Calen Carr is determined to return from ACL injury better than ever
What promised to be among the best days of Calen Carr's career quickly became one of the worst. "Often people have highs and lows in life. Mine seemed to be condensed in the span of an hour," he said.
The speedy Dynamo forward scored in the 44th minute of last year's MLS Cup to give Houston a 1-0 halftime lead over the Los Angeles Galaxy. In the 57th minute he challenged L.A. defender Omar Gonzalez for the ball, they collided and Carr's outstretched left knee twisted as he fell.
It was the sort of contact that happens in every game and is usually harmless, yet it left Carr writhing in pain. Worse, his unsettling substitution was arguably the turning point in the match. Carr watched from the bench as the Galaxy scored twice soon afterwards and went on to win, 3-1.
Turned out, he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time. He hurt the knee in July 2008 as a member of the Chicago Fire, did not play again that season and logged only 90 minutes the following year. He was traded to the Dynamo in March 2011, though did not feature until August because of the lingering aftermath of a concussion suffered during preseason. But 2012 brought career highs in starts and minutes played as he clicked with Will Bruin in attack. It was his best-ever season - with the worst possible ending.
"It was just such a difficult day," he told HoustonDynamo.com. "Going from preparing for a final and then starting off the way we did and going up a goal. There were some thoughts, immediately, as I was watching the end of that game, wondering if I was going to be able to recover, but I decided that's not the way I wanted to go out, I still have a lot of good years left in me."
Carr was on crutches for nearly three months. "It's really hard. This is our bodies, this is what we depend on for our livelihood and for what we love to do. When that's taken away and you can't even walk or carry a drink to the kitchen table or whatever, those little things become really difficult," he said.
"The first couple of weeks I definitely had the thoughts of 'why me?'. You work so hard to get to a final back-to-back years, you feel like everything's going your way. Credit to L.A., they did a great job turning around the game but it's so frustrating. You never want to step off the field in a final and especially the way that I had to. But I think that once you've had the surgery you have to turn the corner and put it behind you and start focusing on your recovery. If you sit back and look at 'why me?' a lot in life it's not productive for what you want ahead of you."
Six months on from the physical and psychological agony of that gray afternoon in his native California, this is a story about determination and courage away from the public eye. About endless unseen hours spent doing monotonous rehab work in the gym; about gently tapping a ball to a coach, over and over, after the rest of the players had finished training, as Carr did this week. Starting over, re-learning the basics, as if he was new to the game. And about believing that at the end of it all, he will return and he won't be as good as he was - he will be better.
"I'm 30 years old but my body I think is younger than that even though I've had some injuries. I've shown I come back from injuries stronger. I tore my ACL before and the best passage of my career has been after that. I've had the concussion and come back better from that as well," said Carr.
It is five months since successful surgery in Colorado performed by the world-renowned Dr Richard Steadman. He also operated on Carr in 2008 - the same year Steadman helped restore the career of the Dynamo's Giles Barnes when the forward had a serious knee injury with England's Derby County.
"Those five months have gone as good as I could have hoped and I feel like I'm in a good position right now, starting to transition to some soccer-specific type exercises," said Carr.
"We're starting off really slowly, being cautious. I still have an abundance of work to do indoors in the gym and working on some more explosive jumping and bounding. Still a little bit of a ways to go but for me in this process this is the fun part. You start breaking a sweat, you're outside, it's hot here in Houston so you start getting acclimated to that again. It feels good to be athletic again," he said.
"You always want to test the limits a bit but at the same time you have to be smart. It is a balance but luckily I've got a good team of people to help me gauge that. Also this is the second time doing this injury so I think that's given me a huge advantage in many ways from understanding what's normal, what's abnormal. I think I just have a better sense of my body so I know where I can push and when I need to take a step back.
"You don't ever want to continue to have the same injury but I do think it does give me some perspective, some experience. I knew from the beginning how hard it was going to be so that's sort of a blessing and a curse in some ways. Because it's a really difficult injury. It's a grind, a long process and it's hard mentally, hard physically... But each week, every Friday I come in here and I see how far I've made it just from the last Friday, how much better I feel."
Injuries typically take longer to heal once a player is in his thirties, but Carr is convinced that his maturity is a benefit. "I think I've improved with age. I think that I've gotten smarter and never really lost my confidence even through the injuries. I always think you have to be smart enough to work through the rehab and work hard and prevent injuries but you have to be dumb enough to put them behind you. I think I've been pretty good at that so far," he said.
"I think I'm resilient. I had to scrap for a lot of things in life. I was lucky to face some adversity at a young age - I wasn't a big player on most of the teams I played on and developed. I had some great coaches and tried to make the most of my opportunities, scrap my way into teams, play different positions and try and be versatile and bring energy. And over time that sort of mentality has helped me a lot."
Lately he's been providing insightful color commentary of games alongside Matt Pedersen on Yahoo! Sports Radio 1560 - a logical move since Carr studied communications and journalism at University of California, Berkeley. "It was always something I was interested in... it keeps me active, I feel like more a part of the game than just sitting in the crowd and being a spectator so I'd say it's the next best thing to being out there and playing," he said.
There is no precise timetable for his first-team return and Carr does not want to come back until he is at full strength. But he is aiming to pull on an orange jersey again before the end of the season. And when he does, no player in MLS will be more deserving of the crowd's cheers.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.