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Life after soccer: The struggle for players to find peace in retirement

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Zakuani and Landon Donovan stepped away under very different terms, but their paths are not independent.

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The night before Steve Zakuani’s most recent comeback attempt, he typed an email to the one person who knew exactly what he was going through.

Zakuani first retired from professional soccer in 2014, at the relatively young age of 26. The former Seattle Sounder hadn’t been the same, not really, for years. Once upon a time, he was one of Major League Soccer’s rising stars. That career path was forever altered the night of April 22, 2011, when a tackle by Brian Mullan broke his leg in two places. Three years later, as he left the game, Zakuani was regarded mostly as one of MLS’ tragic heroes.

His second career seemed to suit him. He travelled around the world as a motivational speaker and threw himself into charity work. He proved a natural on local Sounders TV broadcasts.

Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, though, Zakuani couldn’t help but wonder if he might still have something left.

“A lot of athletes talk about these things, because it’s very real. There’s no real guide as to how to do it or a plan to follow. It’s different for every individual. We have to lean on each other to help.”

- Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan, the man on the receiving end of the aforementioned email, could empathize.

Donovan’s comeback with the LA Galaxy for the final few months of last season helped inspire Zakuani’s own return. But their correspondence dates back a few years, when both were first coming to grips with the end of their respective playing careers.

Donovan also initially retired following the 2014 season. He did so under happier circumstances than Zakuani, in the afterglow of his record sixth MLS Cup title, but the mourning period – and the panicky question of what comes next – was similar.

“Although the specifics are different, the feelings are the same,” Donovan told FourFourTwo. “We both take comfort in knowing that other people share those same emotions.

“A lot of athletes talk about these things, because it’s very real. There’s no real guide as to how to do it or a plan to follow. It’s different for every individual. We have to lean on each other to help.”

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There’s the loss of routine, for one. Professional athletes live regimented lives. Practices follow a familiar pattern of stretches and drills, and weeks ebb and flow with regularity: Training most mornings, matches most weekends. Post-retirement life can be daunting in its unpredictability.

Even more complex is the sudden void of identity and purpose, something recently addressed at length by another prominent ex-player, Abby Wambach, in her memoir.

Donovan says he was helped on this front by the birth of his first son, Talon, in January of last year: “That fulfilled the passion part of it right away.”

He is also fortunate to have options, having now called it quits for a second time. As the all-time leading U.S. men’s national team scorer – for at least the next months, anyway – Donovan was in high demand, and he quickly caught on as a color commentator with FOX Sports.

“Here’s how it happens: You get the ball and your mind flashes to the things you’ve done a thousand times before without thinking about it. Maybe now, your body can’t do it.”

- Steve Zakuani

Others scramble for something, anything as fulfilling as their playing careers were.

Unlike Donovan, who walked away on his own accord, Zakuani was essentially forced out of the game. The former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick, who was once every MLS defender’s worst nightmare on the wing, was a shell of himself during his final season in Portland in 2014. There were flashes, sure, but he just couldn’t stay healthy.

In a statement announcing his first retirement, Zakuani said it was time to face reality and listen to his body. Though outwardly, he was as cheerful and boisterous a presence as always, finding solace in life after soccer was a “two-year process.”

He started picking up more speaking gigs, travelling to Italy and the Bahamas, and the charity game he organized last summer brought Donovan and a host of other U.S. soccer luminaries to Seattle.

The charity match, Zakuani said, showed him that “this is possible. There is happiness and fulfillment outside of the sport. It was acceptance for me that, even if I had never gotten injured, even if everything had gone well and I’d had a 10-, 12-, 15-year career, still at some point you were going to have to retire.

“I began to look at it as a 10-year head start on everyone else in my generation. I began to spin it positivity. I’m going through the bumps and cracks and creases now that everybody has to go through anyway when they retire. I’m just doing it now.”

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The incident that changed everything. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s hard-won advice that he has shared with other players – among them Clint Dempsey, who was forced to contemplate the end of his own accomplished career while sidelined for six months with an irregular heartbeat.

And yet Zakuani wasn’t quite settled, not entirely.

A few weeks after Donovan came out retirement to join the Galaxy for the stretch run of last season, Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson ran into Zakuani at the club’s training facility and asked him if he’d ever considered giving it another try. Zakuani looked just as sharp as Donovan playing in the charity match, after all, and after two years off, maybe his body had sufficiently recovered to survive the rigors of an MLS season.

Zakuani privately began working himself back into shape. He trained with the Sounders throughout most of their championship run, regaining his rhythm. And he was invited to participate in the team’s training camp this past January to try to earn a roster spot.

Donovan told him what to expect, but those first few sessions were still a struggle.

“Here’s how it happens: You get the ball and your mind flashes to the things you’ve done a thousand times before without thinking about it,” Zakuani said. “Maybe now, your body can’t do it. You try it two or three times and you can no longer beat that guy.”

Every day, it got a little easier. His body got stronger, and every so often he’d shake free on the wing with a fleeting glimpse of the player he once was.

By the time the Sounders left for the Tucson, Arizona, portion of camp, Zakuani was convinced that could make the team, even that he could crack the rotation as an impact bench player. But he wanted more. He wanted the highlight-reel Zakuani, the pre-Mullan version.

Zakuani had spent the past two years painstakingly carving out a new life, sifting out what is really important and what is ultimately disposable. He learned how to be frankly honest with himself.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

"I'm at peace." (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

And lying in bed that February night night before Seattle’s preseason opener against Portland, Zakuani realized how little he wanted to chase Timbers outside back Alvas Powell up and down the sideline. The next morning, he approached Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer with the news of his second – and final – retirement.

“The picture I had of how I wanted to play, I wasn’t sure that I could get back there,” Zakuani said. “And it’s not worth giving up the life I have now to just be a guy on an MLS team. At the time, it was really hard, but I put in the time to figure out what I wanted and I think I have it now. I would only give it up if I could play like I could in 2010, 2011. Anything less than that is not worth it to me.

“Can I make the Sounders? I think that answer is yes. But can [I] make it and be one of the best five players on the team? No. I had nine surgeries. That’s supposed to happen. I’ve not played in two years. That’s supposed to happen. There’s no shame. I tried, and I was mature enough to walk away.”

“I woke up, and I felt fulfilled. The day they left for the next part of camp in South Carolina, I thought, ‘Thank god I’m not on that plane.’”

- Steve Zakuani

He arrived home to another email, this one from former Sounders teammate Roger Levesque, who commended Zakuani for taking the leap of faith. More than anything, Levesque wrote, he was happy for Zakuani – that this time, he was able to go out on his terms.

The next day, the morning of his 29th birthday, Zakuani awoke at home next to his wife, opened his eyes and took a deep breath.

Retirement isn’t always going to be easy. Some part of him will probably always wonder what might have been if he’d never suffered that initial injury. But there was vindication now that the painful decision he’d made in 2014 was the right one.

“I woke up, and I felt fulfilled,” Zakuani said. “The day they left for the next part of camp in South Carolina, I thought, ‘Thank god I’m not on that plane.’

“I’m going to end up in May, in June, in the dog days of summer, traveling to Kansas City or Columbus and I’m going to play 15 minutes or maybe not even at all. I don’t want that life. If I’m going to play, I want to be the Steve Zakuani that I was. And I’m not going to be that ever again. That’s OK. I’m happy with my life now.

“I’m at peace.”

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