- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

PARIS (AP) - “He hurt his knee and will be out for the season.” The throwaway words often used in soccer to describe players with serious injuries are woefully inadequate in helping us, the fans and laymen, understand just how tough, lonely and dispiriting the road back can be.

So congratulations to Hatem Ben Arfa, Stuart Holden and Owen Hargreaves, all remarkable survivors who are completing that journey this week. All make a very comfortable living from soccer. All knew before they got hurt that theirs is a contact sport with an inherent and elevated risk of injury, possibly permanent. No one forced them to play. They have all had top-notch medical care. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sympathize. Their singular determination to recover sufficiently to play again offers lessons on grit and determination that go beyond sports.

Pumped full of nervous excitement, Holden played the entire way for Bolton on Tuesday night, his first match since Manchester United defender Jonny Evans ripped open his left knee and fractured a bone with a studs-up tackle March 19. Before kickoff, Holden says he felt that all of the rehab, all of the long and boring hours spent immobilized on his couch, “all of the hard work and the sweat and tears and everything put into it over the last six months was more than worth it.”

“That’s what you think about the whole time, you know, is stepping back out onto the pitch,” the midfielder said in a telephone interview Wednesday, still shivering from the ice bath he had just climbed out of. “Just for me, mentally, to keep myself going was tough at times.”

Professional athletes aren’t the only ones who feel miserable on crutches or in plaster. But because they can’t return to work if they don’t fully recover, they do face self-doubt and questions that perhaps the rest of us don’t: Will I be the same player I used to be? Will I recover in time for next season? Will the team give my spot to someone else? Must I find a new team? Will I have to uproot my family?

“All of a sudden, all these questions will hit home to every single guy,” says Paul Lake, the former Manchester City captain whose harrowing biography, “I’m Not Really Here,” recounts how his promising career was cut short by injury.

Like actors who come alive for the camera, players need sizable egos to want to perform for the crowds. Falling out of the limelight because of injury and discovering that they are not invincible or irreplaceable can be a big shock, sports psychologists say. Where once they relied on their physical prowess, they suddenly find themselves reliant on others _ doctors and trainers _ and hoped-for recovery dates can be repeatedly pushed back, all making them feel that they no longer control their own destiny.

Lake says he used to obsess over his injured knee _ “How is it feeling today? When I wake up, is it different today? Is it better?” _ and try to be upbeat although, inside, he just wanted to hide away.

“I used to dread having to speak to people,” he said in a phone interview. “I would do anything, I would run a mile, rather than have to be interviewed or have to walk past fans, because it wouldn’t be, ‘Are we going to win Saturday, Lakey?’ … I was asked, ‘How is that knee of yours? When are you going to be back?’ To which I’d lie and say, ‘I’m back in six weeks.’”

“Some nights I would just pace the room. It was the loneliest place,” he said.

“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” Hargreaves says in a video interview on Manchester City’s Web site. The midfielder who shone for England at the 2006 World Cup hasn’t completed a match for three years. Knees, hamstring, shoulder _ they’ve all let him down. But he did not give up. Released by Manchester United, Hargreaves posted videos of himself training on YouTube to prove he was fit again and he persuaded City to take a gamble and sign him this August.

Hargreaves started against Birmingham in the Carling Cup on Wednesday night, playing 57 minutes and scoring the first of City’s goals in the 2-0 win in his first appearance for the club.

“It’s difficult for people from the outside looking in. You’d think, ‘There’s something going wrong there. The guy is made out of glass,’” Hargreaves acknowledges. “I missed Champions League finals. I missed World Cups. I missed so many big games that I would have loved to be a part of, and it’s difficult when you’re in it and you’re trying to find a solution to these things and you seem to not be going any further forward. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Holden says he spent “hours upon hours on the couch and the only thing I could do was to crutch down to the local coffee shop just to get out of the house.” Watching his Bolton teammates from the stands, he would “put on a brave face.”

“It’s more tough mentally than anything else because it’s what you do for your livelihood. And, you know, (while) you’re out there, people are competing for your places, people push themselves ahead of you. You don’t wish an injury on anyone but sometimes it opens doors for other players,” he said.

But rehabbing with other injured players helped: “You can pick each other up when you’re having a down day, you rely on those close to you, you rely on your friends, your family, you rely on anyone, really, to give you a boost and to remind you all that it’s going to be worth it once you’re back out there playing.”

Ben Arfa broke the tibia and fibula of his left leg last October. The France international told Le Parisien daily that he counted down the hours Tuesday before his comeback match for Newcastle that night and afterward felt “filled with happiness. I’m alive again.”

Holden echoed those thoughts.

“I’ve become an expert in rehab at this point, but I hope that this is the last time I have to do that,” he said. “Once you get back on the field, you make that first tackle, you make that first pass, and it goes along way to pushing yourself back to 100 percent.”

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester