The first thing Charlie Davies thought when he woke up in a hospital bed and saw the line of staples embedded in his abdomen like a zipper was that he was in Honduras, drugged and held captive, where bandits were harvesting his organs. ¶ Panicked, he started prying the staples out until blood oozed on about the fifth one, and a nurse rushed in and asked what he was doing. ¶ “You were in a serious car accident,” she said. ¶ “Where am I?” he asked, unconvinced. ¶ “You’re in Washington, D.C., Mr. Davies,” the nurse said. “You were in a serious car accident. You need to lie down.” ¶ And the star striker for the U.S. national soccer team drifted back to sleep for another four days. ¶ Today, 19 months after the horrific single-car crash on the George Washington Parkway that killed a fellow passenger and ultimately sent the driver to jail, Davies is the most prolific goal-scorer in Major League Soccer.
His six goals for D.C. United represent half the team’s total thorough nine matches, in which the squad is 3-4-2.
That’s a welcome improvement from last season, but it’s no better than middle-of-the-pack in the Eastern Conference standings heading into Saturday’s game at RFK Stadium against the Colorado Rapids (4-3-2).
Still, two months into the season, United fans haven’t stopped cheering Davies’s remarkable comeback — or that he has chosen the District, scene of the fatal accident that derailed his career and cost him a spot on the 2010 World Cup-bound U.S team, as his home.
With the support of his fiancee, teammates and a devoted physical therapist, Davies has achieved what seemed impossible after a crash so violent it sheared an Infiniti SUV in two. He is making a living as a professional soccer player again despite a body held together with so many rods and plates that James Hashimoto, who directed his rehabilitation, calls him Titanium Man.
Davies insists he’s just fine with his patched-together frame. He has no lingering pain, he says, despite the surgically implanted hardware and the scars left by operations on his shattered right leg, left elbow, nose and eye socket and lacerated bladder.
But in his eyes, he’ll never be whole until he reclaims a place on the U.S. national team and the chance to compete for a spot in the 2014 World Cup.
Until then, Charlie Davies will never be healed.
“I’m so focused on that,” Davies says of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. “Just to get back to the national team first is my main goal. Once that happens, the accident in my mind is history as far as having a reason why I can’t get back to where I want to be.”
Two hundred steps. That was Davies’s first goal — simply walking 200 steps — after he moved from the Washington Rehabilitation Center to Wilmington, Del., to work with Hashimoto, the longtime physical therapist for the U.S. soccer team, five weeks after the crash.
“He had a ridiculous amount of injuries,” Hashimoto said. “And I looked at him and said, ‘Well, where do you want to start?’ ”
Still wheelchair-bound, Davies couldn’t stand without help. He couldn’t walk without help. And all he wanted to talk about was recovering in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Hashimoto gave it a one-in-a-million chance. But not one to dash a patient’s dream or strip him of a powerful motivating force, Hashimoto kept the bleak odds to himself and suggested that Davies focus on incremental goals, saying, “Let’s get back to the sport of living, first, and then see where that takes us.”
In the early days of his recovery, Davies struggled for words to complete his sentences—the result of the concussion and bleeding in his brain. Then, as now, he has no memory of what happened in the moments before and after the crash.
He had violated a team curfew on Oct. 13, 2009, the eve of a U.S-Costa Rica match at RFK Stadium, to meet some friends and hang out at a nightclub.
“I remember the car had already started,” said Davies, who was sitting on the right side of the backseat for the ride back to the team hotel. “I felt a little uneasy with the driving, so I put on my seatbelt. That’s when it blacks out.”
Ashley Roberta, a recent University of Maryland graduate, was riding in the front passenger’s seat and was killed in the crash. Maria Espinoza, the driver and Roberta’s best friend, pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and driving while intoxicated and in March was sentenced to two years in prison.
According to court documents, the vehicle ran off the road, hitting a guardrail, and split in half. The back end fell down a 17-foot embankment.
