Charlie Davies has seen the photograph. Taken on the morning of Oct. 13, 2009, it shows the back section of a gray Infiniti SUV, sheared clean in half by the impact of a horrific one-car accident on the George Washington Parkway in northern Virginia. One passenger in the vehicle died. Davies, a blazing striker who had emerged as a vital piece of the U.S. World Cup puzzle, was in the back. Partway through the ride he had put on his seat belt, a move that probably saved his life. "When I saw the car, I thought, Was I really in there?" says Davies. "How could someone just six inches in front of me die and I'm still alive?"
At first the concern wasn't so much whether Davies would play soccer again, but whether he'd be able to walk, run and lead a normal life. His bones and tissues were as mangled as the remnants of that SUV: broken femur, tibia and fibula in his right leg; torn ligament in his left knee; fractured eye socket, nose and left elbow; serious head trauma; and a lacerated bladder. By the time Davies checked out of the National Rehabilitation Hospital five weeks after the crash, he'd made up his mind about Washington, D.C., the place where everything had changed for him. "I thought the city was just bad luck," he says. "I didn't want to ever come back."
Now, 17 months after the accident, the nation's capital is the unlikely location for Davies's soccer rebirth. Nearly two years after tantalizing U.S. fans with important goals in the Confederations Cup and against archrival Mexico in Estadio Azteca, the 24-year-old Davies has joined D.C. United on a one-year loan from the French club Sochaux. When United opens its MLS season against Columbus on March 19 at RFK Stadium, Davies will likely play in his first top-flight game since October 2009. "I'm coming full circle," he says. "I've been thinking about this since the first day I got out of the hospital. Will I be sad? Happy? Nervous? If I score a goal, will I break down and cry? Will that signal [my] getting over the mountaintop?"
Davies flashes a grin that matches the smile-shaped scar which now traces his scalp like the seam of a baseball. "Will I dance?" he says. "Yes, I will dance."
RELAXING BY the Pacific in Ventura Beach, Calif., site of D.C.'s recent preseason camp, Davies recalls the events that led up to the accident with an eerie snapshot clarity. Sharing dinner with U.S. teammate Stuart Holden in a Georgetown restaurant. Snap. Meeting Ashley Roberta and Maria Espinoza, two striking young women who invited the players to a party at a nightclub. Snap. Deciding to break team curfew—because of a groin injury, Davies wasn't going to play in the U.S. game against Costa Rica the next day—and riding in Espinoza's Infiniti to the club. Snap. (Holden begged off the party and returned to the team hotel.) Hanging out for the next few hours with agent Chefik Simo. Snap. And, at around 2:30 a.m., reconnecting with the two women, who offered him a ride back to his hotel in northern Virginia.
Davies says he didn't drink any alcohol that night, and Roberta and Espinoza, in his words, "seemed completely normal. There wasn't even a second where I thought they might have had too much to drink." But he remembers being jolted enough by Espinoza's acceleration that he belted himself in. The next thing he knew, he was lying in a hospital bed with staples in his stomach. It would be days before he learned what had happened: Espinoza had lost control of the SUV, which hit a guardrail at high speed, its back end splitting off and falling down a 17-foot embankment. Roberta was thrown from the car and killed instantly. Espinoza suffered minor injuries. (She is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in November 2010 to involuntary manslaughter and maiming while driving intoxicated.) Davies, who was hoping to become one of the breakout strikers of the World Cup, faced a long and uncertain rehabilitation.
"In medicine we would call it a severe polytraumatic injury," says Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, U.S. Soccer's team physician. "In my 20-plus years we've only seen a few athletes sustain this level of injury, and almost none have returned to elite-level sport."
The outpouring of support for Davies was immediate and, he says, overwhelming. At RFK the next night, thousands of U.S. fans held up cards bearing Davies's number 9 during the ninth minute of the U.S.--Costa Rica game. One fan sent him a giant painting of Davies holding up a defiant fist. He also keeps two bound volumes with more than 20,000 e-mails sent by fans after the accident. For all the physical therapy Davies has endured, he hasn't seen a psychiatrist, preferring to rely instead on a network that includes his family; his fiancée, Nina Stavris ("I don't know how she's dealt with me the past year"); Simo, a former U.S. youth player who suffered near-fatal injuries in a car accident in 2002; his agent Lyle Yorks; and Davies's U.S. teammates, whose encouragement has been a constant. "It's been amazing to think of how much support I've had, how they've pushed me through," Davies says. One of them, along the way, grew so close that he became Davies's new big brother.
Their careers changed just one day apart. As Davies lay in the hospital the night of the U.S.'s final World Cup qualifier, U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu landed awkwardly late in the game, rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee. For two months, the 5'10" Davies and the 6'4" Onyewu rehabbed together in Delaware with U.S. trainer James Hashimoto, challenging each other to see who could reach his goals first and maintaining a pact to avoid pain medication. "For anybody who's in rehab, the mental is just as important as the physical," says Onyewu. "We were able to help each other out."
Since then, the gentle giant has been there for Davies's most important moments. It was Onyewu who flew to Barcelona last August, held Davies's engagement ring box in his pants pocket and clapped with the rest of the restaurant when Stavris accepted Davies's marriage proposal. It was Onyewu who consoled a tearful Davies after he learned that U.S. coach Bob Bradley wasn't going to bring him to the World Cup training camp last May. And it was Onyewu who drove Davies to the site of his accident in December 2009, the first time he'd been back to the spot. They shared a quiet moment as they took in the scene. "It was like closure," says Davies.