Monday, July 9, 2012

Let's Call it Courage

There are a lot of critics and pundits and journalists who object to the use of terms like courage and bravery and honor when it comes to sports. Sometimes even athletes join in, noting in interviews that the "real heroes" are those who serve in the armed forces or try to raise families on minimum wage incomes, or fight fires or walk a beat.

I too am sometimes off-put or even offended when sportscasters breathlessly whisper about an athlete's courage in playing in a game despite an injury or after the death of a loved one. This discomfort is heightened when athletes and coaches use military terms to refer to the games in which they participate.  No matter how difficult or grueling or against all odds a contest may be, when you go on to a field of play you are never going into battle.

But there are moments in sports, unlike almost any other endeavor other than war, in which courage is truly shown. One such instance occurred Sunday, when a soccer player made an appearance in the last five minutes of a match between the Seattle Sounders and the Colorado Rapids.

Steve Zakuani had been severely injured in in a match against the same opponent 15 months earlier. In April of 2011, Brian Mullan, a midfielder for the Rapids, tackled Zakuani hard near the touchline. Zakuani's foot caught beneath him and he fractured his right fibula and tibia. Zakuani was told by doctors he would never play soccer again. Mullan was suspended for 10 matches.

Through a long and painful rehab, Zakuani maintained a positive outlook, which he continued to demonstrate during the match (he was only on for about six minutes, but there was at least one slide tackle challenge -- not from Mullan -- that had me holding my breath) and afterward when he and Mullan embraced and exchanged shirts.

Zakuani and Mullan embrace, before trading shirts.

To make it through that grinding recovery, then step on to the pitch with the player who had maimed him (Zakuani had long before forgiven Mullan and Mullan, to his credit, showed genuine remorse from the start) can only be called courageous. Zakuani may or may not, ultimately, fully recover from his injury. But I can't imagine that anyone is not rooting for him to do so. And I can't think of any word that more aptly describes his comeback, and his actions, than courageous.

And as for the Sounders' fans, if you need any affirmation that the United States is becoming a soccer nation, just take a listen. Eddie Johnson, the Sounders' forward who has played in the English Premier League and Championship, Greece, and Mexico, in addition to MLS, said of the fans: "Man, that's the loudest I've ever heard it. that's the loudest I've ever heard a stadium." 

The whole video's almost nine minutes long, but stick around for the first minute and a half, when the Sounders' fans chant "Steve!" "Zak-u-ani!" back-and-forth. If that don't raise the hair on the back of your neck, nothing will.

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