By: timbersfan , 1:17 AM GMT on February 04, 2012
TUKWILA, Wash. -- You knew it was bad, but not this bad: potentially career-ending bad, the kind of life-changing injury that caused a 23-year-old rising star, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 MLS draft, to start thinking of new ways to make a living. That's exactly what Steve Zakuani, the Seattle Sounders fan-favorite midfielder, found himself contemplating one night last June, two months after a tackle by Colorado's Brian Mullan had broken the tibia and fibula in his right leg.
Zakuani was on crutches. He had lost 18 pounds. And, worst of all, unexpected nerve damage meant he couldn't feel anything in the lower part of the leg. "For the first two or three months I had zero feeling there. Zero," he says. "I wouldn't know if someone was touching my leg. I couldn't even wiggle my little toe. It got to the point where I thought I might never play again."
The play that sidelined Zakuani is seared in the memory of anyone who witnessed it. Brian Dunseth was standing a few feet away, working as a reporter for Fox Soccer Channel's broadcast of the game last April. He remembers each moment: seeing Mullan lose the ball and throw up his hands looking for a foul; seeing Zakuani track back to gain possession, nutmeg Kosuke Kimura and start dribbling upfield; and seeing Mullan come in hard -- and high -- on Zakuani, who had planted his right leg in the turf.
Dunseth will never forget the haunting sound, a double snap that echoed like gunfire. "I can still hear it almost a year later," he says.
For Zakuani, the next nine months would bring multiple surgeries, extensive rehab and the doubt that comes with questions about your livelihood. Mullan, for his part, would face a 10-game suspension -- the longest in MLS history -- and paralyzing bouts of guilt and remorse. For two of the league's most respected players, 2011 would be the most challenging year of their careers.
Steve Zakuani smiles. He's wearing a black knit cap on an overcast winter day at the Sounders' training complex, and he couldn't be happier. He's practicing again. On every third day, he trains at full-speed with the rest of his teammates. The next day he'll split his efforts between the team and working out on his own. After that he'll spend an entire day doing drills to the side. Then the process starts over again.
"It's not 100 percent yet," he says in his London-accented English. (Zakuani was born in Congo and moved to London at age four.) "The sprinting and some of the movements still aren't there, but the basic touches and awareness on the pitch are coming back. The hardest thing is going to be getting back to not just playing, but playing at a good level."
Late May or early June would be a realistic time for him to return to an MLS game, he says. His right foot now has 70 to 80 percent sensation, thanks to the slow process of nerve regeneration, but the feet are so important to a pro soccer player that he won't be what he was until full sensation returns.
There's no doubt that Zakuani was a budding star when the injury happened. A blazing left-winger, he had two goals and two assists in the first five games of the '11 season and seemed certain to build on his 10-goal, six-assist league campaign from the previous year. "I felt like I was taking my game to the next level," Zakuani says.
Had Zakuani's injury been limited to the broken tibia and fibula, the two leg bones under the knee, he could have returned before the end of last season. But he suffered additional complications that made the damage far worse, says Michael Morris, the Sounders' medical director and orthopedic surgeon. Zakuani developed compartment syndrome in his right calf, a condition in which swelling increased the pressure inside the muscle, threatening to prevent blood circulation and cause severe muscle damage.
Doctors in Colorado rushed Zakuani into emergency surgery, where they inserted a nail into the tibia and released the lining of the muscle compartment, cutting the thin layer of fascia surrounding the calf like an envelope from the bottom of the leg up to nearly the knee. The muscle was allowed to swell and survive, but Zakuani suffered from scarring and fibrosis and would eventually need a skin graft to replace one of the two fascia incisions that didn't completely heal.
