Right hand bouncing against the wall, left foot twisting back and forth, Emily Jaffe leaned up against the outer brick wall of the U-M Soccer Complex, enjoying a sun-soaked afternoon.
Just two days after scoring on her second header in as many games — the first one being a game-winning tally against Michigan State in overtime on Oct. 10 — the 5-foot-6 senior midfielder was all smiles.
Sheepish from all of the attention she had received, the Ann Arbor native blushed incessantly and goofily smiled as she reflected on a collegiate career that had come full circle.
Not too long ago, she had walked away from the game.
Playing high school soccer right in Michigan’s backyard, Jaffe asserted herself for Pioneer High School. She was a three-time All-Conference and a three-time All-District selection, as well as a Division-I All-State selection after her junior season.
“She was poetry in motion,” said Chris Morgan, who coached Jaffe at Pioneer until her senior year. “She was always trying to execute and she was a very creative player. She dedicated herself to the team. She was just a joy to watch because she worked so hard.”
Jaffe worked tirelessly year-round. She would show up to practice early and tried to stay late, asking Morgan for more drills. She battled through injuries, spending a great deal of time with the team trainer but never enough time to take herself off the field.
“There was a point, actually, where we had to tell her to stop working so hard,” Morgan said. “She was training so much that she was doing more harm than good.”
The work paid dividends, though, providing various choices for Jaffe when several schools started calling. Morgan said he jokingly tried to persuade her to choose Michigan or Michigan State so that he could watch her play. Though becoming a Wolverine would have been the easy choice, Jaffe wanted to go someplace new, a school far enough away from home where she could grow independently.
With a connection to Iowa’s women’s soccer coach Ron Rainey, who she had met through the U.S. Olympic Development Program, and a love for the campus in Iowa City, she decided on the Hawkeyes. Before first-year Michigan coach Greg Ryan ever had a chance to see her play, Jaffe had committed to Iowa.
“By the time (Ryan) came in and started recruiting players, I felt like I wanted to be committed,” she said. “It was the high school rush.”
But the midfielder’s time with the Hawkeyes was short-lived. Midway through the 2009 season, Jaffe no longer wanted to play soccer. Playing a significant role off the bench for Iowa during her freshman season, she quit the team after just eight game appearances.
“I think I got really burnt out on soccer,” Jaffe said. “To be at this level, for a lot of girls, that’s all they do in high school and middle school. I felt like I needed a little more variety in my life and balance, so I gave up soccer and found some other things that I was interested in.”
Added Morgan: “It didn’t surprise me that she burnt out because she played 24/7. We would always try to get her to take time off between club and high school and training on her own because her body was just getting beat up. It didn’t surprise me that she had to walk away from the game for a while.”
Though disappointed that he had lost a talented player halfway through the collegiate season, Rainey said he understood the decision.
“We talked about it,” he said. “You want your athletes to be enjoying themselves. You’ve got to have fun while you’re going to school — the first year of school is a stressful time. There were no hard feelings. I try to respect the athlete’s decision.”
With more free time, Jaffe said that she started exploring other interests that were a lot less “self-involved.” She became passionate about environmental studies. She started to volunteer in the community, and even began tutoring.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, she wasn’t playing soccer — and she was enjoying it.
“It allowed me to step back and get a little more perspective, and see that soccer isn’t the center of the universe,” Jaffe said.
With her determination to play soccer at a competitive level gone, there was nothing keeping her at Iowa. She decided to transfer and head home.
“Michigan is such a great school that I figured if I’m not playing soccer out of state, then I should just attend Michigan,” the senior said. “Being homesick also very much influenced my decision.”
Upon transferring, Jaffe made the choice not to contact the women’s soccer coaching staff, and instead, settled on playing for the less-competitive club soccer team.
But within weeks, she had urges to contact Ryan to try to play for the varsity team.
“I thought about it a lot,” Jaffe said. “I thought about contacting Greg because I was getting my passion back, but I stepped back and decided not to.”
The club season ended and, with that, so did her thoughts of playing at the varsity level. But as soon as the 2011 club season began and she began playing soccer again, Jaffe could no longer ignore the itch.
“I definitely missed the competitive level of play,” Jaffe said. “I felt like I couldn’t find something in my life to compete at.”
Just two weeks into the club season, she contacted the varsity coaching staff.
Jaffe finally landed a midseason tryout on Tuesday, Sept. 20, nine games into the Wolverines’ season.
During the midfielder’s first practice with the Michigan women’s soccer team, Ryan split his team into two squads so that the Wolverines could play a possession game. He put his starters in the game that he was watching and he put Jaffe with the rest of the team in the game that assistant coach Angela Napoli was in charge of watching.
Ryan walked over to Napoli to get her thoughts on the new addition.
“What did you think of Emily?” Ryan asked.
“She’ll be starting on Friday,” Napoli replied.
The next day, Ryan placed Jaffe with the starters so that he could gauge her ability for himself. After the game, he went back to Napoli.
“You’re right, she’s starting on Friday.”
Three days after joining the Wolverines, the transfer found herself in the starting lineup at midfield against Minnesota.
But since that game, her time with the Wolverines has been a real rollercoaster ride. After starting the next six contests, Jaffe missed the final three games of the season following an appendectomy.
Entering the 2012 season, Jaffe found herself in the starting lineup once again, but after 12 games, she was relegated to the bench.
“We talked about it,” Ryan said. “She felt that she was in a little bit of a slump and we talked about it being easier for her coming off the bench.”
Her minutes slowly dipped and three games later, she found herself on the bench for all of regulation as the Wolverines battled Michigan State to overtime. Looking to inject life into the team, Ryan substituted her in at the beginning of the extra period. Ten minutes later, the midfielder found herself in the middle of a celebration pile after heading in the game-winning goal, the first score of her career.
Five days later in Michigan’s 2-0 victory against Purdue, with the monkey off her back, Jaffe came in off the bench and headed in another corner kick.
She attributed her time away from the game to her recent resurgence.
“These past few weeks I was in a slump,” Jaffe said. “But instead of just digging myself deeper, and deeper in a hole, I could step back and re-evaluate and see that I should just be playing to enjoy it.”
Now, with just a few weeks left in her career, the senior said she is just trying to appreciate her time on the field.
“I’m not trying to think about the end because I don’t really want to face being done,” Jaffe said. “Especially with taking some time off, I wish I could have it all back.”
Jaffe tried to take an extra year of eligibility, but the NCAA ruled that her season with the club team in 2010 counted toward her four years. They also ruled that her seven games with the team in 2011 were too many for her to ask for a medical redshirt.
Though Jaffe will end her collegiate career earlier than she would like, Morgan is just happy that his former player was able to rekindle her passion for soccer and find a second chance with Michigan.
“For everything that she has done for the game, helping other players —she brought joy to my life — it’s nice to see her get that payback,” Morgan said. “I know it hasn’t always been easy for her, so it just make me smile.”