Charlie Davies saw his past in the dying woman, and he ran away from it in tears.
He looked at the two bodies lying on the pavement, a woman struggling to breathe, a man with a badly gashed head, and saw himself.
He watched as emergency responders strapped the woman into a stretcher, listened as she cried, “No! No!”, and wondered if those would be her last breaths, and how close he had come to breathing his.
The memories — pain and torment and stillness — flooded back, and Davies tried to outrun them. He sprinted, crying, to his wife.
“It was like seeing what happened to me,” he says of witnessing a devastating car crash that claimed two lives in Boston in June, “on the other side.”
Five years later, Charlie Davies’s wounds are still too fresh.
. . .
Every morning when he wakes up, Davies, a forward for the New England Revolution, says two prayers.
The first is Our Father.
The second is one of thanks.
“Thank you again for another day to live,” he’ll pray. “I’m going to make the most of it.”
Davies, a former US national team striker with boundless promise whose life was infinitely altered by a chilling one-car accident in October 2009, knows what it’s like to almost die, to come close to losing the next morning forever.
He also knows he could be in Brazil right now, starting the Americans’ Round of 16 game against Belgium on Tuesday and teasing defenses with the graceful speed and relentless work rate that triggered his rise to becoming The Next Big Thing in American soccer.
“He had a door open, and really all he had to do was walk in it,” says Chefik Simo, Davies’s close friend who was with him on the night of his accident. “And it was taken from him.”
Davies is happy just to be alive, but he’s left forever wondering what could have been.
Let’s start at the peak. After Davies, born in Manchester, N.H., began his soccer career because of a mix-up about a permission slip. (He thought it was for Pop Warner football tryouts; it was for the local club soccer team.) After his dad, Kofi, a Gambian immigrant, would drill him for four hours every evening until Charlie couldn’t see the ball because of the darkness and tears in his eyes. After Charlie scored 59 goals in his last two seasons at Brooks School in North Andover and was the best player Boston College coach Ed Kelly says he’s ever trained.
No, let’s start in 2009, when Davies, then 22, began his season at Swedish club Hammarby in top form after scoring 14 goals the season prior. The timing was impeccable: Then-US coach Bob Bradley spent March 2009 in Europe recruiting players for his World Cup roster the following summer.
“My feeling was that it was the right time to really invest in him,” Bradley says.
On June 21, Davies started in the US team’s final group stage game of the 2009 Confederations Cup, a tuneup tournament for the 2010 World Cup.
The Americans had lost their first two games — to Italy and Brazil — by a combined five goals, and Bradley wanted to infuse life into an attack that had scored just once in 180 minutes.
Davies scored an ugly but effective goal — “like a lion on a prey,” he says — sparking a 3-0 win over Egypt and a miraculous advancement to the semifinals, where the US met Spain.
Davies continued his dream tournament against the Spaniards, helping fashion fellow striker Jozy Altidore’s goal in the Americans’ 2-0 win over the world’s No. 1 team.
“That was the start of something,” Bradley says.
“We went up against the best,” Davies says of ending Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak that spanned nearly three years, “and we beat them.”
The United States lost the final to Brazil, but it found in Davies and Altidore an auspicious striking tandem.
“We felt like they were players that no matter who we played against, no matter what center backs we were up against, these were young strikers that were going to be a real challenge for any team,” Bradley says.
In July 2009, Davies moved to a more prestigious club, Sochaux, of France’s Ligue 1. In August, he made his first World Cup qualifying start in the US team’s match against Mexico at Stadio Azteca. Nine minutes in, he scored. It was the first time the Americans ever had led there.
In one summer, Davies had reshaped a roster and shifted a country’s World Cup expectations. He was brimming with confidence, and the United States believed.
“[He] could have gone anywhere,” Kelly says. “It was there. It was looking him right in the face.”
On Oct. 14, 2009, the Americans were set to play Costa Rica at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in their last qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.
Davies, who was injured and was going to sit out that game, ate dinner with teammate Stuart Holden at J. Paul’s, an American restaurant in Georgetown, two nights before the game. Two women they met there, Maria Espinoza and Ashley J. Roberta, invited them to Shadow Room, a D.C. club, later that night.
Holden, whose World Cup roster spot wasn’t as secure as Davies’s, declined, but Davies said he would go. Simo was on his way to pick up Davies — who only got his driver’s license earlier this year — when Davies told him he already had gotten a ride from Espinoza. She drove him to the club in her gray Infiniti SUV.
At Shadow Room, Davies met up with Simo, and they talked about soccer and the future. Davies said he was not drinking, and around 2:30 a.m. he reconnected with Espinoza and Roberta. He said there were no apparent signs that either was drunk.