The other complication was even scarier: nerve damage that was limiting Zakuani's ability to use his right foot. "With the nerve injury, if he didn't recover function, he wouldn't have been able to play [again]," says Morris. "With compartment syndrome, sometimes it's hard to tell how much muscle has been involved. Initially, he had a lot of stiffness and difficulty with mobilizing his ankle. We thought he'd get back to doing normal things, but to play high-level soccer requires so much control of your foot that we were concerned he might not be able to get back. But I'd say he has made a remarkable recovery from all of that."
It hasn't been easy. Zakuani spent five days in the Denver-area hospital -- Seattle coach Sigi Schmid and minority owner Adrian Hanauer visited him there -- and due to the severity of his injuries the Sounders organized a private jet to take Zakuani and his mother, Cecile, back to the Pacific Northwest. Physical therapy was nearly unbearable at times. Zakuani would set new milestone goals for Fridays, and the big ones started falling: Get off one crutch. Get off the other crutch. Start walking. "Things I couldn't do a month before would come naturally," he says. "I've celebrated every little victory."
Words of support poured in. Zakuani was surprised to get an e-mail from David Beckham. Encouragement came on Twitter from Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies. There were long talks with his former University of Akron teammates (Teal Bunbury and Darlington Nagbe), and his agent, Richard Motzkin, and an inspiring conversation with Thierry Henry, one of his heroes growing up in North London. Then there was his coach. "Sigi was there from beginning to end," Zakuani says, "knowing when to tell me to take time off and when I should keep pushing."
Of all the MLS players who checked in, former Sounders teammate Pete Vagenas, a close friend and the owner of a Sahara-dry sense of humor, might have been Zakuani's favorite. "Pete is the only one who can make a joke out of this and not hurt my feelings," Zakuani says with a smile. When Vagenas's Vancouver team traveled to Seattle for a reserve game last year, the fans started singing Zakuani's name when he showed up on crutches at the small Starfire stadium. Vagenas sidled over to his friend and said, deadpan: "Stop milking this s---, Steve. It's time to get back to playing." Zakuani nearly doubled over laughing.
Seattle fans have continued to show their support for Zakuani's recovery.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Some stadium visits were harder. The first time Zakuani attended a Seattle MLS game, a month after the injury, he was so down he wouldn't talk to anyone. But other moments lifted his spirits, like the salute more than 36,000 Seattle fans gave him during the game after his injury, lifting placards with his number 11 during the 11th minute of a victory over Toronto. "They had this huge banner that said NUMBER 11: UNBREAKABLE," says Zakuani, who saw the video on YouTube. "I have those pictures up in my house. It's something I'll keep the rest of my life."
Zakuani also has written inspiration: four boxes of handwritten letters from fans that he only plans on opening as he gets closer to playing in an MLS game ("to remind me of how far I've come"). He also credits much of his positivity to reading the Bible nearly every night during his recovery.
When you have an injury like Zakuani's, the challenges are both physical and mental. On the physical side, it probably helped that his right leg had gone through another trauma before. In 2003, not long after he left Arsenal's youth program in London, Zakuani had a moped accident that caused severe damage to his right knee, including a nerve injury. The memory of that recovery helped remind him that nerves regrow slowly, that he had to be patient.
On the mental side, Zakuani says, Schmid has offered him the use of a psychologist from the start. "The closer I get [to playing games], I'll probably do that, meet someone I can talk to and give my concerns to," Zakuani says.
The mental aspect, after all, can be the hardest part. Brian Mullan knows.
He starts talking for a second, then stops and chokes up again. This won't be easy. Nine months have passed, and Brian Mullan is giving his first lengthy interview about his tackle that broke Zakuani's leg. Mullan takes a deep breath. He has been asked how much Zakuani's injury has occupied his thoughts since it happened. "Obviously, you can tell right now," Mullan says. "I still have a hard time with it. It wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I can't get back to sleep thinking about it."
Until that fateful night last April, Mullan, 33, was known mainly for his rampant success on the soccer field. An energetic winger, the 12th-year veteran had raised the MLS Cup trophy five times, tied with Jeff Agoos for the most in league history. Players in the league described Mullan as "hard-nosed" but not "dirty." Before last April 22, he had gone 131 MLS games and five seasons without a red card.
