When Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty’s ‘7’ went up on the substitute’s board in the 73rd minute and his name rang out around the stadium on Wednesday night, there was a roar from BMO Field.
It wasn’t just that Toronto FC were already halfway to a 4-0 win over CF Montreal in the Canadian Championship, fans were excited to see the 18-year-old back on the pitch.
“That was a really proud moment, to just get back on the field in general,” said Marshall-Rutty on Thursday. “I had my family there. I grew up in Toronto, I came from the academy, so every time I get to step on the pitch, it's a proud moment. It felt good to get that roar from the crowd; it makes me want to continue to work harder.”
It was a scary moment when 12 minutes into the third match of the season, Marshall-Rutty was forced off against the Columbus Crew. Having started all three previous matches, he would make one more appearance off the bench against D.C. United the following week before a scan revealed loose cartilage in his knee and surgery would be required.
“The Columbus game I felt something in my knee, so I came out, but then I got an MRI and it showed that everything was totally normal,” he recalled. “I continued to play. The D.C. United game I felt good and then my leg just swelled up one day. I went to get another MRI and there was loose cartilage floating inside my knee. As soon as we found out, we shut my knee down and shut me down.”
At some point in their career, every player will experience time on the sidelines. That doesn’t mean it is ever easy.
“At first it was hard. The first couple of days I was in a little bit of pain and couldn't walk properly, but I had my family, my teammates, and people in the club to help me get through,” explained the teenager. “I used the time to work on myself. I started doing some lower body stuff and upper body things that I knew I needed to improve on, so that when I got back I would feel even better. That was the biggest thing for me.”
Coming from a big family, he credits the support network around him for helping him recover.
“The people that are close to me helped me a lot, helped me take my mind off being out,” said Marshall-Rutty. “I would spend good time with my family and coming to the club my teammates would say ‘We miss you. We want you back on the field. Just take your time.’”
“It made me feel a lot better. My mind wasn’t on ‘I’m out’ and ‘I just got surgery,’ I was in a positive mindset,” he continued. “Off the field my family helped me a lot, my teammates and the coaching staff continued to work with me, so I still felt part of the group. A couple of times Bob [Bradley], Paul Stalteri would take me to the side, show me some film, so I still felt part of the group. That's a big thing that helped me progress.”
Marshall-Rutty made his return off the bench away to the New York Red Bulls last weekend before getting back on the pitch at BMO. His coaches and teammates are glad to have him back.
“When you have him on the field every day, you can see the joy that he has from being out there, from playing. He's fun to work with; he's fun to coach,” said Bob Bradley earlier this week. “And so it's sad when you have a good start to a season and then a player now has to go through a period of time where he's just not part of it in the same way.”
“He comes in every day, he does his work, but if you're not on the field for training, if you're not being coached, if when it's video time you're not on the video, then those are things that are difficult to get through,” he continued. “But he's maintained a good mentality. He's worked hard and step-by-step we're hopeful to have him back to his best form and even see how much higher that can go.”
These are the lessons that every professional, every person, must learn.
“It's all part of being a pro. It's all part of growing and maturing,” explained Michael Bradley. “You understand that it's not always smooth sailing, it's not always easy, and things don't always play out the way that you want them to. And so the ability to deal with setbacks, the ability to, even when things aren't going your way, still push, still come in every day with the right attitude and the right mentality – that part is what separates guys, that's what makes the difference in terms of guys who are good players and guys who are great players, guys who have short careers and guys who have long careers.”
“For all of our young guys, learning those lessons, understanding how to take care of yourself, understanding how to deal with moments of injury, understanding how to deal with decisions that don't go your way, understanding how to push through a spell when maybe you or the team isn't at your best, that's all part of it. The only way to do that is to live it,” he added. “We're really excited to have Jahkeele back with the group – just his energy and his smile and the way that he walks out on the field every day ready to train. That part's awesome. So yeah, we're excited to have him back.”
Marshall-Rutty, now in his third season, is one of a number of young players that have taken on bigger roles with the first team this year.
That was made clear before preseason even began.
“Bob came in and he gave all of us young players a chance. He gave us a lot of confidence,” outlined Marshall-Rutty. “If my coach believes in me and he's given me the chance, I'll take it. And my teammates are helping us younger players.”
“Bob said, ‘I’m going to give you guys a real chance,’” he recounted. “It was up to us to take it and we want to keep improving and keep playing.”
With a lot of eyes on him, Marshall-Rutty has grown used to garnering attention.
“Off the field things, I don't really pay attention,” he replied. “I have good people around me to make sure I remain humble. I try to control what I can control, which is the way I play and my mindset.”
Asked about the impending arrival of Lorenzo Insigne, Marshall-Rutty lit up: “Of course, I'm excited.”
“I grew up watching him for Napoli, so to have a player like that that I can learn from is going to be good,” he continued. “We have big time players, so to add another one is going to be good for us, for the fans. He’s going to help us in a big way.”
With appearances off the bench in the last two matches, Marshall-Rutty is looking forward to the busy stretch of home games ahead.
TFC will face Atlanta United on Saturday before next week sees them welcome the Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders FC to BMO Field.
“Coming off a big win, a 401 Derby win yesterday, we have a lot of confidence going into this weekend's game,” said Marshall-Rutty. “Bob always [challenges us with] how many times can you get six points in a row? We need to win and then just take it game-by-game.”
“With Insigne coming, the group is feeling good. So just building off of our performance yesterday and with players coming back – Jonathan Osorio and Chris Mavinga – and adding some players to the team, we're in a good way and we feel good about ourselves,” he added. “The biggest thing is just continue to play football. We’re looking at these next few home games as very important for the rest of our season.”