- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It’s difficult to look at Charlie Davies and not dwell on the deep scar that runs from ear to ear across the top of his skull, a reminder of the night he nearly died. And Davies wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, the 24-year-old D.C. United striker keeps his hair shortly cropped so he never loses sight of the wound — one of many he suffered in the early hours of Oct. 13, 2009, when the car he was riding in ripped in half as it spun off the George Washington Parkway in Virginia.

The accident, which killed another passenger, left Davies with a broken femur and tibia in his right leg. His left elbow was fractured, as was his nose and an eye socket. He suffered bleeding on the brain. A torn knee ligament. A lacerated bladder.

But he lived. Whether Davies would continue his playing career, however, was a more dubious proposition. For a player who won a starting spot on the U.S. national team ahead of the 2010 World Cup largely because of his blistering speed, the odds were firmly against him ever rivaling his prior form.

“When someone survives an accident like I did, where basically your body is in shambles and the car is split in half, you’re just lucky to survive such an incident,” Davies said. “But to play soccer again? That’s a miracle in itself.”

Yet a year and a half later, the New Hampshire native is thriving two months into his first campaign back from a grueling rehabilitation. Once he realized staying with his club in France was a dead end, he departed that “depressing environment” and became the prized offseason acquisition of a United squad desperately in need of a boost after compiling the league’s worst record last year.

Through nine games played, Davies is the second-leading scorer in MLS. Between his comeback tale and on-the-field production — along with some creative goal celebrations — he has launched United back into the MLS spotlight while becoming one of the most compelling figures in a crowded Washington sports scene.

Of course, that’s all just a bonus to a player who looks at images of the car he was in and is amazed he’s simply around to see them.

“I think he’s got a new appreciation for life after everything he’s been through,” said United captain Dax McCarty. “You can see that in the way he carries himself every day. He’s always got a smile on his face.”

‘I need to get back’

The last thing Davies remembers from the night of the accident was the click of his seatbelt.

After that? “Zero.”

In the District for a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium, he broke curfew to enjoy a night out, ran into friends Ashley Roberta and Maria Espinoza around 2:30 a.m. and joined them for a ride back to the team hotel.

Missing an exit, Espinoza looked to her GPS and lost control of the car as it hit a guardrail. Roberta was thrown from the passenger seat and killed instantly. Davies ended up pinned in the wreckage.

Espinoza walked away fairly unscathed. On March 18, the day before Davies played for United in his first top-flight match since the accident, she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and maiming while driving intoxicated and was sentenced to two years in prison.

When Davies woke up at Washington Hospital Center, he was so disoriented he thought he was in a hostel in Honduras, from where the U.S. team had just returned, and feared his organs were being harvested for sale on the black market. Only when he began plucking out the staples running up his abdomen and preparing to make a run for it did a nurse realize he was awake and intervene.

That was before reality set in. Once it did, Davies‘ thoughts never wandered far from the sport. While many immediately ruled him out for the World Cup, which was eight months away, he was having none of it. Davies promised he would work his way onto the tournament roster.

“Since day one, it was, ‘I need to get back. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get back on that field, and I’m not going to take no for an answer,’” he said.

Davies had burst onto the U.S. national team scene the previous June during the Confederations Cup, serving as a vital cog for the squad that pulled off an upset of top-ranked Spain en route to the tournament final.

The former Boston College Eagle parlayed his fine play into a transfer from his team in Sweden to Sochaux of France’s Ligue 1. In an August World Cup qualifier, he used his trademark pace to slip behind Mexico’s back line and become only the fourth American to score at the country’s futbol fortress, Estadio Azteca.

“His speed was something that nobody really had on our team,” U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “He was able to give us that extra dynamic part of our offense — it became something we relied on, almost. He was just a player you could get the ball and know he’d be able to spread the defense.”

As with any daunting task, the support of family and friends became a crucial crutch to lean on while Davies learned to cope with his reassembled body, which suddenly included a slew of plates, screws and titanium rods.

In those first months, perhaps no one understood what he was up against more than his girlfriend — and as of August, fiancee — Nina Stavris, a cancer survivor with plenty of experience in perseverance.

“I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for her,” Davies said. “She’s been there since day one of the hospital. She was watching me go to the bathroom in a bedpan. She was pushing me around in a wheelchair.”

As hard as he worked, though, he ultimately fell short of his World Cup dream. Sochaux doctors didn’t clear him, and U.S. coach Bob Bradley called in May, a month before the tournament, to tell him he did not make the preliminary roster.

“We were all disappointed for him,” U.S. midfielder-forward Landon Donovan said. “For him, the reality he wasn’t ready was difficult. He tried as hard as anybody could to make it.”

A fresh start

Shortly before Christmas last year, Davies took to Twitter with a long-awaited announcement: “I AM IN THE SQUAD FOR TOMORROW’S MATCH VS BORDEAUX!!! Another step toward the ultimate goal.”

Following weeks of reserve games, it was the first time he dressed for a league contest since the accident. But he was left on the bench by coach Francis Gillot as an unused substitute and would not be placed on the team’s game-day roster again.

Davies said he then came upon some startling news: According to what captain Jeremie Brechet told him, Sochaux president Alexandre Lacombe sent Gillot an email instructing the coach not to play Davies because the club was trying to collect compensation for his accident.

