ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Major League Soccer championship is tomorrow. The Los Angeles Galaxy will face the New England Revolution. One player who will be on the field has one leg shorter than the other, metal plates in his face and a scar from ear to ear. For Charlie Davies, the MLS Cup caps an excruciating journey back to the top of his game. From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch reports on the player whose life was nearly cut short five years ago.
CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Charlie Davies woke up to find stitches crisscrossing his body. Bones had shattered in his face, his elbow and his right leg - the same leg that, just a few months before, had scored a historic goal in Mexico for the U.S. Men's National Team.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bradley pushing it forward. Here's Donovan. Donovan - beautiful ball for Davies. He's got the back. Davies in, Davies shot, Davies goal. Goal for the United States of America.
NICKISCH: Davies had been thrilling American soccer fans with his wicked speed, skill and the passion he showed in his goofy goal celebrations. But two days before another big U.S. game, the 23-year-old from New Hampshire made a life-altering decision. He was out past team curfew at a bar, and he accepted a ride home from a stranger who he says he did not know had been drinking. The car accident split the SUV into two pieces, killing another passenger.
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CHARLIE DAVIES: At one second, I think I'm playing in the World Cup, and the next it's people are wondering if I'm going to walk again.
NICKISCH: Davies' body was weak, but not his spirit. His wife, who he'd met in a Christian theology class at Boston College, helped him stop dwelling on everything that he'd lost and start focusing on everything he still had. His college soccer coach, Ed Kelly, says Davies' optimism shines through in a photo from a hospital visit.
ED KELLY: And he's got, like, bandages and blue and black and green and all kind of colors from getting in the accident. And he's got his thumb in the air, like, you know, yeah, like, you know, smiling.
NICKISCH: Less than a year later, Davies was back on the field, but he was slower. His body couldn't do what his mind said. He could overhear his teammates wondering why he was there at all, and he was in pain. The operations that put titanium rods in his right leg left it tilted slightly outward and one inch shorter than his left. Over the next three years, Davies bounced around to different teams in Europe and the U.S. Every now and then, he recaptured flashes of the old Charlie, but his body couldn't keep it up. The New England Revolution signed him last year and kept him on this season, giving him the time and continued medical treatment to work on his form. Team captain Jose Goncalves says Davies was always positive, even though he was still riding the bench.
JOSE GONCALVES: He comes every day, you know, and trains around. And he's the first guy, you know, has a story to tell, you know, to the guys, you know, to make them smile, you know, and laugh.
DAVIES: Just being able to wake up every day, I'm so thankful. So every time I get to come to the locker room to practice or train or, you know, just to be around the guys, I'm so happy.
NICKISCH: Davies finally got his chance this summer when the Revolution, like his career, were in a midseason slump, losing eight straight games. Coach Jay Heaps gave him the start.
JAY HEAPS: We gave him a stable environment, but he was fighting for his position every day to the point where, when he did get his chance, the staff was rooting for him. The entire team was rooting for him. And I think that he's been the inspirational guy that - every time he started, the team wanted to help him play better. And I think that that's a pretty amazing story.
NICKISCH: Charlie Davies says now, five years after the accident, his body is back to where it was. So is his confidence. He says he's a different player now - more of a team player.
DAVIES: I've grown so much, and I feel like I'm not only a better person. I feel like I'm a better player for that.
ANDREW FARRELL: Yeah. He's been huge.
NICKISCH: Revolution defender Andrew Farrell.
FARRELL: And his perseverance and his fight through everything he's had to go through, you know, shows when he gets on the field. And he's in those instances where, you know, he puts those games away for us.
NICKISCH: Puts games away, like the conference championship last weekend when he headed in two goals to put New England in the MLS Cup.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Davies does a good job of - look at how he contorts his body in the air, the ball slightly behind him. And that's why he's got a make that adjustment, and it's the perfect adjustment for another monstrous goal in the playoffs from Charlie Davies.
NICKISCH: Tomorrow, in the MLS Cup, Davies will put a spacer inside his right soccer cleat to accommodate his shorter leg. He'll run out on the field with the scar that traces his scalp like the seam of a ball, and he'll be determined to make the most of his second chance. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.
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