“I would have never gotten into that car if I had suspected that she wasn’t all right to drive,” he says. “I’ve gone over that scenario too many times.”
The last thing he remembers is putting on his seat belt.
Holden woke up to a call from a park ranger.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” he says.
Around 3:15 a.m., Espinoza, who had been drinking, lost control of the vehicle along the George Washington Parkway. The SUV crashed into a guardrail, splitting in half. Roberta, the front-seat passenger, was pronounced dead at the scene. Davies suffered multiple severe injuries: a lacerated bladder, grave head trauma, a torn ligament in his left knee, and a fractured right tibia and femur.
“The pictures of the vehicle are self-explanatory,” says James Hashimoto, a former national team trainer with whom Davies rehabbed for months after the accident. “And his X-rays spoke volumes.”
The first thing Davies remembers is thinking he was in a Honduran hostel and they were trying to steal his organs. In an intensive care unit days after the accident, he saw the staples lining his stomach, 36 of them, and began to pick them away, one by one.
A nurse soon ran over and stopped him.
Davies spent the next three weeks in hospitals, when his now-wife Nina Stavris would carry a bedpan to his bed when he couldn’t walk to the bathroom.
About four weeks after the accident, Davies traveled to Delaware to rehab with Hashimoto.
“When you look at someone who’s that banged up,” the trainer says, “you go, ‘I hope this guy can lead a normal life.’ ”
They started small: lifting his leg, standing for 30 seconds, crutching down a hallway. Davies was exhausted after all of them.
As he regained strength, he and Oguchi Onyewu, a US defender rehabbing with Hashimoto after he ruptured his patellar tendon in the Costa Rica game, challenged each other. Onyewu would skip his pain meds, so Davies would, too.
They’d see who could bend their knee farther.
“We’d make it a competition,” Onyewu says.
Throughout the recovery, Davies had a singular goal: Make the 2010 World Cup roster.
“It was no secret,” Onyewu says.
It was delusional, maybe, but it powered Davies through the days when he spent six hours rehabbing.
“Everything I did,” Davies says, “I pictured Bob Bradley standing next to me and going, ‘If you don’t finish this, forget it. Don’t even think about playing in this World Cup.’ ”
In May 2010, Davies received a phone call from Bradley. When he hung up, he was crying.
“I told him that we were not going to be able to bring him into camp,” Bradley says. “That, as hard as he worked, that he wasn’t far enough along.”
“That’s kind of when everything hit me — that phone call,” Davies says. “Those words of: ‘You’re not coming.’ ”
Until then, the accident was just a delay, an obstacle that he would overcome by increasing the intensity on the treadmill when Hashimoto wasn’t looking.
“It’s one that we try and erase from our minds,” Simo says of the accident, “but it is our reality.”
If success were measured by earning a spot on one of the toughest rosters in sports, Davies failed. But in most other ways he succeeded.
“It went from literally the day he rolled in in a wheelchair and couldn’t stand for 30 seconds without me helping him up and holding him to [him] pulling me on a resistance cord and doing ladders and agility and hurdles and working with the ball,” Hashimoto says. “It was probably the most unbelievable example of where you were and where you can go.”
Davies resumed training with Sochaux in April 2010, and after stints on Major League Soccer’s DC United and the Danish Club Randers, he joined the Revolution in August 2013. He suffered a calf injury performing an extra set in a preseason sled workout — “it felt like a dog bit me in the calf,” he says — and has played only 91 minutes across three games in 2014.
But Davies, optimistic and pushing limits until the end, is eyeing a push for a spot on the roster in the 2018 World Cup.
“If he says he’s going to be there in 2018,” says Dusty Richard, Davies’s coach at Brooks, “I wouldn’t tell him no.”
Something unexpected happens when you ask Davies if he’s a story of What Could Have Been. He smiles.
“Landon [Donovan] is always like, ‘Damn, Charlie, imagine you and Jozy together all these years. You’d be one of the best pairings in the world!’ ” Davies says, laughing.
Davies says he’s happier, a better teammate, son, and friend. The Old Charlie oozed promise but lacked perspective.
“At that time I was taking everything for granted, because everything was happening so fast,” he says. “Every time I wake up I take a big breath of fresh air. Every time I get to go out here on the field and put on my boots and train, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m so lucky, and so many people would die to be able to get the chance to do what I’m doing.’ ”
The past never will leave him — Davies keeps his hair short so the large scar on his head from the accident is a constant reminder — and if it arises like it did this month, maybe he’ll dart away again.
The hidden miracle, though, is this: He still can run.Rob Harms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @harms_way.