This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
We love a good comeback story, but generally when it hews to a timeline that we can understand. A year, usually, long enough for a torn cruciate ligament or a gruesomely broken bone to be repaired and to heal. Two years, sometimes, if the injury was particularly severe, or setbacks present themselves. But five years? Five years is an eternity in the lifecycle of an athlete. If his powers have been gone for that long, we write him off, if not forget about him entirely. It’s not just that we’re distracted by all that has happened in his absence, but that we become realistic about his chances of returning as he starts to battle not only time but age. We start thinking only about what might have been, and not what might be again. If an athlete doesn’t heal in five years, he likely never will.
Of course, the injuries that Charlie Davies suffered five years ago went far beyond those normally incurred on a field of play. They were, in fact, as devastating as a human being can sustain, and survive.
When Davies got into a car with two women he did not know at three in the morning in October of 2009, he was a lightning fast, 23-year-old striker for the U.S. national team, just eight months away from his first World Cup. When he woke up in a hospital bed three days later, he was something else. The accident, which killed the other passenger, had left him with a fractured tibia, femur and elbow, a lacerated bladder, bleeding on the brain, a smashed-in face and a future that, though extant, seemed bleak.
This past June, I visited the now 28-year-old Davies in his townhouse outside Boston to watch the United States play Germany in what might have been his second World Cup. He was, naturally, wistful about what he had lost -- he will always think about what would have happened had he not climbed into that car -- but mostly he was thankful for what he had: his life, his faculties, his family (he married his wife, Nina, in 2012). He was also still grateful to have his career, though as he had bounced around from league to league and club to club he had always played like a shell of his former self -- slower, weaker, less natural -- when he had played at all.
His season with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer had, at that point, consisted of 91 minutes as a substitute, as a strained calf (one of the many nagging setbacks he’d experienced as he tried to un-break his body) had kept him largely on the bench. Still, as the U.S. fell to Germany by the score of 1-0, he made a surprising assertion. He was certain that, calf aside, he was finally fully physically and mentally recovered, and that all he needed was a chance to show it. Even as he insisted it was true, it was hard not to be a little skeptical. Who comes back after half a decade?
Three weeks later, with his club in the midst of a long losing streak and in danger of falling out of playoff contention, coach Jay Heaps gave Davies his first start for the Revolution. The club lost again, but Heaps liked what he saw in Davies’s 56 minutes. Two games later, Davies received another start, and something unexpected happened: he had an assist, and the Revolution won. “I felt free, like the chains just broke off me,” Davies told me. “The pressure and the weight and a lot of things -- stress, all of those things -- just released and left my body. You just feel unbelievable, on top of the world. At the same time, it’s like: OK, now I can play.” He started the next game, and he scored a goal. He started the game after that, and he scored again.
Davies would appear in all 14 games the Revolution played after they broke their mid-summer swoon that reached eight losses in a row, starting 12 of them. He scored three goals and assisted on four others, and his club lost just twice, turning a season that seemed to be going nowhere into one in which they earned the Eastern Conference’s second playoff seed. The arrival of U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones in late August helped, as did the play of league MVP candidate Lee Nguyen. But so too did the steady contributions of a striker who again had spectacular speed, who again seemed all but impossible to knock off the ball and who again seemed to intuit all the right vectors to pursue.
By October, Davies was regularly playing 90 minutes a game. On Oct. 13, he observed an anniversary. It was five years, to the day, since the accident. “I was able to sit back and reflect on what I’ve had to overcome,” he says. “Basically, on where I was when everything happened, when I was in a hospital bed, a wheelchair, crutches. The whole transformation. Finally I feel like it’s come to an end, after these five years. I feel like I’m finally back to being the Charlie I was before the accident.”
Three days before the anniversary, the national team played a friendly in East Hartford, Conn., in which it bade farewell to the retiring Landon Donovan. It stayed in a hotel in Boston, and Davies visited his friends and former teammates: Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Guzan, Bill Hamid. He also met the head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, for the first time. The meeting was brief -- a handshake in the lobby -- but Klinsmann knew who he was, and had to know his next goal. “I’m striving to do everything I can to hopefully be able to put the national team jersey back on, even one time,” Davies says. “I think everyone knows that. If I can continue to keep improving, Jurgen’s always said the door’s open. Hopefully it’ll get to the point where I’m having that conversation with Jurgen.”
For successfully and indefatigably mounting his comeback, against overwhelming physical odds and long after anyone thought it was possible, Davies already makes for a worthy Sportsman of the Year. Now, though, he seems to possess what most would have said was impossible as recently four months ago: an ever-brightening professional future in which anything, even a World Cup, seems within reach.
On Nov. 1, for instance, the Revolution played its opening playoff game. They beat the Columbus Crew, 4-2. Charlie Davies scored twice.