Most professional athletes don’t like to think of the day their career will end. We don’t like to think of a life without the sport we love. The sport we have given so much to and received so much from. We find our identity in what we do. The field, pitch, and arena is our escape from a lot of troubles. Ask most athletes to describe what it feels like to be on the field or the court, and you will hear things like:
• I feel free
• I feel alive
• it’s the only time I come to life
• it’s exhilarating
I’ve used some of those same responses when I’ve been asked a question along those lines in the many interviews I’ve given over the years. And it’s true. There’s just something about being gifted enough at a sport that you can turn it from simply being a passion or a hobby, into a career. To get paid for doing something you’ve loved and done since you were a kid is a pretty good deal. To have people know who you are because of what you do, and to receive a lot of praise for what you once did when no one was even watching, is an amazing thing. If we could do it forever, we would. It’s a great way to make a living and that’s probably why we try to never think of or imagine a life in which we no longer play. Deep down we all know it will end one day. We just never think of that one day because it’s always so far off. We know that one day we will have to find a new identity, a new passion, and a new way of making a living that doesn’t include playing the sport we love. But right now, we want to keep feeling alive, and free, and exhilarated. I’m all for that, and I’ve always been that way.
But what happens when the future is dragged into your present? What happens when “one day” is today? What do you do when life forces you to picture a future that doesn’t include playing your sport? It’s a different ball game when you no longer have the option or luxury of pushing thoughts of life after soccer, football, basketball, baseball or whatever sport you play off into the future. When the instant reality of a life without this thing in which so much of your identity and happiness has been generated from confronts you, a million questions can race through your mind.
• how will I make a living?
• what will I do with my time?
• am I even good at anything else?
It’s one thing to face those questions when you are 35 and have had a long, fruitful career and you know the end is near. You’ve had time to prepare. It’s another thing to face those same questions when you are 23 and are about to enter the prime years of your career. No 23 year old athlete should have to entertain the thought of their career being over. But that’s exactly what happened to me. I am that 23 year old athlete.
Coming off the 2010 Major League Soccer season, I was feeling good. My team, Seattle Sounders FC, had made the playoffs for the second year running, we had retained the US Open Cup, I had scored a total of 11 goals, and people were giving me a lot of praise for how I played the game. That offseason, I spent some time training with Everton FC, a top team in England. I also played an exhibition game for my birth country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What an experience that was! Because of all these factors, I entered the 2011 season with a feeling that I was primed to become one of the best players in our entire league and that eventually my performances would catch the attention of a good team in Europe who would want to sign me. This was my mind frame as I headed into the sixth game of our season on a Friday night in Denver, Colorado on April 21 2011. As a team we hadn’t made the best of starts to the season, we had only won one game, tied two and lost the other two. But we felt we were turning the corner and on a personal level, I felt great. I was playing well. I had two goals and a couple of assists. Just like any other athlete in my position, the only thing on my mind was the next game. And the next game was against the Colorado Rapids. If you had told me before the game, that in the coming days I would have to contemplate a life without soccer, retirement, doing something else, and never playing again, I simply wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s the exact situation I found myself in. To followers of major league soccer, the story is well known. In the 3rd minute of the game, I received the ball, and as I turned to dribble up the pitch, I received a really strong tackle to my right leg. As soon as I felt the impact I knew some serious damage had been done. As I landed on my back I saw my leg bent in two directions. And with the reaction of my team mates I knew something out of the ordinary had occurred. My leg was broken – both my tibia and fibula. And as I would find out the next day after surgery, I also developed compartment syndrome which basically meant I had some severe nerve damage that needed me to have another surgery, because if I didn’t, I could lose the nerve function in my right foot. And once nerve function is gone, it’s next to impossible to get it back. Being who I was and doing what I did, losing control of my “foot” was the worst thing that could happen to me. In the days and weeks that followed, I had the doctors tell me that I would definitely walk again and regain some level of function in my right leg. But they always stopped short of reassuring me that I would ever play again. They couldn’t assure me of that because they weren’t sure how well I would heal, and how much irreversible damage had been done to the nerves that control the sensation in my right foot. Broken leg and compartment syndrome. It was one of the worst injuries ever seen in our sport. I’ve been told that YouTube clips relating to this incident have over 700,000 views when combined. In the months that followed I would be asked a thousand times by well meaning fans and supporters as to when I expected to be back. I often said I’d be back soon. I really believed that I would. However, that confidence and determination to get back sometimes gave way to questions of what if:
• what if I never play again, what will I do with my life?
• what if my leg never heals to be how it was before, will I ever be the player I could have been?
• what if I have played my last professional game?
These were extremely uncomfortable questions that no athlete should ever have to deal with. Even less so if that athlete is only 23 and playing the best soccer of their career at that point. I learned a lot from my injury. The main thing was that it was important to always have a positive attitude and outlook no matter how things looked. I also learned that anything can happen to anyone at anytime. That in life, nothing is permanent or guaranteed and so the best way to manage tragedy and negative changes was to realise that they were a part of life, they happened to everyone, and that they can only defeat you if you allow them to. In other words: it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond to what happens to you that determines victory or defeat when facing challenges. Another thing I learned was that every thing that happens in life can be a learning experience if we allow it to. One of the great things about life is that it’s an ongoing journey that offers us countless opportunities to learn about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Tragedy, challenges, obstacles, storms, tough times – whatever you want to call them – are the times in which we often have the opportunity to learn the most about ourselves. I wish tragedy on no one, but if such a thing occurs, my advice would be to use it as a learning tool. As a chance to look inside yourself and figure out things about you that you didn’t know before. You will learn incredible things about your true potential, resilience, and inner strength. I learned that I was a lot stronger mentally than I’d ever thought I was. I learned that having a positive outlook didn’t mean you never had doubts, fears, or moments in which you just wanted to vent. I learned that it was ok to wrestle with doubts and difficult questions when you felt hard done by life. I also learned that sometimes it’s ok to accept that there are no clear answers as to why something bad happened to you. Sometimes that’s just the way life goes.
Would love to hear your thoughts and own stories of setbacks and obstacles you’ve faced… and how you overcame them.. feel free to leave comments so we can interact.