Commentary

Stuart Holden is the luckiest man

Updated: February 28, 2012, 2:10 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Stuart Holden's face is turning purple. Below the carefully cultivated dark-blond hair with trademark frosted tips, which often gets him mistaken for '90s teenybopper Aaron Carter, his small features crunch up.

The Bolton and U.S. midfielder is laying on his side, getting his healing left knee worked on by longtime U.S. national team physio James Hashimoto in his Elite PT practice. (Don't be fooled by the name; it's an unpretentious place, stowed away in the basement of an inconspicuous community center on the outskirts of town.) "I'll send a picture of my T-shirt to Nigel de Jong," Holden jokes in between stretches, smiling through the strain. Marked Man, reads the shirt, which was white until he spilled coffee on it earlier in the morning.

[+] EnlargeHolden Leash
Leander SchaerlaeckensStuart Holden, working with U.S. national team physio James Hashimoto. "I'll send a picture of my T-shirt to Nigel de Jong," Holden jokes, in reference to the "Marked Man" design.

Dozens of U.S. players have made the same agonized faces on this very massage table during rehab sessions with the affable Hash (rhymes with "posh," not "dash") -- Brian McBride, Ernie Stewart, Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Oguchi Onyewu, Tony Meola: all the big ones. "I don't think I'd make it into that team," Holden cracks again.

"Coming here is like a bucket list thing for these guys," says Hashimoto, a stocky man with a tight buzz cut and a loose smile. But Hash can't think of anyone other than Cory Gibbs who has spent more time here than Holden, 26, has.

Consider the evidence: torn meniscus as a junior in high school; fractured eye socket after an unprovoked punch-up while at Sunderland; broken ankle in a bad tackle during a trial at Leicester City; a Bolton Wanderers trial parlayed into a man-of-the-match EPL debut just days before a Nigel de Jong-induced broken leg during a U.S.-Netherlands friendly; his splendid 2010-11 season -- in which The Guardian's readers rated him the best player of the season's first half and he was named Bolton's player of the year -- was ended by a freak collision with Jonny Evans, one of whose cleats got caught in and broke Holden's left knee; a 90-minute man-of-the-match outing against Aston Villa that revealed acute cartilage damage and yet another long recovery.

This is Holden's third rehab stint in Delaware, all within a year, totaling almost five months of daily exercises split up into two three-hour sessions that are monotonous at best, excruciating at worst. (Sometimes he follows them up with a third workout on his own.) He'll be there another month at least and is unlikely to play another game this season. Hash and Holden are loath to set a timetable for the player's return, as recovery from a cartilage injury is unpredictable. So yes, the two men have seen much more of each other than either would like, no matter how fond they are of each other. "Other patients say we're like an old married couple," says Holden, who jokes that he'll help Hash cut the umbilical cord when his wife delivers their first baby in a few days. At one point they bicker over where to go for dinner.

Even if they share a pleasant degree of banter, words are hardly necessary to get through the exercise regime. It varies daily, but Holden knows them all. A simple tap here or a tug there suffices. "I joke with Hash that I don't even need him, that I can do my own rehab at this point," Holden says.

[+] EnlargeStuart Holden
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesHolden, on crutches, visits his old MLS club, the Dynamo, last October. Holden won back-to-back MLS Cups with Houston in 2006 and '07.

As he goes through balance and strengthening drills -- balancing on a ball while throwing and catching another, for example -- I bring up de Jong and Evans again. "I spent about a week being pissed off," Holden says. Evans called to apologize. And Stu thinks de Jong is a nice guy. So what's the point of holding grudges? He'd have so many by now they'd weigh him down to where he couldn't move.

Next, Holden rips through 40 lengths of the swimming pool in less than 20 minutes, even though he had intended to swim 10. A stately elderly lady, gently gliding through the lane next to him, averts her head each time Holden swims aggressively past her. "I might race her later," he says. Actually, the entire pool is unwittingly in a race with him even though the swimmers' average age is about 70, Holden included. He pops his head above water every now and then to see who is around to chase. "I have a sickly competitive mind," he says proudly.

But this is the only real cardio he gets, and Holden is hell-bent on staying in exceptional shape. He always has, recovering from every injury before schedule and testing among the fittest on his team upon his return. Hoisting himself out of the pool, he isn't even out of breath. Hash's primary job, it turns out, is to keep him from going too hard, too fast, too soon. "If I could, I'd go out and run 20 miles," Holden says. "I just want to go, go, go."

Driving to lunch, Holden doesn't break for stop signs, let alone stop. But then again he plays the way he drives and that abandon, rather than his pinpoint service from crosses and set-pieces, is what he considers the essence of his success. "The best part of my game is my lungs," he says over lunch. "I can run all day."

Betraying his lithe, 5-foot-10 frame, that aggressive, energizer style -- Holden was second in the EPL in tackles per game last season with 4.5, winning 81 in just 26 games; and 14th in interceptions with 2.6 on average -- may be the bedrock of his game, but it also explains why he tends to get injured. "People throw out the word 'injury-prone,'" Holden says. "But if you look at my injury list, they all came from tackles. I think I'm unlucky." Indeed, he's never had a major muscle or ligament injury; only bone-crunching accidents.

But he has no plans to change the way he plays the game. "If I change the way I play, I'm not the player I am," Holden says. "I'm a tackler, that's my game. The one thing I want to be more careful of is not going into completely stupid tackles, just be a bit smarter."

