FC Kansas City player loses her husband — but finds a family

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Every time she would let it go, a gust of fate would roll in, guided by unseen hands, and blow it right back.

This was April, deep in the heart of Texas, and Jaime French, a widow at 23, was bunking with in-laws she barely knew, stitching together the strands of a life ripped apart, a life she would never get to live. In the times French was able to come up for air from the rage and the grief and the tears, she had asked herself, time and again: Is this worth it?

After all, what good is living a dream if the one person you wanted most to share it with is no longer there? What joy is there in a journey where the co-pilot is replaced by an empty chair?

“I’ve always loved playing soccer, and even though the thought of going to Kansas City and being away from all my friends and family without Josh kind of sounded terrible at the time,” the FC Kansas City forward recalls.

“I also knew that nothing sounded good. Everything sounded terrible.”

And then something funny happened. The soccer team she’d blown up everything for, sight unseen, sent flowers. And the cards. Card after card, teammate after teammate, stranger after stranger, arm after arm, outstretched and warm:

We’re so sorry.

We’re with you, no matter what.

We can’t wait to see you again.

We love you.

“Of all the things that made me really decide, I guess, was just thinking about how excited Josh was about it,” Jaime says.

One day, she popped onto Facebook and opened up her late husband’s profile page. There she found that he had replaced his cover photo with a giant banner from the FC Kansas City web site, one promoting the start of the club’s inaugural training camp.

The unseen hands pointed back north, back toward the unknown.

“He had put that up before I left,” French says. “And I didn’t look at it and was like, ‘Oh, I should go there.’ It was just like, ‘Yeah.’ It was just a reminder of how supportive he was and how excited he was about me coming here.

“Of all the terrible things to do, that was the best.”

Some accidents truly are the happy kind. They had met at Wheaton (Ill.) College, a few years back, an almost complete fluke. She was a local on the women’s soccer team; he was from Austin, Texas, working as a student trainer.

It was your typical atypical rehabilitation romance: Jaime had blown out her anterior cruciate ligament her freshman year, and spent more time in the training room than she did on the actual field.

You know how you just know? They knew. They both loved movies. They both loved The Beautiful Game. They spent hours on the Xbox together, playing the popular “FIFA” series. They spent even more hours talking about their shared faith, their values, the joy of how two people so alike could grow up so far apart and still, somehow, find one another.

Jaime graduated last May. They were married on June 9, 2012. Josh had taken a job at a weight-loss clinic in the Chicago suburbs; the young couple got out life’s road map and started plotting possible courses.

Before long, they got wind of the new National Women’s Soccer League. Jaime, a 5-foot-3 striker who’d netted 48 goals over four seasons at Division III Wheaton, wanted back in the game.

“But there was no one who was going to pick me up based on college play or anything like that,” French says. “And I knew I had to go try out and impress someone to make a team.”

Chicago passed. Kansas City bit. But there was a catch: The Blues wanted Jaime as a reserve, so there would be no paid contract. The team would provide housing during the season, and some part-time work with the club to help pay the bills, but that was about it.

They jumped anyway, with both feet. Their lease in the ‘burbs was due to expire at the end of April. Josh turned in his notice. It was hard to tell who was giddier.

And some accidents break your heart. Winter had come very hard and very late to greater Kansas City; on March 23, Josh braved the elements in order to drive down and celebrate his wife’s new club.

During training camp, Missy Geha, another reserve who’d made the Blues roster, agreed to let Jaime stay at her home in Overland Park until Josh could tie up loose ends in Chicago and make their move permanent.

As Geha recalls it, the delay started piling on minutes, then hours. Late in the evening, Jaime took a call and went upstairs; all she knew was that Josh’s car had crashed.

A while later, police officers arrived at the house. That evening, Josh lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a guard rail on I-35, somewhere between Liberty and Kearney. As Jaime prepared to leave for the hospital, the officers told her he’d been pronounced dead at the scene.

“That was hard,” Geha says. “There’s not a whole lot to really say to somebody when something like that happens,” Geha says. “You just have to be with them and stay with them … but yeah, she was obviously distraught and completely hysterical. And it was horrible.”

The two stayed up and talked ’til dawn. Sometimes, Jaime would watch TV; neither woman could sleep for longer than 15 or 20 minutes, here or there.

“He seemed just like a really nice, Midwestern guy,” Missy says. “He just was really into making Jaime happy. In the time that I got to meet him, he really seemed like a very nice guy.”

Instead of training, Jaime spent April in Texas with Josh’s family, making funeral arrangements, picking up the pieces. FC Kansas City officials told her a reserve spot would be waiting whenever she wanted to return, even if it wasn’t until next season.

“I don’t even know if I’m coming back,” Jaime told Geha. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Maybe it was the flowers. Maybe it was the cards. Maybe it was unseen hands. Maybe it was Josh’s silent urging, reminding her to finish what they’d started.

Whatever it was, Jaime came back.

“His name was never really said that first week,” says Natalie Norris, French’s roommate and another FC Kansas City reserve. “Then later, we kind of approached the subject and she talked more about things she liked to do with him, the things that they liked.”

Eventually, the dark clouds parted. Instead of a reminder of something that kept them apart, Kansas City became Jaime’s great adventure. Instead of an albatross, soccer became the oasis.

French practices with the team, and was even promoted to the active squad for one contest — a June 13 visit to Chicago. With friends, family and former Wheaton coaches and teammates in attendance, Jaime played 11 minutes to help the Blues close out a 2-0 win.

But the weekend, overall, had proven to be bittersweet: FC Kansas City’s team hotel was the same one where Josh’s family had stayed while attending their wedding almost exactly one year earlier.

“So that was a little tough,” Jaime says. “It was great in a lot of respects, but there were also a lot of memories and things that made it bad.”

Norris: “When she got back, I asked about it. She said, ‘It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, and I discovered that it was a little easier to be away from that. Being in Kansas City made it easier to get on with my life.'”

Still, the darkness never quite goes away. It comes and goes, as you’d expect with wounds that deep, wounds that fresh.

“To be honest, it kind of depends on the day,” French says. “Some days, I’m pretty good. Other days, I’m not so great.

“There’s nothing I can do to bring him back. It’s kind of a helpless feeling, obviously. It’s just having faith and trusting that there’s still a purpose for my life. And I guess, that God is still watching out for me. And that one day, I’ll get to see him again.”

She’s currently reading a book about 20-something widows to try and understand the cycle of emotions; French and Norris have even taken to boxing, recreationally, at the gym. Anything to stay busy. Anything to burn off steam.

“Honestly, I look up to her more than she knows,” Norris says. “Just because of the things she did in coming back. And her attitude about everything has just been incredible. I honestly don’t know if I would feel the same way.”

“I think they both were probably a little adventurous to do it,” Geha says, “and now she’s having to do it alone.”

Only she isn’t. And that’s the thing. That’s what keeps Jaime French afloat. That’s what keeps her coming back.

“I don’t talk a lot about it with the team, but I just like the fact that they’re there,” French says. “Everybody is really nice and really supportive. It’s just kind of like having a big family.”

With that, Jaime chuckles. Softly. Of all the terrible things to do, this was really the only option.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com