Steve Zakuani says he's still a relatively long way off from being back to his old self. (Photo by Chris Coulter/Soundersphotos.com)
We all have our ghosts. For Steve Zakuani, that ghost is memories of his former self.
As the Seattle Sounders midfielder continues his recovery from a horrific leg injury that cost him the final six months of the 2011 season, the progress he has made is obvious. On Friday, Zakuani was able to participate in full training for the first time since that April 22 tackle broke his right leg. Although coach Sigi Schmid figured Zakuani was just about 65-70 percent of his hold self, the speedy midfielder still managed to score a breakaway goal during 7-on-7 scrimmages.
Despite that progress, Zakuani is still clearly frustrated. He's not the same player he was prior to the injury, not even close he says. Zakuani still lacks much of the speed he once had. He even lacks some of the feeling in his foot and toes. There's still "hardware" in his leg, he even pointed out.
It's all of those things, the knowledge that he still has so far to come, that makes it so hard to even watch his own highlights. Zakuani said watching his own film, especially stuff from early in the 2011 season, has been one thing he still can't do.
"I still have a picture in my head of how I played before, so I’ll get the ball and try to do something that used to come naturally before and I’m not able to do it," Zakuani said. "My abilities aren’t 100 percent. The strength in my legs is not 100 percent. Those things are natural so that’s going to be frustrating.
"In the big picture, I’m happy to be off the drugs and all that stuff. I’m happy to be playing. I’m ecstatic. But I want to get back to play, so I’m looking at it as what do I need to do now to get myself in a position to play in an actual game, which is way off from where i’m at right now and that’s the frustrating part."
In watching professional athletes recover from injuries, both large and small, it's easy to lose a bit of perspective. We hear about players spraining an ankle and never missing a game. We hear about athletes coming back from massive knee injuries with little more than an offseason to recover. We start to assume that these players are more like machines than humans.
But we've come to learn that Zakuani's injury was more than a run-of-the-mill compound leg fracture -- if such a thing exists anyway. Compartment syndrome -- a condition that can lead to muscle and never damage -- set in shortly after the initial surgery and robbed him of feeling in his right foot. He has yet to regain all of that feeling.
Zakuani is, of course, also quite human. We've seen that side of him often and that's what has endeared him to fans not just of the Sounders, but around the world. He's started charities. He's helped raise funds for disaster victims. He shared a lust for life that all of us can appreciate. He's also allowed us to see a part of him that so few athletes allow us to see: dissatisfaction with the speed of his recovery.
While Zakuani clearly believes he will return to his former self -- a player who at the time of his injury was well on his way to becoming one of the elite attacking midfielders in MLS -- he makes no attempt to hide his displeasure with where he is today. To his credit, he is trying to keep it all in perspective.
"Today was a nice surprise when Sigi told me I was going to be in full training," Zakuani said on Friday. "I’ll take that. Someday a day will come -- I don’t know how many weeks down the line -- that Sigi will say you’re in the reserve squad and that will be a nice surprise. Then you’re in the 18. I’ll just keep going. All I can do is keep working hard. I have to be patient."
That's a cue many of us should probably take. Right now, Zakuani said his only goal is to get back on the field; not score x number of goals or even to play x number of games, just to play. As much as we'd all like to see him streaking down the left wing, shaking defenders out of their boots and sliding shots past defenseless goalies, we should be satisfied with watching him make steady progress toward getting back to the playing field.
"The good thing is I’m young still and I’ve got many years to go," the 23-year-old said. "A friend told me in three or four years I’ll look back, it will just be an injury you overcame."