On Wednesday, Sept. 16, I met up with Mike Taranto of Montclair State University’s men’s soccer team for an interview. For the first time in three seasons, the junior will finally be playing soccer for the Red Hawks.
Heading into the interview, I realized that I had actually seen him play almost three years ago for Ramapo High School in a state championship game against two of my own cousins. Taranto was the clear-cut leader and fulcrum of that team, whose physicality and endurance helped them tie and win a share of the section three title in a game where his team was clearly outmatched talent-wise.
When I met Taranto to talk with him, I noted that he is actually much nicer off the field then on the field, where he delivers crunching slide tackles and body checks. He joked that when people ask him why, he mentions that he won the state title that year and only mutters the score under his breath.
Right away, I asked him about his history of knee injuries and, without missing a beat, he recited what seemed like a memorized chronology of what he had been through.
His first injury was in a state playoff game his junior year of high school, in which a hard tackle early in the game caused him to tear his ACL, MCL and meniscus or, as he referred to it, “the terrible triad.” Following surgery and a long rehabilitation process, he returned to the field his senior year and was enormously successful, earning first team all-state honors and being named area player of the year.
I felt I owed it to myself to give [it] one more shot. -Mike Taranto
Entering the spring of his senior year, Taranto had earned an offer to play Division III soccer at Montclair State. Everything seemed to be going right for him, but during a game for his club team, the Clifton Stallions, a misstep lead to another ACL tear. Although not as damaging physically as the first tear of all three ligaments, questions over Taranto’s long-term health and even about his collegiate prospects began to arise.
Montclair State decided to honor his acceptance even though he would be unable to play during his freshman season. Taranto started the entire rehabilitaton process from the beginning, working through many painful hours of physical therapy and exercise to regain his strength. One can only imagine how difficult this process was the first time, let alone the second.
After spending around six months recovering from surgery, Taranto decided he wanted to test his knee. During a light pick-up game inside the Student Recreation Center, a mistimed step caused Taranto to tear his ACL for the third time. Generally speaking, just one ACL tear can end an athlete’s career and three is very rare.
The question that came to my mind and most likely the minds of those who knew him at the time was, “Why didn’t you just give it up?” After three ligament tears, one must start to think about being physically able to play with their kids or even walking unassisted in the future, let alone playing soccer.
I asked him if he had thought of giving up soccer. “I felt I owed it to myself to give [it] one more shot,” he answered. “I felt really confident with the knee specialist I was talking to and he laid out this whole plan about how I could play again.”
In high school, I was supposed to be a creator and a goalscorer as the main focal point of the team, but now I have more of a defensive role, breaking up play and passing the ball to our attacking players. – Mike Taranto
I was very impressed with Taranto’s statement. It occurred to me that he kept going with soccer to fulfill his own ambitions. People often feel pressure to compete from parents, coaches and teammates, but, at the end of the day, the reason we play sports is often for our own enjoyment and Taranto truly enjoys the game of soccer.
It takes an inhuman amount of determination and commitment to recover from three ACL tears and still continue to play the sport. But, Taranto isn’t just on the team. He is starting matches in the center of midfield and contributing at a very high level. He was apt to point out that, despite him being a junior, he is finally playing against other college level athletes for the first time.
“The game is so fast. In high school, I was supposed to be a creator and a goalscorer as the main focal point of the team, but now I have more of a defensive role, breaking up play and passing the ball to our attacking players. I like to joke with my teammates that I just give them the ball and watch them create [a path]. Playing with players like Damian [Bziukiewicz] and Lucas [Terci] is a lot of fun.”
It takes a mature mind to realize and accept one’s limitations and Taranto has certainly found his niche in Montclair State’s nationally ranked men’s soccer team.
In fact, on the day we met for this interview, Montclair State faced-off against Haverford College. With the score tied 2-2 late in the second half, the ball fell to Taranto 22 yards from goal and he fired a blistering shot into the top left corner of the net, his first score for Montclair State in three years and the eventual match winner.
Sometimes, endings just write themselves.