Charlie's Triumph

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

The danger of waiting too long to react is that everything may have already been said by the time you get around to it yourself. I feel as though that's where I sit this morning.

Nevertheless, what took place at RFK Stadium on Saturday was a once-in-a-lifetime happening. Movie stuff. Emotional, soul-filling, love-of-the-game-justifying, holy-shit-there's-no-way-that-happened sports drama the likes of which just doesn't happen in the real world. Really. Think about it for a second - the coming together of those particular factors just doesn't happen anywhere but the land of make believe, and even then it comes off schmaltzy and saccharine.

We get plenty of redemption stories. Players return from injury all the time. In a few enthralling cases, their comebacks have an immediate impact on the fortunes of their teams. Every time it happens we waste words trying to capture the feelings it evokes in us, or we labor imbue said athlete with a heroic nature he doesn't actually possess. Healing is a natural process, and while rehabilitation requires effort and commitment, injured players are just people trying to back to work.

Charlie's story is obviously different, both because his injuries came off the field and because they were so severe. When the word "coma" is part of the story and just playing soccer again at all is a miraculous achievement, our frame of reference shatters. By virtue of the trauma involved, Charlie Davies has more in common with a fictional character like Roy Hobbs than say, Stuart Holden. Charlie stopped being just a soccer player the moment we heard about the accident, he became empathetic story. Hackneyed phrases like "human spirit" suddenly didn't seem so hackneyed. Saturday at RFK can rightly be call a triumph of that human spirit.

Charlie became pitiable when the car he was in split in half on the Georgetown Washington Parkway. Not many athletes are; full of amazing athletic ability and generally making more money than the rest of us can even imagine*, it's difficult to think of them as people worthy of any pity at all. When so many of them treat their athletic gifts as license to misbehave, it reflects poorly on the gentle majority. Athletes, like most celebrities, exist as dramatis personae even when not on stage. Most of the time our appreciation of athletes boils down to hoping they play well because we're emotionally invested in their particular teams. Character only matters in the negative. That dehumanizes them.

Our pity, given because a dream was nearly lost or pain was suffered, changes the dynamic. Charlie is still a gifted athlete making a very good living, but now we've seen him in an achingly vulnerable state. That kind of intimacy bonds us to him in ways almost nothing else could.

Charlie was likable before, with his fun-loving on-field personality and exuberant goal celebration. He was good, on the up, and recipient of so much of the overblown hope American fans are apt to dish out. But we didn't know him. Not really, certainly not in any way that went beyond the superficial.

Now we do. Or we think we do. From unable to walk to scoring goals in front of the very fans that honored him the day after the tragic accident, we've watched Charlie reach the top of a mountain it took 17 months to climb. Since we encouraged him along the way, forgave him when he transgressed, and stood by him when the path to Saturday was thick with uncertainty, we have a right to feel the proud parent.

We've adopted Charlie, beyond what is typical with the fan-player relationship, which is why the culmination of the comeback was so amazing. In a world with the star athlete's image is manipulated within an inch of reality, it's refreshing to have a unadulterated human story play out in front of us through the prism of sports.

*With the notable exception of many MLS players.
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