Davies’s first surgery, performed upon arrival at the hospital, was on his lacerated bladder. Surgeries on his right leg and left elbow followed. But the surgery on his face was the most complicated — a 14-hour procedure to reset his nose, which had been knocked to one side, rebuild the shattered eye socket and fix holes in his forehead and around his nose.
The rehabilitation that followed was slow going. One training session might consist of lifting his right leg; another, walking down the hall and back on crutches.
“Twenty minutes of that type of work would exhaust me for the whole day,” Davies recalls.
Says Hashimoto: “Everything he did created pain somewhere with something. Standing generated pain. Sitting generated pain. Every functional movement created pain.”
But Davies never indulged in self-pity, at least within earshot of his physical therapist. He never asked “Why me?” but simply “What’s next?” — determined to pare the six-to-12 month timetable for his recovery to five months.
There were good days and bad in the therapy sessions but hardly a day they didn’t laugh. But no day was as devastating as the day Bob Bradley, coach of the U.S. national team, phoned to inform Davies that he wouldn’t be invited to the May 2010 training camp at which final World Cup roster decisions would be made.
All of Bradley’s encouraging words that followed — about what a great job Davies had done so far and how essential it was that he keep working hard — were drowned out by sobs.
“Besides the accident itself, when that news hit me, it was the biggest devastation of my life,” Davies said. “It’s like your world finally comes crashing down, and I let everything go at that point as far as the tears, the crying.”
In time, Davies resumed his physical therapy. And though it wasn’t easy, he watched the U.S. World Cup team’s opening match against England on TV, unable to keep himself from wondering how the match might differ with him in the lineup. He watched the Americans’ match against Slovenia from a pub in Wilmington, Del., teeming with soccer fans. And he was back in his apartment in France — having returned to his club team, Sochaux — in time to watch the thrilling, last-second victory over Algeria that propelled the United States into the round of 16.
Davies’s cellphone rang minutes later. It was U.S. team members Jozy Altidore and Maurice Edu, his best friends, calling from an ecstatic locker room. “I could hear everybody!” Davies recalled. “They said, ‘We did this for you!’ ‘Hey Charlie! What’s goin’ on?’ ‘Keep getting better!’ ”
When European play resumed, there was no place on the Sochaux pitch for Davies. The forwards ahead of him were playing too well. And the bench — or even limited action on the reserve squad — was no place to reclaim his form.
So when Davies’s agent called months later to ask what he thought about returning to the United States to play in MLS, it sounded like the best suggestion he’d heard in his life.
In a follow-up call, the agent asked how he felt about playing for D.C. United, which held the first pick of returning U.S. national team players.
Davies hesitated for a split second, struck by the irony.
“That’s where your career kind of took a stop,” he recalls telling himself, “and that’s where it’s going to start back up again.”
In United’s No. 9 jersey, Davies has had games in which he drifts in and out the action, reluctant, it seems, to hurl his 5-foot-10, 160-pound body into the fray. In other games he has displayed the speed, timing and physicality that once set him apart — such as United’s 2-1 victory over Seattle on May 4, in which Davies provided an assist on one goal and scored the other.
But he has a long way to go to regain world-class form, according to United President Kevin Payne, who has until Dec. 31 to decide whether to buy out Davies’s Sochaux contract or let the term of his one-year loan expire.
“Is he ready to compete at this level again?” muses D.C. United forward Josh Wolff, a veteran of the 2002 and 2006 U.S. World Cups. “It’s nothing any of us would fully understand, even though we have seen pictures and read the stories [of the crash]. Our league is physical; it’s aggressive. But over the last three or four months, he has started to turn the corner.”
Saturday at RFK, Davies’s progress will be evaluated anew when Bradley, the U.S. national team coach, is expected to attend United’s match against Colorado, presumably to fine-tune selections for the upcoming friendly against World Cup champion Spain and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“I might not be where I was before,” Davies says, “but I’m on the right path. And I’m going to get there.”