Steve Zakuani

This Day In Seattle Sounders History: Steve Zakuani, five years after the injury

Editor’s Note: In the latest edition of This Day in Seattle Sounders History, sat down with former Sounders player and current broadcaster Steve Zakuani about the injury that changed his career on April 22, 2011. Below is a transcript of that interview, edited for brevity and clarity. Friday is the five-year anniversary of the tackle. Does it actually feel like it’s been five years?

Zakuani: No. If you hadn’t mentioned it, it would have passed and I wouldn’t have thought of it. I marked the first two anniversaries – one year out, two years out – but by the third year when that date came, I wasn’t thinking “On this day, that happened.” And now that I’m not playing, my life is a lot different. If I was still on the Sounders and we were going to Colorado this weekend, that would be crazy. But I’ve not thought about it much at all.  Five years have gone by super fast, because that whole episode and period of my life seems like yesterday to me. How often do people bring up the injury with you?

Zakuani: Everyday. When it first happened, I received at least 10,000 letters, no exaggeration. Hundreds of emails, if not thousands. It was cool, but then I would be walking in the streets and and someone would be driving in a car, they would reverse the car and get out to talk to me about this. I don’t mind talking to fans, but when every conversation is about my broken leg and its reminding me I can’t play? I’m not enjoying it that much. They’re having a conversation one time, and I’ve having it a thousand times. It’s mentioned in one way or the other daily. Do you think people forget you came back and actually had some good stretches of play after the injury?

Zakuani: I’ve learned that people in sports have really short memories. 2011 was the injury, and I worked my ass off to get back. I played against Colorado in July 2012 – Sigi put me in there just to put me in there, I wasn’t ready – and I had an assist in my first game back in September to Mauro Rosales and then in my fourth game back I scored against San Jose. Then I couldn’t get back into the team because Sigi went more defensive on the wings and we were trying to make the playoffs.

I didn’t play again until the second leg of the playoffs against LA, and it was one of the best games of my career. The next day I spoke with [Sounders Owner] Adrian Hanauer and he said, “I’ve been watching you for the last 3-4 years since you came here, and that’s one of the best games I’ve seen you play.” And that was after the injury. I could play. But shortly after that, I had two groin injuries and that’s what eventually did me in, I think. The leg injury made you more prone to other injuries…

Zakuani: Yeah. I came into the league in 2009 and played the full 2009 season and in 2010. How many muscle injuries did I have? Zero. I missed one game because of an ankle hit, and if I ever missed another game it was a coach’s decision. I was the guy who could come in at nine o’clock in the morning, play FIFA all the way up to 9:50, run out and start striking balls with no warmup, nothing. After the injury, I had to come in an hour and a half early just to be ready to train. My body changed a lot. I had two groin injuries, three hamstring strains, and my quad went once as well. All in the years after my leg injury. Have you spoken with Brian Mullan since the 2012 game, when you both hugged and exchanged jerseys on the field?

Zakuani: No. And if I did, it would have been forced. We didn’t speak before the injury, I’d never had a conversation with him before. So if I was trying to start up some kind of friendship after, why? I called him on the day before he played for the first time after his 10-game suspension, I got his number from one of my teammates who knew him and I called him out of the blue. And we spoke then, and I played against him here and I played against him in Colorado [in 2013], but that was it. We haven’t spoken since, and there’s no reason to. 

Thierry Henry told me one time when he was here in Seattle that “as bad as it is, you have to remember that it wasn’t intentional.” And that helped me to let it go, and to understand it was just a freak moment. [Mullan] had nothing against me. From that perspective, I have no issue with [Mullan] at all. I really wish him the best in anything he’s doing now. But no, we don’t talk. So when you and Mullan embraced on the field, did that feel forced, or was it genuine?

Zakuani: Genuine. Three months after the injury and I finally came to Starfire, I was talking to the media and I said I had no issue with the guy. I needed all my energy going towards my rehab. And I didn’t feel like people believed me. So when I got a chance to play against him –  trading jerseys is a sign of truce and friendship, because you do that with your friends and people you look up to - trading jerseys with him was a chance to do that in front of everyone on national television and show people that I was going to come back. And that I hold no hard feelings toward this guy. It was one of the most genuine things I’ve done in my life. You wrote a book about the recovery process and the road back to playing again. What was that process like?

Zakuani: It was fun, man. In the summer of 2014 I started thinking about stopping playing, because I was putting my body through hell: injections, acupuncture, painkillers before games. I was doing too much just to be able to play.

Sigi offered for me to see a therapist almost weekly after the injury, and I just didn’t do it. My outlet was writing. It took three months for me to write the entire book, and three months for the editor to edit it. It was just a book telling the story, but it’s helped a lot of people. I get messages every day from all over the world. Some people didn’t even know who I was, but somehow the book came to them. I’m glad I did it – it was really fun. Now that you’re in broadcast, is that something you saw yourself getting into eventually?

Zakuani: Not at all. The fortunate thing that happened is when I put the book out, it did really well and it opened up a bunch of doors. Like I was at an event at Seattle Center called “Get Motivated,” I don’t know how I ended up there, but it was 2000 people coming to hear me speak. And I’m talking and I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing here but I’m loving it.” So I got almost full-time into that world of speaking at different corporate companies and retreats. The broadcasting was a way to stay connected to the game and connected to the Sounders without feeling forced. I get to wake up and write, and it’s great. It’s a great way to live, so I’m enjoying it a lot. Is public speaking and writing more of a means to an end while you figure out what you want, or is it something you see as more long-term?

Zakuani: No, it’s what I’m doing. I would say 80 percent of my time is on that and 20 percent is on Sounders, which I love. We’re doing a podcast, it’s cool to come here, hang out, banter a little bit, I love that stuff. And we’re doing a broadcast with Kasey Keller, Marcus Hahnemann, Keith and Jackie. It’s fun, but I would say 80 percent of it is non-football related, which I’m enjoying. If you would have told me that when I retired I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have seen the path to that. But it happened, and I didn’t know you could be a full-time speaker. I didn’t know that existed. But that’s what I’m doing, and it’s fun. Do you think there will come a day, whether it’s in Seattle or in another market, where people won’t even know you as Steve Zakuani, the former Sounders player? And would that be okay?

Zakuani: I’m praying for that day. I wish for that day so much. The hardest day since retirement was Jan. 21, 2015, because that was preseason. Every year for that 6-7 years, on that day, I knew what I was doing. I woke up that day and I had nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’m like, “What am I doing with my life, I’m not going to Sounders training, I’m not going to Portland training, what am I doing?” That day was hard. You wrestle with that.

I’ve been fortunate to find something that I’m enjoying doing now. That can give me kind of that buzz or that outlet. But I would love for that day to come when people don’t really think about that, they don’t really say “former Sounders player.” When I go speak at places they have to give you a bio so they can introduce you, and I took that out of the bio because I don’t want to say it all the time. If it comes up it’s cool, but author, speaker, let’s talk about that instead of former, former, former.

Without the injury, I’d be playing. Where I would be? Who knows. I think I was on a pretty good path to where I was going, but I’m proud of the body of work I accomplished as an athlete because I did all I could do and some things get taken from you. It wasn’t like I lost my dedication or stopped caring. I just wasn’t able to keep pushing my body at that level and it was unfair to me and to the game to keep playing, so I stopped.

So I want to be known for things I’m doing now, and help people and inspire people. I don’t mind that in Seattle I’m always associated with the Sounders, that’s cool. But eventually, for my own sake, I want to be able to move onto things that have nothing to do with that. 



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