The long road to Washington
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Charlie Davies strode the length of RFK Stadium's soft turf. While his D.C. United teammates stretched in the center circle at the end of practice, he churned out quick sprints, pushing a ball forward all the while, trying to regain his feel for it. As the sun gently caressed those under it on March 18, 2011, the sound of the collision between the leather of his cleats and the leather of the ball reverberated around the cavernous old stadium.
The next day, what began on this field would end here, too, with United set to face the Columbus Crew. Seventeen months ago, during the ninth minute of the U.S.'s final World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, the national team's fan club, the American Outlaws, set off smoke bombs and held aloft more than 1,000 white sheets of paper as a tribute to Davies. Printed on the papers was the missing striker's number, forming a sea of 9s that appeared to rise out of the smoke. It was just the morning before when news broke that Davies, then a 23-year-old striker who was as promising as he was fast, had been badly hurt in a car accident in nearby Arlington, Va.
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If that was the first day of Charlie Davies' recovery, tomorrow against the Crew would be the last. Davies was on the eve of his first senior game of soccer since providing the game-equalizing assist to Conor Casey during the U.S.'s 3-2 victory in Honduras, which clinched its World Cup berth on Oct. 10, 2009.
"I'm excited for him," said empathetic club veteran Santino Quaranta, a recovered drug addict. "It's a situation where he comes back not just on the soccer field, but you're talking about a second chance at life."
"You can't help but root for a guy like that," said new United captain Dax McCarty. "To get even to the point he is now is an inspiration to us all. He's got this personality about him that you can't help but be drawn to him. He's always got a smile on his face, he really lightens the mood in the locker room. I think that's one thing that he's learned from everything that has happened."
Davies was ready. "Physically, he's at 100 percent," said Brian Goodstein, the team's head trainer.
For so monumental and anticipated a return, there was little anybody could say to further emphasize it. So head coach Ben Olsen didn't bother trying. "He's been through quite a bit and he's dealt with a lot more in his life than I have in mine," he said. "And he's chomping at the bit."
After practice, a shower and 30 minutes spent with a generous helping of icepacks, Davies materialized in a pair of bright red jeans, black high tops, a grey hoodie and brown-tinted aviator sunglasses. He got into the passenger seat of a car. He didn't hesitate.
"It's not going to faze me if I don't have any recollection of the accident," he said. "I'm sure if I remembered it, it'd be different to get in a car."
Davies only remembers bits and pieces from that fateful day, like going through a morning workout with the team after arriving in D.C. the day before; skipping an optional team dinner to go out to eat with Stuart Holden; bumping into acquaintances Ashley Roberta and Maria Espinoza, whom he knew through their mutual friend Freddy Adu; breaking the midnight curfew and riding to a club with them; spending most of the night with Chefik Simo, a close friend and one of his agents, watching "Monday Night Football" in a private room; running into the women again around 2:30 a.m. and accepting a ride back to his hotel; and, finally, putting on a seatbelt because Espinoza's speeding troubled him.
Court documents cited by the Washington Post -- which Davies was unaware of until I told him about them -- fill in the many holes in his memory. They say the three drove south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia in Espinoza's mother's 2004 Infiniti FX35. Espinoza was relying on her GPS for directions. She missed the exit. As she looked down to consult her navigation system, the car veered off the road. Before she'd even had a chance to pump the brakes, the car hit a guardrail and split in half. Roberta, sitting in the passenger seat, was launched and killed instantly. The back end, with Davies in it, slid down a 17-foot embankment. Davies was pinned down and rescued with a lacerated bladder, a fractured right tibia, fibula and femur, a torn ligament in his left knee, a fractured left elbow, a broken nose, forehead and eye socket and bleeding on the brain. In a series of surgeries, two titanium rods were inserted into his right shin and right upper leg. His face was peeled down to reconstruct the front of his skull.
"His injuries were so significant -- he had a list of eight categories of them," said U.S. national team physician Bert Mandelbaum. "[Emergency room workers] were just saving a life at that moment, a person. He could have gone over to the other side very easily."
Espinoza had only minor injuries. Her blood-alcohol level was measured at twice the legal limit. She pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and maiming while driving intoxicated and was sentenced to two years in prison on March 18, 2011, the day before Davies' comeback.
