- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2013

Daniel Woolard remembers going up for the header. After that, matters get fuzzy.

The D.C. United left back can recall the medical staff joining him on the field. The concussion test. The substitution. But he has no memory of the collision itself that ended up keeping him off the field for six months.

What everyone else at RFK Stadium saw Aug. 4 was Woolard leaping for the ball and violently knocking heads with then-teammate Emiliano Dudar. Just like that, Woolard’s career year was over — though he didn’t know it at the time.

“You feel good one day and think, ‘Oh, I’ll be back on the field in a week or so,’” Woolard said. “And then the next day, you have a headache again. So it’s frustrating because you never know the time frame.”

Woolard wouldn’t make his return to game action until the club’s season-opening loss at the Houston Dynamo last month. Come Saturday, when United (1-3-1) host the rival New York Red Bulls (1-3-2), the 28-year-old will look to make his third straight start as he rounds into form following the long layoff.

“It was tough,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “I know Woolard pretty well and he was bummed out about it. But he stayed positive throughout it and I think that’s a big reason why he’s coming back and still performing at that level.”

United’s history regarding head injuries is grim. Over the past few years, several players have retired because of complications from concussions suffered with the team. In August, shortly after Woolard’s injury, former defender Bryan Namoff’s $12 million lawsuit against United included claims of permanent headaches and memory, sleep and vision problems.

Woolard, however, retained optimism while working his way back. He had gone through the process before, after all, when he battled the ailment in 2010 with the fourth-tier Dallas-Forth Worth Tornadoes. He figured he knew his body. If it could recover once, it could do it again.

Eventually it did, allowing Woolard — with the aid of protective headgear — to get back on the training field by November and crack the game-day roster for a trio of playoff matches, though he didn’t play.

“It was huge,” Woolard said. “It’s kind of depressing when you’re sitting there and your body physically is fine except for your head. It was very frustrating, so it was very nice to finally be able to suit up and run and sweat and do those things again.”

The humble defender had started 20 of United’s 21 games in 2012 before the injury, chipping in a goal and two assists while quietly establishing himself as one of the league’s most reliable left backs.

For a journeyman whose path to the nation’s capital took him through a Division II college career at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and the rigors of minor league soccer, that regular spot in the starting 11 was hard earned.

“He’s Steady Eddy,” coach Ben Olsen said. “He comes to work and he’s always going to make his side [of the field] a long night for the attacking side.”

As center back Dejan Jakovic said, “A lot of people underestimate his speed. He’s got some wheels on him, and I think he’s actually a very good one-on-one defender. You don’t see a lot of guys getting by him.”

Earlier this month, Woolard — like most sports fans across the nation — saw the gruesome broken leg suffered by University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware.

But Woolard took away something more than shock. To the Texas native, it served as a stark reminder of how delicate an athlete’s career can be.

Nowadays, that’s something he understands better than most.

“You never know when you’re going to have an injury like that,” Woolard said. “You see things like that and it just reminds me how lucky you are to be healthy at that moment.”

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