, specifically Brenau University, began to scout her.

And then everything changed.

In September of 2006, while playing with a U-19 select team in the Atlanta Cup Tournament, Carlton turned the wrong way and injured her left knee. At first she didn’t think anything was wrong and wanted to stay in the game, but when she went to the doctor she heard the phase every athlete hopes they never hear: "torn ACL."

"I didn’t believe him," Carlton said of the diagnosis the doctor gave. "I kind of freaked out a bit."

But she never thought about giving up. After all, a knee injury, even one as severe as a torn ACL, would not be enough to keep her off the field — especially since an injured knee seemed trivial considering what happened in her life next.

Six months after surgery to repair the torn ACL, her sister Dana, who was born with Down syndrome, unexpectedly passed away.

The hurt she felt when injuring her knee was nothing compared to the hurt she felt when she lost her sister.

"Dana was well loved by all, but nobody hurt more than Sarah," her father Dennis Carlton said.

Despite the pain in her heart and the pain in her knee, Sarah’s desire to get back on the soccer field never waned. She continued rehabbing.

"Soccer’s like my life," she said. "I had to get back on the field."

After sitting out her entire junior year, she was finally cleared to get back on the field during the summer of 2007.

But shortly after her return she was back on the sideline. Her knee wasn’t totally healed, and now she had a partially torn meniscus.

So it was back to rehab.

After four more months, the knee was measured at 90 percent strength and she was cleared to play. So play she did, but not for long.

Just one week after taking the field, that partially torn meniscus was now a fully torn meniscus and she would need yet another surgery.

Surely two surgeries would be enough for Carlton to realize that maybe playing college soccer wasn’t in the cards. Maybe she was destined to do something else with her life.

Maybe not.

"I felt like everything I had done I couldn’t get back," Sarah said. "But I never thought about quitting."

That determination and that desire to play eventually paid off.

After 18 months of rehab and two failed comeback attempts, Sarah Carlton finally took the field for good when the Lady Trojans played Gilmer on March 11, which happened to be her sister Dana’s birthday.

In her sister’s honor, Carlton scored two goals and had four assists.

Three months after her return to the field, her dream of playing collegiate soccer came true. Brenau University offered her a scholarship and she accepted.

All that hard work paid off.

But while she was excited that her dream was fulfilled, what Sarah Carlton truly felt as she accepted the offer wasn’t joy, it was relief.

"I was just relieved that someone still wanted me to play for them," she said.

Of course someone wanted her to play for their team. Not because she runs a 4.4 second 40-yard dash or because she can kick a soccer ball at a David Beckham-like pace.

A team wanted her because she has talent, but more importantly a team wanted her because she had heart.

You see, numbers may predict how good of an athlete you can be, but it’s the size of your heart that will ultimately decide how great you become.

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