The next memory Davies has is of waking up after three or four days in a medically induced coma. Twenty-nine medical staples rode from his groin up to his stomach and past his belly button. Rather than a hospital in Washington, D.C., he was convinced that he was in a Honduran hostel and that his organs would be stolen. In a panic, he started picking out the staples and prepared to make a run for it. "I was like, with my speed, there's no one that's going to catch me if I get on the run," Davies said. He started to bleed, making him reconsider. That's when a nurse ran over and tried to explain where he was.
"No!" he screamed at her. "Tell me what I'm doing here." She tried to explain again. He laughed her off.
"Anybody could say that," Davies answered.
After she explained it for a third time, he bought her story.
"I think they drugged me up as much as they could after that," Davies said.
In the week-long, drug-induced haze that followed, Davies told his family he played in the NFL and needed to get back in time to play in the Super Bowl. For the next two months, he couldn't sleep properly. The once lightning-quick striker's legs could no longer race, so his mind did it for him. "Every single day, I'd just continually think about how I let this happen to myself," Davies said. "Why did I get in that car? Why did I go out? Why couldn't I have changed all of these little things that [put me] in the situation I am in now? How long will it take me to get over these injuries? All these thoughts would pollute my mind -- all day, every day."
At an upscale sandwich shop, Davies ordered a monster meatball sub. A club official teased him about never being able to finish it. Davies assured him he would.
I sat across the table from him. The scar left by the facial reconstruction, which snakes from ear to ear across his dome and is sometimes described as a smiley face, sort of stares back at you. It is gruesome and mesmerizing; nauseating and neat. And a testament to what modern medicine can achieve.
Davies gets his hair cut every other week. That way he never loses sight of the scar. Together with the other scar tissue that sprouted from the wounds all over his body, it reminds him daily of what he got away with.
He looked serene and was polite and pleasant. His mind doesn't race anymore. "I have no regrets," he said. "Of course, it would probably be best if it had never happened. But it did. I lost a dream of mine. Being with the national team at the World Cup and be placed in the top three, I really thought that that could happen and I think it would have happened if I had been there."
But he's over it. "What's meant to be is meant to be," he said. "Am I ever questioning God, or why me, or why do you have to do this to me? No. I put myself in this position. I've become such a better person through this whole experience. And you realize there's more to life than soccer. Before, I just thought soccer, soccer, soccer and nothing else. Now I feel for people. I was in a wheelchair and I went to a store in a wheelchair, and people behind the register didn't even look at me and wouldn't even answer my question. I have a feel for what some people have to go through every day. I've grown so much as a person and I wouldn't take that back. It was all a learning experience. I'm glad I was able to go through something like this and survive and take so many positives out of it. I'm at peace. I couldn't be happier. I enjoy life."
He consoles himself in the knowledge he could perceive no visible signs that Espinoza or Roberta were intoxicated. "They seemed normal," he said. "There was no slurring of words and there's no recollection of them being anywhere near a little tipsy, or that they had been drinking a little too much.
I got to see another side of people. I thought I had close friends. When you're down, that's when you need your friends. But there were so many who just never called or never sent an email, never came to see me -- nothing. Now I see people for what they are.” -- Charlie Davies
"I'm not stupid, I knew that they had had a couple of drinks," Davies said. "In life, in college, in all the years after that, you get in a car with people that have had one or two drinks. That's a normal thing. And at the time, I really did not think they had had more than enough to impair their judgment while driving a car."
While his decision remains dubious, and one that was questioned at the time by Simo, who asked Davies several times if he was sure he wanted to get in the car with the women, Davies has forgiven himself for it. It's a hard-learned lesson. "Now do I get in a car with someone that's even had one drink? No," he said. "I'd rather walk 20 miles than get in a car with someone that's even had a beer or a drink."
Davies also learned something about a lot of people surrounding him. "I got to see another side of people," he said. "I thought I had close friends. When you're down, that's when you need your friends. But there were so many who just never called or never sent an email, never came to see me -- nothing. You sit back and you go, 'Where are these people?' Now I see people for what they are and I'm not going to be taken advantage of like I was in the past."
Davies' fans and his fiancée, Nina, who he met in a freshman theology class at Boston College, on the other hand, proved reliable and paramount in what he describes as his "rising from the ashes." Davies received more than 20,000 emails, as well as posters, custom-designed pillows, flags and even a detachable mural depicting him raising a fist. Nina was there to support him, as well. "She is one of the strongest women I could have ever imagined," Davies said. "She had Hodgkin's disease when she was in seventh grade. She survived cancer. For her to survive that and on top of that be with me through all these injuries and the accident and the rehab and being there for me every single day, I was able to see that."