Looking at his injury history, it's obvious that something will have to give. Getting through these rehabilitations is getting harder. After coming back from the Evans tackle the first time around, days before the second surgery, he told his younger brother Euan -- who also plays professionally for fifth-tier English club Stockport County -- that he couldn't possibly go through it all again. When told he'd be out for another six months, he spent two weeks ignoring the hundreds of texts and tweets he was getting, playing video games instead.

But after the misery, Holden always bounces back to his usual chirpy self. "I just needed my time," Holden says. "I think about it and then, bang, it's gone and I'm only looking forward because you can't change the past." So he breaks down yet another round of rehab into small, manageable stages: healing, walking, running, regaining fitness, all the while taking heart in knowing he's come back a better soccer player after every injury. And he watches footage of himself on YouTube, as a reminder of why he fights. "I've watched that Blackburn goal about three million times," he says. "I think 90 percent of those views are from me."

[+] EnlargeHolden on Bike
Leander Schaerlaeckens"I'm going through a hard time with rehab," Holden says. "It's lonely, it's testing -- but I make a good time of it."

So uplifting is his sunny disposition that Holden allegedely convinced then-U.S. head coach Bob Bradley to include him in his 2010 World Cup squad, even though he wasn't match fit. (In the end, Holden managed only a handful of minutes against England.) It's why Bolton manager Owen Coyle still likes having him around his team, which without Holden is fighting relegation this year after topping out at fifth place with him in the side last season.

"I've always looked on the positive side of everything," Holden says. "I have to at this point. I'm thankful to be where I am. I know that life could be worse. In six months, I get to play soccer for a living again.

"I'm going through a hard time with rehab," he continues. "It's lonely, it's testing -- but I make a good time of it. It's my way, I guess, of combating the inner feeling that this sucks."

He can be so buoyant, in fact, that Holden is often accused of faking it on Twitter. "But I've always been that way," he says. "I get it from my mom." The Holdens have had to learn to make light of heavy situations after losing their father to cancer three years ago. They found that negativity serves no purpose. "Out of bad, good can come, that's what we said during his dad's illness," says Stu's mother Moira. "We said to people, 'We want your positive vibes and support. We understand that you think it's terrible but don't come tell us that. Come smile with us and be positive along with us on this journey.' That's helped Stu as well. We're not faking it. It's just the way we are. We can turn around and make a joke out of something bad." Last Halloween, Moira dressed up as Stu, stumbling around on crutches in his jersey.

To keep himself going, Holden summons an unappealing proposition: the alternative to getting back. "It's the thought of, If you don't do this, guess what, you're not gonna play soccer for a living anymore," he says. "You'll have to go out into the real world. That's a scary thought.

"What's the alternative? Retire?" he adds. "I'm nowhere near the point where I could even contemplate giving up. I know I'll get a million other surgeries until I can frickin' play again."

By his own admission, Holden, who is fluent in French, was "a bit of a nerd" in high school, but if he couldn't play soccer anymore, he wouldn't finish the degree in business marketing and economics he abandoned at Clemson University after two years. Instead, he'd probably pick up the entrepreneurial career he's started on the side. Holden invests in small Houston startups and business ideas he likes. He's even thinking about launching a mobile app.

But never mind those alternatives. "I'm gonna have the best feeling in the world stepping out for Bolton and hearing my name called," he says unprompted. His optimism is what gets him through his continuous cycle of devastation and recovery. That and coffee.

We stop for his afternoon cappuccino, which doesn't exactly slow Holden's frenetic stream of jokes, stories and interactions with his phone. He's getting excited again. About his future. About life after injuries. "I have aspirations of playing at the highest level," he says. "Eventually playing in the Champions League and as far as the national team I want to be one of the main guys for [the 2014 World Cup in] Brazil."

Not that Holden worries about the time he's lost. "I'm still 26," he says. "You could argue it's prime age but I've had to look at it as time off, years that I haven't put in my legs. I just wanted to get them all out of the way early so now I can have an injury-free career." He smiles. "And play until I'm 36."

Back at Elite PT for his second session, Holden gets the same face-warping stretch-out, though he pouts when told there's no running planned. But he eventually talks Hash into letting him run some -- a day ahead of schedule -- on the anti-gravity treadmill. The space-age machine seals around his waist and blows up like a balloon encapsulating his legs and the lower half of the apparatus, offsetting the weight of his body with increased air pressure to take the strain off his knee.

"I feel like I can run on this thing all day," Holden pleads. No dice. Hash hauls him off after 25 minutes. He isn't winded. Holden recovers quickly.

For the final 15 minutes of his day, a machine shoots electromagnetic shocks into his legs to provoke the slow-twitch muscles into regenerating, sending waves of quivers from his quads down to his toes. Holden hardly notices, engrossed in the first installment of the 3-minute documentary series on his rehab on the Kick YouTube channel playing on his iPhone. His model girlfriend of four months and aspiring filmmaker, Karalyn, made it. And he's also playing a virtual game of Scrabble against U.S. teammate Landon Donovan. (He assures me that the loss he suffers is rare.)

When the machine is done electrocuting him, Holden inspects his scar-flecked knee, rubbing the lumps and giving it a slap. "Looking good!" he says.

Holden will be back tomorrow. And the day after that. His knee will be contorted on the massage table. Holden's face will turn purple. He'll smile anyway. He'll make light of it all. He'll keep going. Until he can frickin' play again.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.