BARDSTOWN, Ky. — On a soccer field slick with evening rain, Carter Alvey stepped to the front of the line to lead his teammates.
The 17-year-old stripped off his goalkeeper gloves and one by one extended a hand to each player on the opposing team, his eyes cast down humbly in the wake of Bethlehem High School’s 6-2 win over North Bullitt. The teams had just played 90 minutes, but to Alvey it always feels like much more.
Alvey, a senior at Bethlehem, was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by abnormal brain development that affects movement, muscle tone and motor skills. The condition affects everything below Alvey’s waist; he used to walk with his feet turned inwards and often stood on his toes rather than on the soles of his feet.
By the time Alvey was 7, he’d had two surgeries. The first cut spinal cord nerves to reduce spasticity and the second lengthened his heel chords and transferred tendons to both ankles.
Alvey began playing soccer at age 5, but it wasn’t until after his second surgery that he realized how his cerebral palsy complicated things.
“Around then I started to realize that things were a little tougher for me and that if I put in the same effort I was behind the curve,” Alvey said. “So I realized to stay ahead of curve or at median range I needed to work harder.”
Both of Alvey’s legs from his toes to his knees were in casts for one month following the surgery. He hasn’t needed additional operations since, but he still sleeps in leg braces at night and requires constant exercise to keep his muscles from tightening. To the casual observer, it sometimes appears that Alvey walks with a slight limp, but his unique gait is the only indication that anything is out of the ordinary.
“Once you have cerebral palsy, it’s forever,” Jacks said. “One of the key things that was easy for Carter and helped him with his outcome is he found something he enjoys to do.”
As 30 teenage boys jogged laps around a practice field on a sweltering August afternoon, Alvey’s voice cut through the silence.
“Keep!” he yelled as he spun 180 degrees, jumped off the goal line and snatched Bethlehem assistant coach Jamie Blanford’s shot out of the air. Alvey tossed the ball aside and turned his back to Blanford again, tensing his muscles in anticipation of the next shot.
Alvey has played on the Bethlehem soccer team all four years of high school. The team made it to the district tournament last season, but he wasn’t there. He was pursuing a different dream.
In October of 2016, Alvey saw an ad for a youth camp on the U.S. Paralympic team’s Twitter page. He texted his mom a photo of the ad, asking if he should email head coach Stuart Sharp.
“She, of course, said yes, so I emailed them and almost immediately I received an invitation to come (to the camp), a plane ticket there, the whole nine basically,” Alvey said.
Alvey flew to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, to join 15 other youth players, all of whom have neurological impairments including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or stroke. The camp, he said, was the highlight of his young soccer career.
“To have the opportunity to be in a group of young men who all had similar disabilities, Carter’s never had that opportunity,” said Kandi Alvey, Carter’s mother. “He’s always been with typical children, if you will, and it was awesome to see him on an even playing field with kids who understood what he went through to play.”
Carter Alvey hasn’t yet received a call-up to the senior Paralympic squad since the trial last fall, but he remains hopeful that his day will come. The U.S. is competing in the IFPC CP Football World Championships in Argentina, after which Sharp might reshape his roster.
In the meantime, Alvey has plenty to do. He is readying his application for Clemson University to be entered into the university’s intramural Paralympic soccer program, which serves as an unofficial farm system for the national team. The program accepts only two students each year.
No matter what eventually comes of his soccer career, Alvey said his experience with the Paralympic youth team taught him to think bigger.
“I always dreamed of it and thought about it but never saw it as realistic,” he said. “I’m just really glad I got the opportunity to experience it.”
One hour before Bethlehem soccer practice, Alvey and his friends were already in the competitive mindset playing a “FIFA 2017” video game at teammate Daulton Harrison’s home.
On screen, Harrison and Camden Miracle were engaged in a penalty shootout. Alvey lounged on the carpet by the door with his back against the wall as Harrison delivered a shot. Miracle, controlling his virtual goalkeeper, didn’t react quickly enough to save the goal.
“Let me do it,” Alvey said impatiently, taking the controller from Miracle. He calmly saved two shots in a row, then looked over his shoulder at Miracle.
“Bam!” he mouthed, widening his eyes mockingly.
At school and around his friends, Alvey is subdued but carries himself with a quiet confidence. He speaks passionately of his goal to become a neuropharmacologist and create a drug that mitigates muscle tone and movement issues in stroke and cerebral palsy patients. When asked how to spell his last name, he uses the example “V as in victory.”
Alvey enlisted his teammates’ help in creating a highlight video to send to Sharp last fall, but Miracle said he didn’t tell them he was invited to the training camp until one week prior.
“We didn’t realize until he told us he was accepted what it was,” Miracle said. “It’s a great opportunity for him, but he didn’t really hype it up.”
Bethlehem coach Jody Spalding said Alvey’s serious, ambitious nature translates well to soccer.
“If I had 11 Carters out on the field, I would never have lost a game here,” Spalding said. “He’s so demanding of himself. He feels like he needs to overcome something because he has had to overcome his whole life.”
Of course, Alvey is perfectly capable of doing so. His biggest gripe with how people perceive cerebral palsy is when it leads them to underestimate him.
“If people see a physical disability, they think we’re mentally disabled as well,” he said. “We can do things on our own.”
Once on the field, Alvey’s reserved persona is shattered as he shouts instructions to teammates and charges at oncoming strikers. His friends say it’s what makes him an effective goalkeeper, but that doesn’t stop them from teasing him about it.
“He gets really mad when the midfield doesn’t get back and stuff like that,” said Harrison, grinning bashfully in Alvey’s direction. “Last week we almost got in a fight at practice.”
That fervor goes both ways. Kandi Alvey said she has seen other Bethlehem players get into verbal altercations with opponents while defending her son from insults.
“Kids can be cruel,” she said. “But Carter has always had such a positive outlook and the way that these kids have accepted him and become his best friends is truly amazing.”
According to Carter Alvey, cerebral palsy has its pros and cons. The obvious con is that it makes mobility and activities like soccer more difficult. The pro, he said matter-of-factly, is that it makes him more determined.
“Imagine how he’d be unstoppable if he didn’t have cerebral palsy,” Jacks said. “He’s one of those kids (who) someday he’ll be in a job and whatever it’s going to be, he’ll get to the top. He’ll find a way and he’ll get it done. He focuses and he gets to the next level.”
What exactly that next level is remains unclear, but as far as Carter Alvey is concerned, the sky’s the limit.