Charlie Davies’ big chance came on 21 June 2009. USA had lost their first two games and were facing elimination from the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa when coach Bob Bradley, in desperation, tapped a young, untested striker hoping for a spark. He got it. Davies battled and nagged the Egyptian defence, scoring for his country in one of his internationals and setting them on course for a run to the final of a global competition for the first time in their history.
“He brought energy to the game,” Bradley said of Davies’ injection. “He never gave up on a lost cause.”
Over the next three months, Davies – who played only a handful of minutes for the U-23s at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 – was a shooting star, a regular starter for the Stars and Stripes. Days after returning from South Africa he scored again en route to the final of CONCACAF Gold Cup and became only the fourth US player to score at the fabled Azteca Stadium in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in Mexico City.
Then, suddenly and so much faster than the rise, came the fall. Talk of a fatal, high-speed car crash near Washington DC began to trickle through the news wires. One passenger in the car had been killed; Davies was seriously injured. He broke every major bone in his right leg - the fibula, tibia, and even the thickest bone in the human body, the femur, was shattered and required the insertion of two titanium rods. He tore ligaments in his left knee, fractured his elbow, his eye socket and his nose. He suffered major head trauma and lacerated his bladder.
“These were catastrophic injuries,” USA national team doctor Bert Mandelbaum – who oversaw Davies’ recovery and rehabilitation – told FIFA.com. “The kind of injuries Charlie had were those you see in a shock trauma ward, where people are trying to get back to something of a normal life, not thinking about playing in World Cups.”
For him to be in a professional sports environment is almost unfathomable.
The dream was over for Davies a little over three months after lining up against Egypt in Rustenburg. When he awoke, panicked in a hospital bed, he began frantically pulling out the stitching in his belly and reacted with angry disbelief when a nurse told him of the accident. He lay in bed, his body - the day before a sturdy goal-scoring machine – in pieces. He wasn’t conscious to see US fans’ banners of support and the entire stadium holding up No9 placards when they sealed first place in qualifying for South Africa 2010 with a draw against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium, not far from the site of the accident.
That draw put the Americans into the FIFA World Cup, then nine months away. It was, before the crash, the logical next step for Davies, whose meteoric rise earned him a transfer from Swedish club Hammarby to the relative high life of France’s Ligue 1 and Sochaux. Now, the worry was not running out on the pitch with the US in football’s ultimate showpiece, but not walking again, never moving or feeling his arm.
Davies took his first step on crutches four weeks after the accident, scared to death that his battered leg would not hold his weight. He and his father, a Gambian immigrant who pushed his son into football, shed tears when it did. “Walking 50 feet on crutches felt like running a marathon,” Davies said. Slowly, though, he began to build himself; his body began to mend. His determination, as on the field, was ferocious.
Over five months after the accident Davies was back in France and the rigours of real football training, relearning the simple things on the pitch. His speed was slow in coming back; the touch was not the same. But every so often there were glimpses of the talent that gave the Spanish defence fits in the FIFA Confederations Cup semi-finals the year before. “You can look around and you won’t find an athlete with injuries as serious as Charlie’s coming back to the point where he’s gotten back to,” added Dr. Mandelbaum, a top orthopaedic surgeon. “For him to be in a professional sports environment is almost unfathomable.”
While his former US team-mates battled to the Round of 16 at South Africa 2010, Davies watched from France where he beat his body back into working shape. He suffered pain and setbacks and climbed a mountain, wobbly at times, in the reserve squad. His reward for all his work: a place in the first team, on the bench, one year, two months and nine days after his world fell apart. Sochaux didn’t win on that day in late December. Davies didn’t score. He didn’t even play. However, it can be considered, in a very serious way, one of the greatest achievements in sporting history.