And then, in the matter of a few seconds on a soccer field, everything changed. "I lost the ball and saw an opportunity where I thought I could get it back," Mullan says. "And unfortunately the outcome was" -- he pauses -- "devastating."
Mullan wishes he could take back what he said immediately after the game, that "it was a tackle I've done a 100 times, and I'd probably do it again." He wanted to communicate that there was no intent to injure in his tackle, but it came out horribly wrong, considering Zakuani was heading into emergency surgery at a nearby hospital.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't know the extent of [the injury] until I was on my way home from the stadium," Mullan says. "I had done the interview after the game and had no idea of the severity. It came down pretty hard afterward."
Mullan says he tried to get in touch with Zakuani in the days afterward, not least because he wanted to visit him in the hospital and apologize face to face, man to man. "Especially somebody who I respect as much as Steve as a player, I thought that was the least I could do," Mullan says. Zakuani wasn't ready though. "Completely understandable," says Mullan, who continued letting Schmid and (through common friends) Zakuani know that he wanted to speak to him at some point.
On June 25, two months after Mullan's tackle, he got a text message from Zakuani. Mullan's 10-game suspension had ended, and he was set to return to action the next day against Columbus. Zakuani's message was simple: There are no hard feelings. Don't let this tackle affect the way you play the game. Good luck!
Mullan was stunned. "He's such a great guy," Mullan says, "and to reach out to me like that was incredible." Mullan texted him back and asked if it was OK to call him. Zakuani said yes.
"He was very apologetic, asking if there was anything he could do," says Zakuani. "I know guys who've played with him, and they say he's a nice guy. I told him it was fine, I'm working my way back. I think it gave us both a sense of closure."
In their conversation, Zakuani made clear that while he expected Mullan would be booed by Seattle fans, he wouldn't be encouraging them to do so. Their two teams will meet on April 14 in the Pacific Northwest. Mullan says he'll be ready. "Fans are going to say what they're going to say. It's part of the game," he says. "They have their rights and opinions as well. It's just something that will be dealt with."
But April 14 also represents an opportunity. "It'll probably be the first time I'll see Steve," Mullan says. "And I'll reiterate my apology and shake his hand and finally be able to say it to his face. That's what I'm looking forward to."
On more than one occasion, Mullan says this story isn't about him, but rather about Zakuani. "He's the one going through this," Mullan says. In some ways he's right. In some ways he's not. Mullan has gone through his own journey, seeing a mental therapist "a number of times," he confirms. He has gotten additional support from Colorado teammates and coaches, former MLS coaches like Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear and, most of all, from his wife, Kersten.
Mullan and Zakuani will be forever linked. But it doesn't have to be all about a horrific tackle. "I want to praise him for his character," says Mullan. "To come through this with a positive attitude, that speaks loads about him."
Zakuani signed off their phone conversation last June with this: "I'll see you next year. And I'll be playing."
Zakuani isn't there yet. Not quite. The last stages of the recovery process could take a while, to go from part-time to full-time training, to playing reserve games, to making the 18-man roster for MLS games and finally becoming a starter again. He still needs to regain full sensation in his right foot, and that requires time.
"I think his best soccer is going to be in 2013," says Schmid, the Seattle coach. "I would expect we'll see soccer from him in 2012. When, exactly, I'm not sure. He's such a high-quality player that even Steve not at his best is someone who can function and play well, although that slashing guy who may be the top winger in this league, that guy may not be there until 2013."
Schmid flashes a wry smile. "He may only be in the top five or six [this year.]"
Nothing is guaranteed. And yet Zakuani has already come so far that he says he can't help but have a bright outlook.
"I'm just in general a positive person," he says. "I look at it from the perspective where it's a nice challenge: Can I get back to where I was before? If I fail, I fail. But I'm going to give everything I have to do it."