Climbing the Mountain: EJ Proctor’s Journey From Duke to Utah

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It’s safe to say that the Boston Breakers folding changed EJ Proctor’s life.

The newly drafted goalkeeper seemed to be entering a great situation—competing with and learning from Nicole Barnhart—but after Utah selected Abby Smith in the Boston dispersal draft, it shifted the deck significantly, leaving Proctor without a contract or any kind of certainty.

But Proctor is goalkeeper. And goalkeepers like challenges that most of us would shrink away from. She’s also no stranger to working hard for a starting spot. She came to Duke as a walk-on, only to win the starting job in a breakout sophomore season. Her career at Duke culminated in 2017, when she posted a school record 18 clean sheets. In that season, her goals against average was .379, good enough to be ranked sixth nationally.

Roscoe Myrick/Utah Royals FC

I spoke to Proctor recently, to get her perspective on that experience: “At first I was honestly just like, ‘okay, this is going to very much change my situation there,’ so it’s a little bit intimidating. But you know, I just look at it like my job is to make the coaches question who is one, two and three every day. And that was kind of the situation I went into my freshman year at Duke, I went in as a walk-on. There was a senior and a fifth-year so I was kind of always the young inexperienced one… But yeah, I mean, it obviously sucks. Had she not been drafted, I probably would have had a contract. But it’s good that she’s someone else to learn from who’s good, who’s different from Barnie (Nicole Barnhart) and myself, so I just try to look at the good things.”

When it comes to situations beyond an individual player’s control, it’s not just the Boston effect. The broader reality is that there just aren’t enough spots on NWSL rosters. With limited roster sizes, it’s only really been practical to carry two keepers. For Proctor, quite understandably, that’s not ideal.  “Honestly​, a lot of teams, you want three goalkeepers, because it opens up so many different drills, the flow of things. It helps a lot. Right now Barnie’s coming back. If Abby was to get hurt, how would that work?”

For keepers coming out of college, the options are limited. Obviously, NWSL squads want to have depth at the position, but given roster constrains and a glut of solid keepers already in the league, that doesn’t leave much space. Occasionally, a graduate will break through, but more often they’re put in the position of staying in market without a contract. Of course, no contract means no pay, which is a tough pill to swallow. “I graduated from Duke and I don’t have an income,” Proctor told me.

If Proctor was on contract she would make at least the league minimum, $15,750 for the season. That’s not a lot, but it’s a lot more than nothing. Still, Proctor said, “they pay for living expenses. So I don’t really have any expenses to worry about. It’s just more like how I know I need to save this amount of money a month… And so I do stress about it a lot.”

Even these limited benefits highlight another feature of the league: the different accommodations provided by different teams. As the Salt Lake Tribune’s Christopher Kamrani reported, Dell Loy Hansen has gone above and beyond existing standards. That’s partly because he was “allowed to spend an extra $100,000 on housing” due to the quick turnaround on establishing the team. Kamrani says that “Most of the team lives in fully furnished apartments near Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. Club sponsor Maverik donated $100 monthly gas cards, while Ford took a leap and gave 10 cars for the team to split this season.”

Proctor, the youngest in the Royals pool at just 22, has been rooming with former Sky Blue and Portland Thorns player Kendall Johnson. At 26, Johnson has to be considered almost into middle age in NWSL terms. Proctor says that rooming with Johnson has been a good fit: “We actually get along really well so it’s been nice. Lucked out with that. I didn’t really know anything about her when I found out that she was going to be my roommate, but​ we balance out very well.”

For any player, moving across the country to a new environment is going to be tough. Proctor is no different in that regard. But while she certainly would like to be closer to her family, it’s not the two-legged ones that she misses the most. It’s her dogs. When she made a trip back to North Carolina a few weeks ago she was met at the airport with the two pups. “Oh my gosh, I was so thrilled, they were at the airport when I got home super late. They​ always make me feel so loved, one was jumping out of the car to get to me. So that was great. I sob whenever I have to say bye to them because my parents, my brother and my grandma will be out here this weekend for a home opener. So I see all of them, but the dogs, it’s like, ‘I don’t I know when I’ll see you again!’”

Transitions are difficult, but Proctor did say that she’s found it easy to fit into the keeper’s union she’s joined.  While she would obviously prefer to be starting, she says that working behind Smith and Barnhart has been a great experience. “Barnie’s  funny, you know she doesn’t say much. But she’s always just kind of laughs and she’s just fun to be around. And then Abby’s just kind of very lighthearted, always in a good mood. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, so we mix well personality-wise and goalkeeping-wise as well. I think there’s kind of a good variety to us.”

Proctor also confirmed what we all pretty much already knew: it’s good to have Becky Sauerbrunn as your captain—partly due to her leadership qualities, but also for her sense of humor.  “Becky is so funny and sarcastic. I honestly can say I respect her more than anyone I’ve ever played with, but she’s the most sarcastic person and I love it because I would’ve never thought that was there.”

Roscoe Myrick/Utah Royals FC

What is life like for a keeper trying to play her way into the team? Not very exciting most of the time, it turns out. For all that being a professional athlete implies moments of glory, the truth is that your average day is pretty mundane. According to Proctor, her day is organized around training. “So our trainings are either at 9:15 AM or 11 AM. Most of the time they’ve been at 11 so we usually have to be at the stadium around like 9:30 or 9:45, unless we have treatment. Have breakfast there, have our meetings, have​ band activation, and go to training until​ 12:30 or 12:45. Then come back to the stadium, shower or whatever, post-practice things you need to do, and then usually around 2:00 or so is when we get home. I would either do my extra workout stuff in the morning because I get up early, so I do that before training, or right after at the weight room. And then a couple of nights weekly I’ll coach kids.” 

When Proctor isn’t practicing, watching game tape, or coaching youth players, she can be found watching sports. But it isn’t always soccer that grabs her attention. “I probably watch just as much basketball as I do soccer, if not more. March Madness is one of my favorites. There’s just always some basketball to watch. That was always great for me to go to at Duke, because​ I didn’t care that our football team wasn’t that great, but basketball—always fun.”

As the Utah season rolls on, it’s still unknown whether Proctor will be put on a contract or be given a chance to step between the pipes for the Royals. But for now the young goalkeeper is working on what she can control. As Proctor put it, right now her job is to give her coaches a new perspective on their goalkeeping options. 

If Boston hadn’t folded, I don’t know what happens. Proctor might have found herself in goal on opening day. Maybe Barnhart is rushed back onto the field and Proctor is on the bench. Maybe a trade is made for someone else and Smith comes anyway. 

Things happen in the span of a heartbeat inside a game. If the NWSL sees Proctor in goal this year, she’ll be ready. Overcoming the odds, from walking on at Duke to taking her team to the final four more than once, is kind of her thing. 

Image courtesy of Roscoe Myrick/Utah Royals FC