Jaime French stood patiently on the sideline, waiting to enter the first professional soccer game of her career. Before the whistle sounded, though, French took a moment to glance across the field and into the stands.
Playing in her hometown of Chicago, she found a fan club symbolic of the progression of her life. Childhood friends, a high school mentor, a college soccer coach. All there to watch her National Women’s Soccer League debut.
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French, 23, didn’t show any emotion when she sprinted onto the field for FC Kansas City, but she felt something at that moment. Something she had not felt in several months.
“It was really satisfying to know that I stuck with soccer for a reason,” French says, reflecting on the match.
Her voice quiets, and the smile fades from her face.
“The only thing missing was my husband.”
On a snowy night three months earlier, Josh French lost control of his 2001 Toyota and hit a guard rail on Interstate 35 between Kearney and Liberty. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Only a week before her husband’s death, Jaime learned she had been selected as a member of FC Kansas City’s inaugural team. She was one of three players plucked from a tryout open to the public.
So on March 23, Josh drove from Naperville, Ill., to congratulate his wife of nine months. But while talking with his parents on speakerphone, Josh crashed less than 20 miles from Jaime’s apartment, the victim of what the Missouri Highway Patrol deemed a weather-related accident. He was 24.
His mother, Joy, recalls Josh shouting as the car spun out of control. A few seconds later, there was only silence.
“I think the one thing we can be thankful for we were fortunate to talk to him one last time,” Joy says.
Jaime and Josh met while attending Wheaton College in Illinois. Jaime tore her anterior cruciate ligament playing soccer during her freshman season, and Josh was the school’s student athletic trainer.
“He knew instantly she was the one,” Joy says. “I could tell by the way he talked about her.”
They married on June 9, 2012.
Even though Jaime was granted only an amateur contract with FC Kansas City — meaning she wouldn’t be paid — Josh agreed to quit his job and permanently move to Kansas City. In fact, he insisted upon it.
“We said we would start a life together here in Kansas City,” Jaime says. “He was super supportive of my soccer career. He was the one (who) encouraged me to go for it and try out.”
Jaime left Kansas City for a month after Josh died, unsure if she would ever return. The thought of living in Kansas City on her own seemed intimidating. The only people she knew were the handful of teammates she had just recently met.
A picture on Facebook helped sway the decision. Jaime logged on to Josh’s profile page, where she found the FC Kansas City logo advertising the team’s inaugural training camp.
The image jogged the memory of why she had elected to try out.
“I had to come back,” Jaime said. “He was so happy for me. That was definitely a factor. He wanted me (to play soccer) because he knows it would make me happy.”
Jaime returned to the team in April, sooner than her teammates expected. FC Kansas City general manager Brian Budzinski called her first day back at practice “an emotional day for everyone.”
For Jaime, it was also much-needed.
“We told her that we knew soccer was her dream, and she really needed to pursue it,” Joy says. “She made the right choice. It’s been a way for her to heal.”
Handed only a reserve spot, Jaime isn’t on the full-time roster, though she trains daily with the team and has been called up to play two games this season. She was the first among all FC Kansas City reserves to receive playing time when she took the field on June 13 in Chicago, a 2-0 FC Kansas City victory.
Jaime played for Wheaton, a Division III school, last year, but she was selected to join FC Kansas City over players from Division I conferences such as the Big 12, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast.
“Her intensity and hard work on the field made us look at her really closely,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski says. “We didn’t look at what college they played for. We looked at what they could bring to our team. She was one of the girls we liked.”
For the present, sure. But also for the future.
“We want to continue to develop our own players,” Budzinski says. “She was somebody we talked about a ton and tried to keep here. She fits. She’s someone we would like to see on the full-time roster next year.”
Nearly two weeks ago, Jaime packed a small suitcase and traveled to Austin, Texas, for her one-year wedding anniversary. She made the trip alone.
She visited the house where Josh grew up, flipping through page after page of their wedding pictures and ruffling through a few of his childhood possessions.
That day wasn’t easy. Many aren’t.
“I feel like this is something that will be with me forever,” Jaime says. “It’s something you have to learn to live with.”
“That’s a very good question,” she responds. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
There have been dark times since March 23 — days filled with extreme loneliness, as Jaime describes it — but she hides them well, refusing to express outwardly emotions.
She still isn’t completely convinced Kansas City is where she belongs, but she knows soccer has supplied a pleasant escape, an outlet where the past three months are sometimes forgotten.
“You can’t think about a lot of stuff when you’re playing soccer,” Jaime says. “You just play.
“I don’t feel like I need to play for him. I play because it makes me happy, and that’s why he wanted me to try out. He wants me to be happy.”