As Oguchi Onyewu's imposing frame lay crumpled on the RFK Stadium turf, he knew something was very wrong with his left knee, but rather than try to think about what might be wrong, his first thoughts raced to an event still eight months away.
Onyewu thought about the 2010 World Cup.
He started to do the math in his head as he was being helped off the field during the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifying draw vs. Costa Rica last October. He started counting the months and the first thing he asked the athletic trainer treating him was how long he'd be out. The trainer didn't know for sure, leaving Onyewu to accept that no matter how tough it would be, he would make it back as quickly as possible.
Three months later, Onyewu is racing through a series of agility drills. He runs a ladder drill, with his feet chopping through small squares. Side-to-side, forward, backward. He pushes the pace as fast as he can without completely losing control. He then powers through a treadmill workout, making a two-mile run in 13 minutes look easy. Aside from some slight swelling in his surgically-repaired knee, you couldn't possibly tell that Onyewu was ever someone in danger of missing a World Cup.
These days Onyewu isn't thinking about South Africa. He's focused on the next drill, the next workout and the countdown to his return to AC Milan.
"Regardless of where my situation was with the national team, or Milan for that matter, I have to come back stronger than I was," Onyewu said. "I'm focused on putting in the work and getting back on the field."
Onyewu expects to return to Italy in the next three weeks, and is hoping to resume training with AC Milan by the end of February. That would be mean a less than five month recovery. If Onyewu can pull it off, it will be a testament to the hard work he put into a grueling rehab process under the guidance of former U.S. national team head traininer Jim Hashimoto.
Onyewu has had company on that recovery trail. U.S. teammate Charlie Davies been working on his own comeback from the deadly car accident he survived back in October, just two days before Onyewu's injury. The two players were already close before this rehab process, but enduring the past two months together in the isolated confines of Hashimoto's Wilmington, Delaware rehabilitation facility has clearly brought them closer. Each of them credits the other for helping them make their rehab process successful.
"It definitely helps to see him every day and have him be here for me, and I'm sure its the same for him," Onyewu said. "It helps lighten the mood and almost makes it fun to help lighten the mood.
"I don't think anybody knows the difficulties going into the rehabilitation process," Onyewu said. "One, its the pain of the initial injury. Then its the struggle and the pain and the stress of coming back. Not just physically, but mentally. Some days your body won't agree with your mind and vice versa. Those are the days you need either to be really mentally strong or if not, to have a really good support system behind you."
Onyewu and Davies crack jokes, share stories and push each other when needed, with Onyewu serving as the older brother in the dynamic, constantly reminding Davies just how far he has come. Their competitive natures also test each other at times as both look to push the other.
"We're in a little brotherly competition in terms of getting back in time, which is good," Onyewu said. "It's fun and it gives you a sense of competitiveness that you're not having from not playing."
With Onyewu and Davies recovering well, things are looking up for the U.S. team's chances at this summer's World Cup, but even Onyewu admitted to being very worried when he first heard of Clint Dempsey's recent knee injury, which left many U.S. fans thinking that the U.S. team could be missing three top players at the World Cup.
"Clint's blow was definitely a heart-stopper because that's the last thing you want is to have one of your key players injured leading up to the World Cup," Onyewu said. "Immediately after it happened I contacted him to find out the severity of his injury and fortunately he reassured me that he won't be needing surgery.
"I'm definitely confident that all three of us are putting in the work in order to be physically fit come this summer. After that, its in gods hands."
Onyewu is looking forward to playing in his second World Cup, but isn't buying into the belief that the United States scored an easy draw at this summer's tournament (the USA will face England, Slovenia and Algeria).
"People need to realize that regardless of who you draw, you never know in this kind of tournament format because any team on any day can have that extra whatever it is and push them through," Onyewu said.
"I think we were a textbook example of that in the Confederations Cup, Onyewu said. "I guarantee you not one team, and probably not even Americans, envisioned us being in the final against Brazil. That just goes to show you that the will and desire of somebody can outweigh a lot of other factors."
As for the opening World Cup match against England? Onyewu doesn't consider it any more meaningful than the other group matches.
"People are going to put a lot of weight on that game because it's England-America, but I don't think that game is going to be any different than Algeria or Slovenia.
"I don't really feel there's a weak team in this group," Onyewu said. "We've got a strong team from Africa and two strong teams from Europe.
I think any two teams can come out of this group," Onyewu said. "Hopefully we'll be one of them, but honestly speaking any of the four can advance."
Before he can think about the World Cup, Onyewu is focused on returning to AC Milan, where he will be in a tough battle for playing time. Onyewu had been struggling for playing time at Milan before his injury, but he believes far too much was made about his lack of action and he still happy with his decision to leave Belgian champions Standard Liege to join the Italian powerhouse.
"I was there for less than two months and people wanted me to be the Maldini of the team in two months," Onyewu said. "Sometimes you have to pay your dues, and unfortunately while I was doing that I got injured.
"I'm just focused on working my way back in there and proving myself in the last few months to get playing time," Onyewu said. "I know it's going to be difficult because Nesta has been playing really well and Thiago has been playing really well, but that's part of the game."
As for regrets about his move to AC Milan? Onyewu has none.
"I wouldn't have been so excited to play on a team like that if all the players were below me," Onyewu said. "That's something I'm willing to go through.
"I feel as though that's definitely a team I'm thrilled to be a part of and with time I will get my chance to prove myself."