“They didn’t basically want me to get back so they could get money for me from insurance,” Davies said. “When you hear that, it’s almost surreal because you’re like, ‘After everything I’ve been through, you would do that to me?’

“That just goes to show they don’t believe in you, they don’t want you back, they don’t want you to succeed, they don’t want you to reach your goals.”

In response to Davies‘ remarks, Sochaux sent a statement from Lacombe to The Washington Times: “These are statements of an embittered player done after a period of deception due to a heavy injury. … As a French Ligue 1 club we are obliged to follow the French law in order to adapt the social security system when an employee isn’t able to work due to illness or injury.”

As Lacombe clarifies, “An independent doctor has to apply the law and decide whether the player is ready to play at the requested level.” Later in the statement, the president notes Davies “played with our reserves and his stats proved that he was not yet back at the same level as before.”

Davies subsequently shifted his attention to MLS, where he and Sochaux agreed he could best develop his form and fitness with regular minutes. As fate would have it, United were atop the allocation order for his services.

After a weeklong tryout in February, he signed a loan deal with D.C. that took his story back to the city where the turmoil began. (The team also has the option to buy his contract outright from Sochaux at season’s end.)

As much as Davies needed United, the D.C. side was just as desperate for a player of his stature. Coming off a 6-20-4 campaign that saw attendance for the four-time MLS Cup champions plummet to an all-time low, United had to bolster the least-productive attacking corps in MLS history and give fans reason to make the trek to RFK Stadium.

On the other hand, there still was plenty of risk from the front office’s standpoint. Although Lacombe said Sochaux pays half of Davies‘ salary, the player still is on United’s books for $244,870 this year, and D.C. could ill-afford to dedicate such a large portion of the salary cap to someone not physically ready to compete.

“None of us really knew how this was going to play out,” said United coach Ben Olsen, who played with Davies for the U.S. at the 2007 Copa America. “But we were excited about the prospect of him developing and getting back to form.”

Davies returned to the pitch in the 52nd minute of United’s season opener against the Columbus Crew, finally reaching the moment he had been dreaming of for 17 months. When D.C. earned a penalty kick shortly thereafter, McCarty picked up the ball and handed it to him, saying seven words the forward won’t forget: “We trust you. We believe in you.”

Davies converted the spot kick, sending the jumping, singing United faithful into a state of pandemonium. He would score again minutes later, this time from the run of play. The story could not have written itself any better.

“It just goes to show with faith, with belief in yourself, you can achieve the impossible,” Davies said that night.

The day after Davies‘ accident, with the U.S. playing Costa Rica and the player miles away in a medically induced coma, the RFK Stadium supporters paid tribute by chanting his name and raising sheets of paper emblazoned with his No. 9.

Staring at those same fans as United’s 3-1 win over Columbus ended, Davies let their devotion sink in. The emotion “really brought out the tears,” just as it did the first time he watched a recording of the Costa Rica match

“Their support has really touched me,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to see all the fans with No. 9s and Davies jerseys and signs. It’s definitely meaningful.”

‘A cult icon’

Kofi Davies, like many a dad before him, has caught on to his son’s habits. As he explained, “If Charlie has a good game, the phone is ringing not long after the game is over. ‘How did I do? What did you think?’ If he has a so-so game, the phone doesn’t ring until the next day.”

Considering how he has played since his dramatic debut, the younger Davies probably hasn’t been putting off many of those calls home. As his pace, physicality and rhythm on the ball have returned, so have the goals — six so far. United, at 3-4-3, are back on the path to respectability.

Along the way, Davies‘ entertaining antics, including triumphant dances such as the “Stanky Leg” and the “Bernie,” have pumped some much-needed energy into the franchise. He also provides a colorful presence at practice sessions, showing his competitive side one moment and a jovial tone the next, all while seeming like an older brother of sorts to United’s youthful core.

“He’s got a great rapport with everyone in the locker room,” McCarty said. “And he just has a nose for goal. He’s a predator around the box, and he’s certainly got those instincts you want in your forwards.”

Added veteran striker Josh Wolff: “He became a bit of a cult icon with how it transpired and now that he’s on the road to recovery.”

With June’s Gold Cup around the corner, Davies had hoped to get a call from the U.S. team about playing in the biennial North American championship. In a telling sign he was under consideration for the roster, Bradley attended United’s 1-1 tie against the Colorado Rapids on May 14.

But Davies‘ performance that night was cut short after 34 minutes because of a hamstring strain. A fringe player even before that setback, he was left off the Gold Cup squad announced Monday. Though he is in the picture as the U.S. continues the slow, steady build to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Davies knows he’s still a “work in progress.”

“We all love Charlie and know that he’s determined,” Donovan said. “It’s only a matter of time until he’s back with the U.S. team.”

Amid the widespread support, Davies does have critics who direct attention to his breaking curfew the night of the accident. Or his being arrested in October for driving 125 mph in France, only to admit he was actually the passenger and had taken the fall for a Sochaux teammate who thought his license was suspended.

Looking back on the past 19 months, Davies readily acknowledges the poor decisions he made. As he points out, it’s now his responsibility, as an old soul in a young body, to help others learn from how he dealt with those errors.

“I have no problem at all talking about my accident or the things I went through,” Davies said. “Everyone makes mistakes, everyone goes through tough times in their lives, and this is a perfect example of how you can still push through it and you can still achieve things that you want to achieve, even if you’ve had such an awful thing happen to you.”