It was hard not to root for Davies to return to the game. Comeback stories like his speak to the larger human condition and are at the core of the narrative that draws us to sports. But while the experience was valuable to Davies, its implications were papered over. A procession of questionable decisions went almost entirely disregarded, as if getting hurt by them precludes your actions from being scrutinized. Davies got a waiver from absolutely everybody. Even head coach Bob Bradley decided against further punishment for Davies violating team rules.
But ultimately, Davies let down a team that had invested in him, that was counting on him.
"I was punished with an accident and I was punished with the injuries and I was punished with missing the World Cup," he said. "I'm sure that serves enough."
Davies took missing the World Cup very hard. Especially because of the mind trick he'd played on himself to get through his grueling rehabilitation.
For some time, the conviction was widely held that Davies would make it back in time for South Africa. That appearance was bred by Davies himself, who had told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap on Dec. 4 and reiterated to ESPN.com on Feb. 2 that he expected to be fully fit for the World Cup, which would kick off on June 11. "The World Cup is easy for me to be back for," he said at the time. He had set a timetable for himself, which was never corroborated publicly by any surgeon, physician, physiotherapist or club or federation official. Davies' self-imposed schedule also went unchallenged by an eager fan base, blinded by empathy and all too conscious of the shallow pool of able-bodied U.S. forwards. On Twitter, Davies' account serves as a very intimate record of his mending. In frequent and, as it turns out, wildly optimistic messages, he kept people abreast of his progress throughout the spring of 2010.
"Along every step of the way, I had people tell me it's not normal to be as far along in my rehab as I was," Davies said in the sandwich shop. "I really believed in my heart that I would be back for the World Cup."
Which made it all the more shocking when, on May 11, Davies wasn't on head coach Bob Bradley's preliminary roster for the pre-World Cup training camp in Princeton, N.J. Officially, Davies' club, Sochaux, hadn't cleared him to rejoin the U.S., but it became clear that Davies was still many months away from full fitness.
"I had to fool myself," Davies said about the illusion he created for himself and fans that he had a chance to play in the tournament of tournaments. "Deep down -- deep, deep down -- I knew I was in a whole lot of trouble to get back [in time]. But normally you doubt yourself a lot. So I had to really trick myself into thinking that I was so much further than I was, that I was going to make the World Cup. And I'm glad that I was too optimistic, because that helped me get through so many tough periods. I think that if I wasn't that optimistic I wouldn't have gotten this far and might have not made it."
Bradley had warned him about inflating expectations through Twitter. "You don't want to put yourself in a position where you're making all this progress and yet somehow it seems like a failure because the timing [of your recovery] just doesn't coincide with the World Cup," Bradley had told him.
And so his falling short of his self-anointed goal felt like a defeat.
"It was really the lowest point of the whole process of coming back," Davies said. "When Coach Bradley called me, I cried. That was the first time I really let everything out. That's when I think it all hit me, what had happened, the consequences of my actions. Everything set in at that moment. The absolute hardest thing I've ever had to do was to go to training that day with Sochaux."
When Coach Bradley called me, I cried. That was the first time I really let everything out.” -- Davies upon hearing the news that he would not make the 2010 World Cup
But the disappointment was ludicrous, after all, considering where he'd come from. "In these types of situations, where there are multiple traumas to bones and elbows and bladders, the first goal is to get people back to life and to get them to walk and have a meaningful life," said Dr. Mandelbaum, who oversaw Davies' recovery. "To even put on the table to get back for the World Cup was so incredibly out there; it was such an unfathomable challenge." Mandelbaum says that if he'd been asked to give Davies his odds for making a return to professional soccer right after the accident, he would have put them at "close to 0 percent."
"That's not being dramatic, that's just being pragmatic, knowing what the injuries were like," Mandelbaum said. "In the history of sport there are very few athletes to have ever come back from this type of magnitude of injuries. This is a very rare phenomenon to see."
Meanwhile, Davies' time with Sochaux was growing increasingly fraught with frustration. He was still far from match fitness, and even the level of practice was a stretch. As a result, his teammates lost interest in passing him the ball. "There were times when I'd be running around at practice and never got the ball," Davies said. "It was extremely, extremely difficult when the players start to lose confidence in you. It didn't make me feel like it was the place I needed to be. I really did not enjoy going to training, which is crazy to say because you get this second chance to not only live but play this sport you've always loved." While playing time with the reserves was ample, he made it onto the first team's bench just once and never got into a game.
