A terrifying car accident in October 2009 left his body a shattered wreck and ended his World Cup hopes. Now, nearly a year and a half since his last game, Charlie Davies is intent on resurrecting his career in MLS and rediscovering the form that made him one of America's most promising young strikers
This is an article from the March 14, 2011 issue
Charlie Davies has seen the photograph. Taken on the morning of Oct. 13, 2009, it shows the back section of a gray Infiniti SUV, sheared clean in half by the impact of a horrific one-car accident on the George Washington Parkway in northern Virginia. One passenger in the vehicle died. Davies, a blazing striker who had emerged as a vital piece of the U.S. World Cup puzzle, was in the back. Partway through the ride he had put on his seat belt, a move that probably saved his life. "When I saw the car, I thought, Was I really in there?" says Davies. "How could someone just six inches in front of me die and I'm still alive?"
At first the concern wasn't so much whether Davies would play soccer again, but whether he'd be able to walk, run and lead a normal life. His bones and tissues were as mangled as the remnants of that SUV: broken femur, tibia and fibula in his right leg; torn ligament in his left knee; fractured eye socket, nose and left elbow; serious head trauma; and a lacerated bladder. By the time Davies checked out of the National Rehabilitation Hospital five weeks after the crash, he'd made up his mind about Washington, D.C., the place where everything had changed for him. "I thought the city was just bad luck," he says. "I didn't want to ever come back."
Now, 17 months after the accident, the nation's capital is the unlikely location for Davies's soccer rebirth. Nearly two years after tantalizing U.S. fans with important goals in the Confederations Cup and against archrival Mexico in Estadio Azteca, the 24-year-old Davies has joined D.C. United on a one-year loan from the French club Sochaux. When United opens its MLS season against Columbus on March 19 at RFK Stadium, Davies will likely play in his first top-flight game since October 2009. "I'm coming full circle," he says. "I've been thinking about this since the first day I got out of the hospital. Will I be sad? Happy? Nervous? If I score a goal, will I break down and cry? Will that signal [my] getting over the mountaintop?"
Davies flashes a grin that matches the smile-shaped scar which now traces his scalp like the seam of a baseball. "Will I dance?" he says. "Yes, I will dance."
RELAXING BY the Pacific in Ventura Beach, Calif., site of D.C.'s recent preseason camp, Davies recalls the events that led up to the accident with an eerie snapshot clarity. Sharing dinner with U.S. teammate Stuart Holden in a Georgetown restaurant. Snap. Meeting Ashley Roberta and Maria Espinoza, two striking young women who invited the players to a party at a nightclub. Snap. Deciding to break team curfew—because of a groin injury, Davies wasn't going to play in the U.S. game against Costa Rica the next day—and riding in Espinoza's Infiniti to the club. Snap. (Holden begged off the party and returned to the team hotel.) Hanging out for the next few hours with agent Chefik Simo. Snap. And, at around 2:30 a.m., reconnecting with the two women, who offered him a ride back to his hotel in northern Virginia.
Davies says he didn't drink any alcohol that night, and Roberta and Espinoza, in his words, "seemed completely normal. There wasn't even a second where I thought they might have had too much to drink." But he remembers being jolted enough by Espinoza's acceleration that he belted himself in. The next thing he knew, he was lying in a hospital bed with staples in his stomach. It would be days before he learned what had happened: Espinoza had lost control of the SUV, which hit a guardrail at high speed, its back end splitting off and falling down a 17-foot embankment. Roberta was thrown from the car and killed instantly. Espinoza suffered minor injuries. (She is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in November 2010 to involuntary manslaughter and maiming while driving intoxicated.) Davies, who was hoping to become one of the breakout strikers of the World Cup, faced a long and uncertain rehabilitation.
"In medicine we would call it a severe polytraumatic injury," says Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, U.S. Soccer's team physician. "In my 20-plus years we've only seen a few athletes sustain this level of injury, and almost none have returned to elite-level sport."
The outpouring of support for Davies was immediate and, he says, overwhelming. At RFK the next night, thousands of U.S. fans held up cards bearing Davies's number 9 during the ninth minute of the U.S.--Costa Rica game. One fan sent him a giant painting of Davies holding up a defiant fist. He also keeps two bound volumes with more than 20,000 e-mails sent by fans after the accident. For all the physical therapy Davies has endured, he hasn't seen a psychiatrist, preferring to rely instead on a network that includes his family; his fiancée, Nina Stavris ("I don't know how she's dealt with me the past year"); Simo, a former U.S. youth player who suffered near-fatal injuries in a car accident in 2002; his agent Lyle Yorks; and Davies's U.S. teammates, whose encouragement has been a constant. "It's been amazing to think of how much support I've had, how they've pushed me through," Davies says. One of them, along the way, grew so close that he became Davies's new big brother.
Their careers changed just one day apart. As Davies lay in the hospital the night of the U.S.'s final World Cup qualifier, U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu landed awkwardly late in the game, rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee. For two months, the 5'10" Davies and the 6'4" Onyewu rehabbed together in Delaware with U.S. trainer James Hashimoto, challenging each other to see who could reach his goals first and maintaining a pact to avoid pain medication. "For anybody who's in rehab, the mental is just as important as the physical," says Onyewu. "We were able to help each other out."
Since then, the gentle giant has been there for Davies's most important moments. It was Onyewu who flew to Barcelona last August, held Davies's engagement ring box in his pants pocket and clapped with the rest of the restaurant when Stavris accepted Davies's marriage proposal. It was Onyewu who consoled a tearful Davies after he learned that U.S. coach Bob Bradley wasn't going to bring him to the World Cup training camp last May. And it was Onyewu who drove Davies to the site of his accident in December 2009, the first time he'd been back to the spot. They shared a quiet moment as they took in the scene. "It was like closure," says Davies.
