The Soccer Player Who Almost Didn’t Walk

YuvalYuval Tzadok’s black eyes shine with a joie de vivre that was almost puffed out when an army maneuver in his elite battalion went wrong and put him in a wheelchair. Today, he’s the goalkeeper on OneFamily’s soccer team. Admits coach Ami Ben David, “I expect them to give me everything.”

Failed Maneuver

In 2006, twenty-one-year-old Yuval Tzadok was stationed at the Ofer military camp on the outskirts of Ramallah in the central West Bank, ten kilometers north of Jerusalem. He was a solider in the elite Duchifat counter-terrorism battalion, which is part of the Kfir Brigade (Lion Cub Brigade) of the IDF Central Command infantry division. The Duchifat battalion specializes in urban combat and its soldiers bear the responsibility of protecting the Jewish communities in the area. Maneuvers include counter-terror operations, apprehension of Palestinian terrorists, patrols, manning checkpoints and regular security activities.

“We left in five jeeps before dawn to take part in a maneuver. Visibility was low and judging distances and obstacles was tricky despite our infra-red equipment. After successfully completing the maneuver, we started heading back to our camp,” Yuval begins, his slim hand smoothing his black beard. “I was in the first jeep of the convoy. Suddenly, the road disappeared…it happens in these areas,” he explains with a tight smile. “We plunged down a tw- meter fall. The enormous jolt crushed a disc in my spinal cord.”

Yuval was immediately evacuated to Hadassah Ein Kerem. There in the Orthopedic Trauma Unit, Professor Yoel Finkelstein removed the chips of the crushed disc in an eleven-hour operation. “I was told there was very little chance that I’d ever walk again,” he says. For Yuval, who was extremely athletic and involved in gymnastics, the terrible prognosis hit particularly hard. “But within a week, I slowly began to feel my legs once again,” he says with another smile. Immediately after his injury, OneFamily reached out to Yuval. OneFamily empowers victims of terror to rebuild their lives by offering financial support and therapeutic assistance programs for orphans of both parents, orphans of one parent, bereaved parents, widows and widowers, bereaved siblings, and wounded victims. OneFamily also provides support for soldiers injured in action.

Learning to Walk Again

Yuval spent the next six months at Hadassah Har Hatzofim Rehabilitation Center learning how to walk again. “My battalion commander sent fellow soldiers to me every single day. Their job was to tell me to get up and walk even though I insisted I couldn’t,” Yuval recalls. The support of his peers, together with intensive physiotherapy sessions and an amazingly sunny nature that shined throughout the interview, pushed Yuval out of his wheelchair. Thanks to a second operation, which involved replacing the crushed disc with a pin and a bone from a different joint in his body, Yuval graduated to walking with a walker and a year later moved on to crutches. “I am considered 89% disabled; back pain is my constant companion; I can’t run as well as I used to and the summersaults of my athletics are only a memory,” Yuval says. “Although I limp slightly, today I can actually walk – something considered a miracle by the medical team that treated me.”

While still in hospital, Yuval learned that he was to receive the prestigious Presidential Award, given annually on Independence Day to 120 outstanding soldiers and officers. “When I got the call and the clerk realized I was in a wheelchair, he told me not to worry: I wouldn’t need to stand through the ceremony – I could sit!” Whenformer president Moshe Katsav awarded the medals, Yuval noticed that another injured female soldier also remained seated.

During the year of rehabilitation, Yuval felt himself drawing closer to Judaism. By the end of the year, he was shomer mitzvot. At a barbeque held by OneFamily, Yuval met his future wife, Sigalit, who was doing Sheirut Leumi with the organization. His connection with OneFamily has remained strong thanks to his ongoing involvement with its soccer team.

Soccer for Terror Victims

Soccer, touted as the most popular sport in Israel, is governed by the Israel Soccer Association (IFA). All of Israel’s professional soccer clubs, as well as workers leagues, semi-professional and amateur clubs are members. Ami, who played on the well-known Beitar team for ten years, and later coached an Ethiopian ethnic team, volunteered to coach OneFamily’s team. Four years ago, the team joined the league that includes teams from organizations such as Hadassah Hospital and the Bezek telephone company. Last year, having grown from seventeen to twenty members, the original team split into two.

“Sport is a form of positive release,” explains Shai Moshe, director of OneFamily’s young adult division. Of course, soccer is a lot of fun and offers the benefits of physical fitness, but more than that, the sport helps victims rebuild their self-esteem and brings them back to the person they were.” Indeed, for terror victims who suffer from depression, coming to the weekly training sessions is an anchor in a sea of agony. Friendships formed with other victims provide support, as no one understands the challenges they are facing as well as another victim. Sometimes, the jokes they share border on black humor. “As the years go by, friends of victims generally find it harder and harder to keep attending the yearly memorial services held for lost loved ones,” explains Ami. “But team members always make the effort to go to each other’s services…they know how important it is.”

As coach, Ami is in close contact with his men and sometimes morphs into a social worker of sorts. “I notice how my team members are feeling and pass along on changes so that OneFamily can offer additional support when it’s needed.” This is particularly so at the annual national league held over a weekend. After a day of playing hard, team members open up their hearts and Ami is there for them. “I was never the kind of person to hug another man,” admits Ami, “But coaching these men who are brave enough to rebuild their shattered lives has taught me how to reach out.”

“OneFamily’s team comprises bereaved and physically injured members,” explains Ami. “Yet we play against regular teams and we win,” he adds with a competitive glint in his eye. “For two years we moved up in the workers league that features teams; the third year we won second place,” he says with pride.

How does Ami cope with being drawn into the maelstrom of pain that victims of terror live with? The coach brings his heavy hand hard down against his barreled chest. “I’ve made some money in my life,” he says, “But nothing gives me the pleasure I get from being a coach. My family knows that I’ll push aside closing a contract in favor of my team. My team members have been plunged into trauma, but they come out. We see results. From the place of the deepest pain, sprout love and hope.” Ami turns to look at Yuval, “Yuval’s wife takes excellent care of him, making sure he doesn’t lift heavy things or even bend over because these actions could damage his back,” he declares with a fatherly smile. “She’s the perfect wife and the entire team benefits from her cooking skills!”

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