In certain ways, Kevin Albert was just like the rest of his Center Moriches soccer teammates last year. He attended every practice. He was in uniform for every game. He cheered after wins.
But in one way, Albert wasn't like them at all: He didn't play a single minute. He was physically unable to play. Kicking a ball was too painful.
Albert had surgery to repair two broken vertebrae in his back in February 2013. He had realized something was wrong during a game for his club team in the spring of 2012. After a bone scan and CT scan, Albert said, doctors discovered two breaks but could not say what caused the injuries.
"The doctors told me I had broken off both sides of the spine and they said one break was two years old and the other one was more recent," Albert said.
Albert wore a back brace for 12 weeks, rehabbed and then was cleared to play. Afterward, while he was running during a practice, he felt his legs "give out" and his back "started to hurt pretty bad."
An X-ray soon after that showed his back hadn't healed.
That's when he learned he needed surgery. Albert had scored 15 goals as a sophomore, but his junior season was wiped out. With the bones held together by two screws and two hooks, he could only watch.
"It was very frustrating," Albert said. "The most frustrating part was the tough losses. I wanted to go play because I felt like I could help out. It was frustrating all season watching that."
Albert, a senior forward who now is healthy, channeled that frustration this season.
"The motivational factor that he had coming into this year, if I could can it and sell it to other people, I'd be a multi-millionaire," Center Moriches coach Chris O'Brien said.
Much like some sort of fairy tale, Albert finished the regular season with 27 goals, five shy of tying the school record set by Norman Bell in 1967. Only Comsewogue's James Thristino scored more goals (32) on Long Island this season. Albert also had nine assists. What's more, he led Center Moriches (10-2) to a second-place finish in League VII.
What were the odds?
"I thought there was a better chance that he would never play again," O'Brien said.
Teammates attribute Albert's success to his work ethic and team-first attitude.
"We missed him last year, but coming into this year, he didn't let anything stop him and always stayed so positive," Center Moriches midfielder Anthony Parlato said. "He's also just really, really good."
Albert had to overcome one more hurdle before this season started, as if he hadn't gone through enough already.
In August, after a game with his summer team, Albert felt a bump on the incision of the surgically repaired area of his back.
"I didn't think anything of it at first," Albert said. "I just thought it was a mosquito bite."
The bump grew larger the next day, so Albert and his parents saw a doctor. After some tests and blood work, Albert said doctors told him he had a strep infection in his throat that had traveled to his back, a vulnerable area.
"Once they said infection, I knew it was serious and I was nervous," Albert said.
Albert said he underwent two surgeries and had the infected skin drained and parts of his skin removed.
What remains is a scar on his lower back that's a few inches long.
Never, Albert said, did he think of giving up and not playing this season.
"He's like my hero," O'Brien said. "The fact that he can step on the field and focus on the now instead of what happened in the past has left a lasting impression on me personally."
Next for Albert is the Suffolk Class B playoffs. Center Moriches will host a semifinal on Oct. 29.
With Albert dressed in a full warmup uniform on the sideline, the Red Devils lost in last season's county final to longtime rival Mattituck.
This time Albert is expected to do more than just watch.
"I owe a lot to my teammates, my coaches and my family because they helped me get through it all," he said. "Now it just feels great knowing I didn't give up and I'm able to help our team achieve our goals."