By CALEB SONNELAND
TUKWILA, WA — A month and a half after being on the receiving end of a leg-breaking tackle at the hands of Colorado's Brian Mullan, Seattle Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani finally opened up about the experience of his horrific injury for the first time since the April 22nd game against the Rapids.
With a single crutch in hand — but not in use — Zakuani hobbled into the Starfire Sports complex to take long-awaited questions from the media on Friday.
Questions over his recovery have been asked at just about every juncture, but all coach Sigi Schmid has been able to say was that he was making progress and looking better.
But exactly how was Zakuani feeling himself?
"I'm doing good. Physically, I'm doing good. It's the best I've been [since the injury]. I would like to say the toughest times are behind me. My outlook is positive and looking forward. I'm just busy with rehab, it's a hard workload."
Just how tough was it to cope with the injury?
"I can't put it into words. There are some things that you can't explain. You go through a battle in your head as well. If anything helped me, it was that I immediately had good people around me. My parents were in town, I had some good friends with me in Denver. When I came back to Seattle, I had friends good friends in the hospital with me constantly."
Despite the ever-present support from family, friends and fans, it it still wasn't something he could get off his mind.
"The toughest times were when I was alone, because then you really do think about it. It was not something easy to deal with. At my age, I think every player fears that type of injury. To have it happen, you can't really control it. That's tough to deal with. It still is tough. I'm not going to say I've got answers or I'm at peace with it. It's something I've accepted and moved on from the second it happened."
Mullan received a 10-game ban as well as a hefty fine from the MLS Disciplinary Committee, but questions lingered about whether he and Zakuani had spoken since the incident.
"We haven't spoken, but to be fair to him, he did try to reach out when I was in Colorado. Their trainer called Randy, our trainer, but I was in between surgeries, so I didn't get a chance to speak to him. And when I got back to Seattle he tried to call again, but it just never quite worked out."
Does he hold any ill will towards Mullan?
"It's something where I have not got a problem with him. Some Colorado people came to see me at the hospital: Sanna (Nyassi), Tyrone (Marshall), Terry Cooke, one of the old players was there, and a few others came. I told them what I have told you: I have no problem with Brian Mullan.
"It was a bad tackle. I'm sure it's something he'd love to take back. I'd love him to take it back, too. But he did it. The second it happened you accept it and you move on. So I have not spoken to him. I'm open to speaking to him. I have no issue there.
"But for me it's something where there's nothing that needs to be said. I mean, what is he going to say to me, what am I going to say to him? He has what he has to deal with, and I'm dealing with it, too, and you kind of just move on."
A tackle like Mullan's could have ended Zakuani's career, and it begged the question of forgiveness. When asked, "Is there forgiveness in your heart," he replied, "Absolutely. There was never any bitterness. All my energy was focused on getting better. The second that it happened, going off the field I was already planning my recovery."
Zakuani's recovery has been somewhat shrouded my the Sounders, but he was happy to elaborate on the paces he has recently been put through.
"Riding a bike for the last couple of weeks. Going on this special treadmill that they have up there. It's a strange treadmill where you can decrease your body weight so that I'm not fully putting weight on my leg running, so I can start jogging a bit. I'm walking crutch-less some days now. I'm driving. I'm pretty mobile and functional now — just not walking everyday without crutches and not jogging yet obviously. But I think that's the natural progression. "
What was it like to have to not be able to play with his team mates?
To have it taken away from me, that's the toughest part to accept. The first game I went to, and the only game I've been to, was the Kansas City game, and that was tough in the sense that, you just miss it. I hadn't been there in a while and I'd seen it on TV, but it's not the same. Hearing the fans and seeing the guys play, you want to be out there.
"To have that taken away is rough. That's the hardest thing for me, that's what I can say hurts me the most — more than the tackle, more than the pain I feel, more than anything. It's just not being able to come out here and train every day, I can't drive into training, that's what I miss."
The Seattle Sounders fan base is known for its wide expanse and that was evident when Zakuani went down injured.
"I thank the fans everywhere. I've received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from all over the world, from places I didn't even know people knew me. It's amazing. That definitely encourages you and keeps you going.
"One of the best emails I got was actually from David Beckham. He sent me an email and he just said that he's dealt with injuries in his career and he said there's going to be days when you going to feel like you're not going to ever get back. And then there will be days when you feel like, 'OK, I will get back.' And Deon Butler from the Seahawks sent me an email, I spoke to him. He had the same kind of injury, and he said, 'Look, you're going to have to deal with so many doubts and stuff.' And they were right."
Zakuani has had a long road to recovery but it's still going to be even longer. Still, that doesn't deter the Congo native and he insists that he will be back.
"It's been a long battle already, it's going to longer, but like I said, where I'm speaking from right now, those times are behind me. Right now my mindset is good. My outlook is good. I'm feeling good and I'm making progress everyday. I feel like slowly but surely I'll be coming back here everyday, even if I can just jog on the side and watch the guys train, that would be enough for me."
Seattle has seen several of its players hit with injury but is slowly welcoming them back one by one. While Zakuani refused to put a timetable on his return to the field, the Sounders are hoping that day comes sooner than ever.
It takes quite a bit of character to get back up from the injury that Zakuani was struck down with, but if one thing is evident from his words today, it's that we haven't seen the last of him in the MLS.
What do you think of what Zakuani said? Should Mullan still be trying to contact him? What do you think of his outlook on the tackle itself?
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