Megan Rapinoe left the final game of her glittering soccer career after less than three minutes, and in tears, having suffered a non-contact injury that she immediately assumed was a torn Achilles.
Rapinoe entered Saturday's NWSL championship game on the brink of retirement, in search of the one trophy that had eluded her and her longtime club, the OL Reign. A title, she said hours before the game, would "be amazing" and mean "everything."
But in the third minute, while pressing an opponent, she suffered a cruel final blow. She planted her foot and tried to accelerate toward a Gotham FC center back. Instead, she felt "a huge pop" and crumpled to the Snapdragon Stadium grass.
She initially thought she'd been kicked. But then she instantly realized: "no one was even around me." It was, she later said, "devastating."
Megan Rapinoe goes down with an injury less than three minutes into the NWSL Final in her last career game 💔
She receives a standing ovation from Snapdragon Stadium pic.twitter.com/uwqG2epzMK
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) November 12, 2023
Teammates soon came to tend to her. Athletic trainers followed. As reality — and the realization that this was the end — sunk in, Rapinoe began to laugh, not unlike she had after missing a crucial penalty for the U.S. women's national team at the 2023 World Cup.
That, she said in the aftermath, felt like a "sick joke" and "dark humor."
Here, halfway around the world in San Diego, mere minutes into her last of 400-plus pro soccer games, was another one.
"This took me deep — deep, deep dark humor," she said hours later at a postgame news conference filled with more laughter and complicated emotions.
"Definitely not how I envisioned this last one going," she said.
Rose Lavelle, her USWNT and Reign teammate, was one of the first to arrive at her side on the field. "Are you OK?" Lavelle asked. "I think I just tore my Achilles," Rapinoe responded. Lavelle held her hand as emotion overwhelmed Rapinoe. Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes — together with Rapinoe known as the Reign's "three OGs," mainstays since the club's inaugural 2013 season — comforted her as well.
Rapinoe briefly pulled her jersey up over her face, then let herself sink back onto the ground, lying prone as the team's medical staff examined her ankle and Achilles area. She'd later explain that she had a "dead foot."
As her fate became evident, a hush fell over the crowd. Fans of both teams and neutrals watched — in-person and on TV, coast-to-coast — in disbelief, then rose to give Rapinoe an ovation.
"Obviously everyone was devastated for her," Reign head coach Laura Harvey said.
Rapinoe left the field limping, and in tears, with her arms around two athletic trainers. She hugged Gotham's Ali Krieger, her longtime friend and teammate — but on Saturday, an opponent — as she walked toward the sideline. She eventually texted her family and partner Sue Bird at halftime, and that's when emotions really spilled out.
Bethany Balcer replaced Rapinoe on the Reign's left wing. About 20 minutes later, Lynn Williams scored to give Gotham a 1-0 lead. Lavelle equalized for the Reign five minutes after that. Rapinoe, who stayed on the Reign's bench rather than disappearing into the locker room, climbed onto backup goalkeeper Laurel Ivory's back to celebrate.
In first-half stoppage time, though, Esther Gonzalez scored to put Gotham ahead 2-1 at halftime — and for good. Gotham held that lead and won its first NWSL championship.
As Gotham celebrated, Rapinoe cried, embraced teammates, and congratulated Krieger and other Gotham players. She later called them "so deserving."
But for her, this was "the worst possible outcome," she said. "Thank God I have a f***ing deep well of a sense of humor."
So she giggled and guffawed through the disappointment. But she also felt for team, and pondered the unanswerable question: Why had her national team career and club career ended with such heartbreak?
"I mean, I don't deserve this," she said with a laugh. "I'll tell you that much. I'm a better person than this."
She didn't blame anyone or anything. Not the field, which had been chewed up a week earlier by a college football game and then an NWSL semifinal. And not her own preparation.
"I was feeling really good before the game. Wasn't feeling tight," she said. "I guess I just rode it till the wheels really came right off."
She also got philosophical and introspective. "You don't always get to have the perfect ending," she said. "I've had so many perfect endings. I even think back to 2019, that was the most perfect whole script that you could ever write, personally and as a team [at the World Cup]."
Perhaps that why she wasn't disconsolate. "I'm most upset that I'm now just a NARP — a normal-ass regular person — having to do rehab, which is f***ing devastating," she said.
And she was bracing for a lengthy rehab. She used crutches intermittently throughout the night; and by the end of it, she was in a surgical walking boot.
"I can't even feel where the Achilles is," she said. "So — obviously I'll get an MRI and stuff, but, yeah, pretty sure I tore my Achilles."
She joked about getting "the Aaron Rodgers treatment, whatever that is." She mused about her injury's effect on the game. And she stated bluntly: "This is f***ed up."
But even there, in an interview room alongside Lavelle, after her last shot at an NWSL title had vanished, she was able to regain perspective.
"I've had an incredible career that I never could've dreamed of, did s*** that has never been done before," she said. "It's been unbelievable. So I think overall, I do have a real peace, and a deep sense of gratitude, to be able to play this game for as long as I have. Now it's just annoying, I have all this rehab coming up. Other than that, I'm looking forward to retirement, and looking forward to my new role in the game."
And what, exactly, will that role be?
"I don't think you can contain me in one entity," Rapinoe said. "I don't wanna coach, or be locked down into one job. I have an amazing partnership with Nike that runs for four or five more years. I have a production company with Sue that we're really excited to get more involved in. I have a documentary coming out. The Reign's soon to be acquired, I would love to stay a part of this group in some kind of way. ... And I just wanna be a part of the next business phase of the league."
The end of her own NWSL phase, she acknowledged, was "disappointing."
"I also feel really ready to step away," she said, and with a smile and implicit nod toward her heel, she added: "clearly, it's time."