"Those were very difficult times," Davies said. "I'm sure I had depression and anxiety throughout those times. There were times I didn't want to move, I didn't want to go to training; reserve games were like having to go do chores."
In the midst of all this was another car-related incident. Hoping to make a surprise visit to Nina while she was with her family in Boston, Davies caught a ride to the airport in Paris with teammate Jacques Faty. Police clocked their car going 125 mph and pulled them over. "I didn't know we were going that fast," Davies defended himself, saying his chair had been reclined to the point where he couldn't see out. "I didn't look at the speedometer. If I had known, I would have definitely told him to slow your ass down." Faty then bullied Davies into switching seats, convinced that his license was still suspended from a previous infraction. And so it was reported that Davies had been driving a car at almost twice the speed limit.
Now needing desperately to find another club, a move to D.C. United, which had been keen on him since he was playing for Boston College, became a possibility this past January. After consulting with Bradley, Davies jumped at the chance, even agreeing to go on a 10-day trial. After just four days, United decided internally that it would sign him and negotiated a loan deal with Sochaux that also allows it to buy Davies outright by Dec. 1, 2011.
Davies hopes to revamp his career at United. His short-term goal is "100 percent to get back to Europe," he said. "My ultimate goal is to play in England." In the meantime, he hopes to "reward [United] for taking a chance on me."
But first, there's a comeback to be made.
"I'm expecting to impress," Davies said. "Basically to go out there and shock people, to be like: 'There's no way that kid who was in a car accident where he almost died is back doing that.' That's what I want to do. I'm getting butterflies just thinking about it now."
He never did finish his sandwich. But he guaranteed he would later.
Davies' comeback started on the bench this past Saturday night, March 19, when United took on the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium. As the game ambled on, frenetic but sloppy, Davies got up to run and stretch every five minutes or so. Every time, he sat back down.
After halftime, his jacket came off, then his track pants and, finally, his hat and gloves. He ran some more, stretched and got worked on by a trainer. In the 52nd minute, at long last, Davies came on, seconds after Josh Wolff had put United ahead. The already rabid crowd erupted.
Two minutes after coming on, Davies got his long-awaited first touch on the ball. He headed it high. On his second touch, he got a shot off, but was called off for offsides. Later, Columbus center back Julius James thundered over him on a header, sending Davies crashing into the ground face first. He smiled and got up.
In the 62nd minute, Chris Pontius was brought down in the box to earn United a penalty. Davies signaled his intent to take it, but Wolff picked up the ball. McCarty snatched it from him. "I need this," Davies pleaded with McCarty. "I want this."
"He looked at me with those eyes he gives," McCarty later recalled. "I was always going to defer to him."
In the RFK cauldron, Davies coolly slid it to his right; goalkeeper Will Hesmer went to his left. Davies tore off, arms spread wide, toward the corner of the field where he knew Nina was sitting. He pointed at her, and at Jim Hashimoto, the physio who worked with him every day for months when jogging was still a pipe dream. Then he was inundated by teammates. Above them, in the stands, a patch of 9s materialized, held onto by fans certain they would one day get to use them again, only this time with Davies there to see them.
Not 15 minutes later, in the 77th of the game, left back Marc Burch played a long ball. Davies drifted back, leading his marker, Chad Marshall, knowing he could easily beat him on that speed nobody else was sure he still had. As the ball neared, Davies took off. Marshall tripped in his attempt to give chase. Davies controlled the ball and set about weaving through what remained of the Columbus defense before gliding it into an empty net. Bedlam.
The rest of the game, which United won 3-1, was a victory parade for Davies. The fans chanted his name. And then the final whistle blew.
James, who had ridden Davies all night and is an old college foe and United teammate before being cut before the season, was the first to hug him. "I'm proud of you," James told him.
"Once that final whistle blew and I looked at the fans, I lost it emotionally. I cried," Davies would later say in the locker room, scarcely able to contain his giddiness. "Their support meant so much to me. Throughout this whole process, they've stuck with me. It just came out of me. And it was triggered by their support, when I looked over at the fans and saw the 9s. I just let it all go. The emotion poured out of me. It was crossing the finish line."
Davies strolled off the field, victorious, as the biggest 9 yet seen was unfurled behind him.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.