MLS Soccer

Zakuani book documents recovery ordeal

There are all kinds of happy endings, and former Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Steve Zakuani has found one that works for him.

Zakuani was the first pick of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and one of the Sounders’ best and most popular players over his first two seasons with the club. Seven games into the third season, his life changed.

That was April 22, 2011, when a reckless tackle by Colorado’s Brian Mullan fractured Zakuani’s tibia and fibula. It was a horrific challenge that caused horrific damage, and Zakuani quickly understood what was at stake.

“There was a good chance I would never play again,” he said this week. “My goal was just to play. Beyond that, my goal was not just to play, but to start. I wanted to get back into the Sounders starting lineup, because that’s where I was when I got injured.”

After surgery and grueling recovery, those goals were achieved. But Zakuani’s next goal was beyond him. He wanted to once again play the beautiful game beautifully, to be the fast and free rave-green streak that he had been before the injury. But he came to understand that wasn’t going to happen, no matter how hard he worked.

He played through 2013 with the Sounders. In 2014 he shifted to Portland, where he was reunited with his former college coach Caleb Porter. And then he walked away from the game at age 26.

That isn’t the kind of happy ending attached to most sports movies. However, those real-life highs and lows did inspire a book: “500 Days,” Zakuani’s account of his recovery, from the stretcher back to the starting lineup. The book went on sale through Amazon.com this week, and Zakuani will hold a book signing at noon Saturday at the CenturyLink Field Pro Shop.

“This didn’t begin as writing a book,” he said. “It was during my physical therapy and my rehab after I broke my leg. … I turned to writing. I was just writing about the little victories I would have then. And then if I would have a setback, I’d write that too. Only when I came back to look at that two or three years later did I see that there was a pretty good story there that could be told. It was a story that went beyond just soccer, just sports: It was life lessons in facing adversity and life obstacles.”

The book includes a forward by coach Sigi Schmid.

“I think Steve was a very special player who unfortunately went through that hardship of the injury,” Schmid said. “I was very honored to be able to write the forward for him.”

Even with the bittersweet end to his career, Zakuani said there was happiness along the way. None better, he said than scoring his first goal after the injury on Sept. 22, 2012, against San Jose.

“The score was definitely a huge thing because it came after a long, long time of rehab, a long time of grieving,” he said. “I ran to the bench, to the coaching staff and particularly to Dave Tenney, the fitness coach, because I had worked with him the most. We spent the best part of a year in the gym, and he really pushed me to limits. And so to score that goal that night, it was great.”

Unfortunately, after that injuries came more regularly than goals.

Zakuani said he’s feeling fine now — just not the kind of fine needed to play professional soccer. He said he has long since forgiven Mullan. His body has benefitted from the rest. His soul is at peace with the way he chose to end that chapter.

“I was very proud of the road I walked, because it was certainly difficult to go through three, four, five surgeries on your leg, and then have groin surgeries and hamstring injuries,” he said. “… To play at the MLS level is hard enough, but with all those ailments it’s even harder. So I think the message I used in the book is to say that I did achieve the goal of coming back from the injury, which was big enough. And then, at the same time, I knew when the time to walk away was.”

ADDED TIME

Clint Dempsey rejoined the Sounders for warmups Wednesday. After the club takes Thursday off, he is expected to be a full participant for Friday training. … Schmid said there is no decision yet if midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (groin) will accompany the team to Arizona next week or continue his rehab work in Tukwila. Schmid repeated that Andy Rose and Micheal Azira are the prime candidates to fill Alonso’s position while he is out.

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