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Black History Month: Couldn’t keep Shannon in a Boxx

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Shannon Boxx is one of America’s greatest soccer players ever, and she excelled while also living with lupus.

Sweden v USA: Group C - FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 Photo by Alex Livesey - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Shannon Boxx was a unique player for the United States Women’s National Team. She was a player that played the right style at the right position at the right time, and is known as one of the great players in U.S. Soccer history. But, it was a diagnosis late in her career that made her career even more unique.

Boxx grew up in Torrance, California with her white single mother. Her father was black, but there wasn’t much interaction with him. One thing that Shannon latched onto early was soccer, and her talent was very evident even in her youth. She dominated youth soccer in California, leading her local team in Torrance to 4 state championships and 2 USYSA Final Fours. She was a Parade All American in 1995 for high school soccer, and she also excelled at volleyball, softball, and basketball during her high school days.

Boxx earned a scholarship to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and as a freshman, she helped the team to its first national championship. She played for 4 years in South Bend, and was All-Big East 3 years in a row. She has the most appearances in Notre Dame history with 101 matches. It was at Notre Dame that Boxx began to discover more of her African American heritage.

“For me, I really learned about my other half. I took African American studies. I majored in it. I think that was one of the best things I could have ever done. My mom couldn’t teach me those things. So I went and taught myself and learned those things when I was at Notre Dame.”

After Notre Dame, she played a couple seasons with the Boston Renegades of the W-League and with 1. FC Saarbrücken in the Frauen-Bundesliga, but almost retired because of her unhappiness. She then came home to play in the new Women’s United Soccer Association, getting drafted in the first round by the San Diego Spirit. She played every match in her first year in 2001, but her minutes diminished over the course of 2002. She was traded to the New York Power, and in 2003 her career took off. She was named to the All-WUSA team in 2003. Tony DiCicco, the coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning United States Women’s National Team, had served as commissioner of the WUSA. He called Boxx “the best [defensive midfielder] in our league...physical, strong, technical...I was never that big of a Shannon Boxx fan. The league proved me wrong.’’

Boxx also played for the Los Angeles Sol, Saint Louis Athletica, FC Gold Pride, and magicJack of Women’s Professional Soccer before finishing her career with the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2015. It was when her break came with the Power in 2003 that she finally broke through to the USWNT.

Boxx had been a member of the United States U-21 player pool, but in August 2003, Shannon Boxx received her first USWNT call-up by then national team coach April Heinrichs. She became the oldest player to debut for the USWNT and the first uncapped player to ever make a Women’s World Cup roster for the team. She scored her first goal in a warmup match against Costa Rica, following up with another goal in the last warmup match against Mexico and again in the USWNT’s World Cup opener against Sweden. Boxx was the first American woman to score 3 goals in her first 3 matches with the national team.

She was a major contributor for the team during the 2003 World Cup, starting 5 matches and scoring against Canada in the 3rd place match. She used that to vault into serving as the regular starter for the national team. She started 31 of 32 matches in 2004, including every match at the 2004 Olympics, helping the team secure a gold medal. She was 7th in FIFA World Player of the Year voting. In 2005, she only improved from there, playing well enough for the USWNT to finish 3rd in World Player of the Year voting, behind Birgit Prinz and Marta.

Boxx was injured for almost all of 2006, but was able to return in 2007 in time to be named to the World Cup roster. She featured in every match except for the 3rd place match, which she sat out due to suspension after receiving 2 yellow cards in the semifinal against Brazil.

It was in 2007, at the age of 30, that Shannon Boxx was diagnosed with lupus. She had been experiencing extreme fatigue and joint pain and excessive muscle soreness after training session. Lupus, an autoimmune disease, produces antibodies that destroy healthy tissue in the body because the immune system can’t tell the difference between healthy tissue and viruses.

Boxx was diagnosed with lupus in 2007 when she was 30 years old. At the time she was playing for the U.S. National Team and had begun feeling extremely fatigued; regular training sessions left her with joint pain and muscle soreness. Still, Shannon was not to be deterred. She was an integral part of the 2008 Olympic team that secured its second straight gold medal in Beijing, China.

Shannon continued to play, not revealing her lupus diagnosis publicly. It didn’t stop her from dominating on the field. She continued as a regular star for the USWNT in the 2011 World Cup, playing all but one match as the Americans lost to Japan on penalties in the final. She didn’t let lupus deter her from still being a regular contributor for the team. She was named to the 2012 Olympic roster, and the team went to England to win its 3rd straight gold medal. After that Olympics, Shannon Boxx revealed to the world that she had lupus, and that she had been managing it while still being able to play the game she loved at its highest level.

Despite winning 3 Olympic gold medals, there was one goal that eluded her: a World Cup trophy. Boxx continued to play, and she earned a spot on the 2015 Women’s World Cup squad for the United States. She continued to feature where needed for the USWNT, as they won the title. Shannon Boxx, having turned 38 during the tournament, lifted her first World Cup trophy. She announced her retirement soon after the end of the tournament in Canada, playing her last match with the national team against Brazil in October 2015.

Shannon’s last name may have been Boxx, but she couldn’t be kept in one. Not by lupus, injury, or people doubting her. She persevered through a national team career that spanned 12 years and 195 caps. Her unique style of play, combining grace with physicality and strength, was made even more distinctive by the fact she continued to play that way with a debilitating disease doing its absolute best to hold her back. She defeated that doubt, that injury, that fatigue, that soreness, and will forever live as one of the USWNT’s most decorated legends.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.