"I'm no psychiatrist, but I wanted to offer him that chance," says Onyewu. "You never knew when he was going to be back in D.C. Who would have known he'd sign with D.C. United?"
Is the speed still there? The question has been trailing Davies like a rugged defender for months, starting in France (where he played in reserve games but not for Sochaux's first team after his return to the club last spring) and continuing last month as he went on a 10-day trial with D.C. United. On Feb. 16, United announced it was satisfied enough to sign Davies on a one-year loan from Sochaux, with his salary accounting for $180,000 of the $2.7 million-per-team cap. "With Charlie, the speed and power are still there, but the other stuff isn't fully there," United coach Ben Olsen said during the team's training camp in California. "The technical side needs work. His timing needs work. He needs more fire in his belly. But we make strides each day. It's rewarding as a staff to see him progress."
"Right now I think he's 70 to 75 percent of the player he was," says United midfielder Dax McCarty, who played with Davies on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. "But there are spurts where you say, 'Wow, that looked like the old Charlie.'"
The old Charlie was among the most promising U.S. strikers in years. After three standout seasons at Boston College, Davies joined the Swedish club Hammarby, where he scored 14 goals in 2008, then moved to Sochaux in the French top flight in July 2009. (He came off the bench to score twice against defending champion Bordeaux in one game.) Davies was a revelation for the U.S. in '09, using his speed and skill to open up defenses and combining well with forward Jozy Altidore. The U.S. has always lacked game-breaking strikers, and Davies's absence in South Africa was a gut punch for the U.S., which had no replacement for his distinct skills.
Now, Davies says, the speed that made him a difference-maker is back, as well as his explosiveness and shot, but he's still working on his anticipation and continuing with plays after he loses the ball. He calls Olsen's occasionally brutal honesty "a breath of fresh air" after being treated with kid gloves by coaches and teammates following the accident, and he's one of the few players on the team who actively solicits criticism from the coaching staff after practice sessions. From time to time Davies will also look at clips of his U.S. highlights to stoke his soccer imagination again. "At this point it's kind of a mandatory thing," he says. "I need to go on YouTube and watch the things I used to do, so that it's in my head."
In many ways Davies has changed irretrievably, of course. Each day upon waking he offers a prayer of thanks for being alive. When he arrives for a team breakfast, he makes sure to shake the hands of everyone in the room, one by one. "He's a lot more focused now in every aspect: his professional life, his family life and his spiritual life," says Onyewu. Davies wants to caution young people about the dangers of riding with a drunk driver, to be a symbol of someone who responded to a tragic mistake in the best way possible.
"I'm alive for a reason," Davies says, "and I think it's this: When you get as down as I've been, you can still make it. I'm trying to prove to everybody: I went through hell, but I'm back."
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MLS 2011: GALAXY QUEST
In the league's 16th season, the hottest action will be in the soccer-mad Pacific Northwest, where expansion Portland and Vancouver join wildly popular Seattle; in the end, though, it should be L.A. making the biggest news. Here's SI's take on how the standings will break down.
1. NEW YORK
F Thierry Henry is ready to improve on his injury-plagued '10 season, and F Juan Agudelo, an 18-year-old rising star, will shine as well.
2. KANSAS CITY
F Teal Bunbury and F Omar Bravo are two of the league's most exciting players, and newly dubbed Sporting K.C. is on the upswing.
The Dynamo should rebound from a poor '10 with the return to health of F Brian Ching and M Geoff Cameron.
4. D.C. UNITED
It can only get better for United, which made positive additions in F Charlie Davies, M Dax McCarty and D Perry Kitchen.
F/M Sébastien Le Toux turned into a genuine star in '10, running the attack. Now he'll have F Carlos Ruiz to help finish.
6. NEW ENGLAND
Can European veteran D/M Ousmane Dabo help turn around the Revs? Only if M Shalrie Joseph continues to play big.
New coach Aron Winter has the task of improving MLS's most underachieving team; the fifth-year club has never made the playoffs.
Massive changes are headlined by the departure of M Guillermo Barros Schelotto and D Frankie Hejduk. Is anything left?
Coach Carlos de los Cobos kept his job after a woeful year, but losing Brian McBride, Freddie Ljungberg and John Thorrington won't help.
1. SALT LAKE
F Alvaro Saborío is poised for a breakout season as RSL challenges for both the MLS and CONCACAF crowns.
2. LOS ANGELES
Can M David Beckham make the last season of his contract count? He'll have help in F Landon Donovan and F Juan Pablo Angel.
It's time for F Fredy Montero to show the consistency that will validate the young Colombian's vast reserves of talent.
The Rapids have a top forward tandem in Conor Casey and Omar Cummings but lack the overall consistency for an MLS Cup repeat.
M David Ferreira is the reigning league MVP, but losing M Dax McCarty and D Heath Pearce will hurt last year's Cup finalist.
6. SAN JOSE
The pressure is on F Chris Wondolowski, the '10 Golden Boot winner, to show he's not a one-hit wonder.
F Darlington Nagbe is the league's top rookie. How will he perform alongside F Kenny Cooper, who returns from Europe?
8. CHIVAS USA
New coach Robin Fraser inherited a mess, but F Justin Braun is one of the league's most promising young players.
D Jay DeMerit and G Joe Cannon anchor the back line, which will get tested early and often this season.
MLS CUP FINALLOS ANGELES OVER KANSAS CITY