"Never give in. Never. Never. Never. Never."
Twenty-one months of frustration and self-doubt were expunged on January 25, 1998 when Pedro Braga crushed another winner concluding his 6-4, 6-0 win at #3 singles against an overmatched opponent from Centenary. Despite the experts gloomy prognosis to the contrary, Braga, a senior from Belo Horizante, Brazil, is back playing tennis for the Bayou Bengals.
"It was like time just stopped. I was numb and my mind went blank. I didnít know where I was; I couldnít believe what I was hearing," Pedro Braga painfully recalled when asked about the day he was told he would never play tennis again. "A part of me died that day. I have been playing tennis since I was 8 years old and I just couldnít believe my career would end this way, when I was only 21 years old."
Braga, who had been ranked as high as 9th in the nation before the injury, says there was no specific definable event that caused a disc in his spine to herniate. The symptoms came on gradually beginning in early January of 1996 as minor stiffness, soreness, and weakness. By the end of the Auburn match, on April 4th, 1996, Bragaís back had had enough and called it quits.
"I could hardly walk after our win over Auburn," explained Braga, who, up to that point had, despite constant pain and weakness in his back, achieved an impressive 10-4 dual match record and had helped put LSU near the top of the SEC. Sitting out the rest of the '96 season, Braga eventually had an MRI that confirmed the diagnosis of disc herniation and he underwent back surgery on August 31, 1996. "I started vigorous physical therapy almost immediately after my surgery and I started hitting the ball for fun within a couple of months," said Braga, who as a sophomore in 1995, was an All-American, All-SEC, and the Louisiana Player of the Year. "I began to work very hard to prove the doctors wrong."
Determined to play competitively again, Braga was stretching and working out on weight machines for over three hours a day. But, no matter how hard he worked or how good his back was beginning to feel, Bragaís psyche kept reminding him of the medical experts' prognosis. "It was a difficult time for me," Braga remembers. "I was lost without tennis and I really didnít know what would happen to me if I couldnít play tennis." Luckily for Braga there were two very important people in his life who kept him believing in himself and his ability to overcome adversity. "My mom (Therezinha Braga) and my girlfriend (Tracy Elshout) are the main reasons Iím back playing tennis," Braga proudly stated. "They kept me focused and kept me believing that if I worked hard enough I would be able to play tennis again."
It was during a trip to Brazil last summer that Braga began to believe he could compete again. "Physically, I was feeling great and I was beginning to play some serious tennis with my friends back home," explained Braga. "It was then that I decided to go get checked out by a couple of my fatherís doctor friends." (Bragaís father, who died several years ago, was a doctor.) The Brazilian doctors told him he was fine and encouraged him to "go for it." "After I got the doctorís OK, Coach (LSU coach Jeff) Brown was the first person I called."
Since Braga had given up his tennis scholarship for a medical scholarship; LSUís team physician, the SEC and NCAA had to review and approve Bragaís return to tennis. "It was a long, drawn out, sometimes frustrating process but I finally became eligible in mid-January and Iím very excited to be back," Braga said.
Braga isnít the only one whoís excited. Besides Therezinha and Tracy, his mental "rocks of Gibraltar," first year coach Jeff Brown is also ecstatic about Bragaís unexpected return. "For obviously selfish reasons Iím glad heís back because he makes us a much better team," said Brown, who took over the Tigers after Jerry Simmons retired last season. "But, more importantly, from a personal standpoint, Iím very very happy heís back because he worked so hard and tennis means so much to him."
According to Braga, 1998 could most definitely be the "Year of the Tiger." "I canít explain it but this is a special team and I think weíll do some special things this season. My goal is to get a ring. I think this team has the talent to win the SEC and if we win the SEC weíll have at shot at the NCAA title as well." With talented sophomores Michael Chmela, Tom Hand and Pedro Escudero holding down the top three spots and Braga joining fellow seniors Zak Blanchard and Eduardo Villagomez at the bottom of the line-up, the Tigers do appear to be a formidable group. However, anything can happen in the SEC, the nations most competitive menís tennis conference, and Brown, having spent four years as Simmons assistant knows as much. "I really believe any of the twelve teams can win the conference this season. Iíve never seen the conference so tough from top to bottom. Thatís why itís great to have Pedro back. He brings a lot more than just great talent to our table."
Yeah, Bragaís back. And the Tigers just got stronger.
Reprinted with permission from "Bob Larson's College Tennis Weekly."
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