When Steve Zakuani suffered a double-leg fracture on April 22 when he was on the receiving end of a tackle that ended his season with one fell swoop, his battle to get back on the field began almost instantly as he was carted off the field on a stretcher and taken immediately to Denver’s Rose Medical Center where he underwent surgery to repair the fracture.
However, his recuperation wasn’t nearly as simple as letting the bones heal, as Zakuani candidly revealed on Monday.
“It was a double-leg break, but I also had compartment syndrome. That’s been the main problem,” the 23-year-old midfielder said. “It’s slowly coming back and that’s been the main issue.”
The nerves, blood vessels and muscles in Zakuani’s lower leg had compressed because of the swelling, requiring him to have a second surgery the morning after doctors repaired the fracture. Doctors explained to him that without the second surgery to re-open the wound to allow blood to release from the swollen area, he would have suffered massive nerve damage that could have later required amputation.
The setback meant Zakuani would have no chance of returning the field in 2011 – he said on Monday that if not for compartment syndrome, he would have been playing in October. Instead, in an emotional period of time in the hospital, he was forced to seriously consider what he would do if he couldn’t return to the field. His mother placed her hand on his right foot, but he couldn’t feel a thing.
Even after the surgery, though, it was – and still remains – a long road back to the field.
“The fracture healed itself, but the nerves … for the first few months, I couldn’t move my toes. I was fighting all that stuff in the background,” he said. “It’s responded and done well with the treatment. There’s no pill, no exercise that will bring it back. It’s just natural. Even just jogging, I had no control and that affects everything. I’m at about 70% right now, but we’re still trying to get the full range of motion. It’s been a long struggle with that.”
Zakuani started jogging again in July, but still was limited in what he felt in his right foot. Now, six and a half months after suffering the injury, his range of motion is almost completely back. He still can’t feel the sole of his foot, though sensation is slowly returning. The first time he tried to pass and shoot at training, he couldn’t feel the ball on his foot.
He continues to work with the Sounders FC staff in non-contact situations and includes passing and shooting in his daily workouts. The next step is to add sprints to his regimen.
“That’s the last thing to come, your speed, so I’m just waiting for the explosiveness and speed to come back,” said the speedy winger who scored 10 goals for the Sounders in 2010 and had two goals and two assists in five matches before facing Colorado.
When the Sounders return to training camp in January, Zakuani will be there with his teammates, but doesn’t anticipate that he will yet be back to 100% until March, when the Sounders will open the campaign with the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with their home leg March 6-8 against an opponent that will be announced Tuesday when CONCACAF holds their quarterfinal draw.
That’s just fine for Zakuani, who has learned a thing or two about patience in his recovery.
“I’m not aiming to be ready to go by January. That’s unrealistic. But by March, I’d like to be able to play in the games. I think it’s more than possible … it’s just a matter of putting the work in now,” he said. “All I can do is get back to my level, or surpass my level. Then wherever I’m going to fit in, I’m going to fit in.”
Where he fits in is a question for Sounders FC head coach, who had plenty of players step up in a big way in Zakuani’s absence this season.
Alvaro Fernandez was second on the club with nine goals, while playing mostly in Zakuani’s left wing role. Lamar Neagle added five more and Mauro Rosales is a Newcomer of the Year finalist after posting five goals and a club-record 13 assists.
Adding Zakuani to that mix can only make the dynamic Seattle attack even more dangerous.
“Well, it’s always good to have quality players. So the more quality players we have the better it is,” Schmid said. “It could be crowded. That’s something we’re talking about now. We also want to improve ourselves in some areas so that might require some changes also. Sometimes if you have to make trades or you have to make changes, sometimes you give away from an area that you have some depth in order to acquire something from an area that you don’t enough depth in, so that’s where we’re at.”
For his part, Zakuani can’t wait to return to CenturyLink Field in a Sounders FC kit and give back to the fans that have filled four boxes of unopened letters that Zakuani has in his apartment, waiting to be opened until he is nearing action.
“They’re building something here. There’s a lot of talent here. With some of the players here, with a fourth year, there is chemistry between most of the core guys who are here. I think we’re all optimistic,” he said. “It’s still a good time to be at this club.”