Here’s what my mind looks like when I’m fit and healthy and playing the beautiful game week in and week out:
Now here’s my mind after being injured for the better part of three years:
Hectic? Tell me about it. I’ve been called an Energizer Bunny on the pitch, but I think my brain could sprint laps around my physical self. It never stops running. I hope that by the end of this post, everyone, including myself, will have a better understanding as to where my mind has been running when it comes to my tortoise-speed physical recovery, and more importantly, my career.
I made a quick breakdown of my injuries:
2005: Fractured eye socket in England
2010: Broken leg vs. Netherlands
2011: Fractured femoral condyle (broken leg/knee) vs. Manchester United
2011: Second surgery for cartilage after pin came loose in left knee
2013: Torn ACL, right knee (Gold Cup Final)
2014: Second torn ACL, right knee (Bolton)
I’ll just get right into the not-so-elusive elephant in the room: Retirement.
The dreaded word is a prominent one in my mind, but every time I think about it, another part of me is screaming, “NO, STUART, IT’S NOT YOUR TIME FOR THE ‘R’ WORD!” It’s not that I am worried as to what I will do or how I will provide for my family in retirement. I always knew playing soccer wasn’t a “forever” career, but it’s hard for me to think about retiring now and not having the chance to “go out” in the way I always imagined I would. How do you end a chapter of your life that has defined you for over 20 years, when the conclusion to that chapter seems very much unresolved?
This thought consumes me daily. With the accumulation of every injury, all signs point to retirement, but as soon as I start accepting my fate off the field, the universe sends me signals that it’s not time. My body tells me I’m fit and strong, and I pass every test in the gym and on the field. However, I’ve passed all of those tests before, and then my body failed me upon my return to previous teams.
Knowing I have more to give, the inevitable question being for how long? Is it worth the risk of getting injured again and all of the trials and heartbreak that comes with that? Is it worth the blood, sweat and tears to pick myself off the gym floor for the umpteenth time? I wish nothing more than that this period of my life — living as an injured player — was over.
For the first time in my professional career, I am out of contract, and have been so for more than a year. It’s a weird feeling, to say the least — paying for medical bills, paying for rehab, and working TV jobs on the side to keep that dream alive. When you aren’t contracted to a team, you have to hold yourself accountable. If I wake up and don’t “feel like hitting the gym,” there’s nobody there to tell me I have to go, and I’m not “required by contract” to put in the work. How do you continue to self-motivate when you’ve been backed into a very lonely corner so many times? Trust me, it is not easy. It’s a lot easier to eat a big breakfast and head to the beach to catch some rays, or lie in bed until 11 o’clock and watch soccer on TV. Those are the days when I’d quite happily close the soccer chapter, and just be proud of what I have achieved.
It’s the good days that make it so hard. Killing it in the gym or on the field is what fuels me and keeps me hanging on for one last chance. My body doesn’t yell at me in the morning, telling me to stop or that it’s had too much. I have no red-flag reactions to increased workload and no pain or stiffness. In fact, I feel as good as I have in a long time. So, why is it that the better I feel, the more nervous I get?
The piling up of injuries and unfortunate circumstances has led to constant mental torment and doubt. My body has done so much to lose my trust. It’s like a broken relationship if one person cheats — once the trust is gone, can you ever really get it back? Getting back on the field means I can’t doubt myself or lack self-confidence. Does that mean it’s time to leave it all behind? I’m sure you all have your opinions, many of which are vocalized to me daily on social media (thanks!). These decisions aren’t child’s play — it’s my livelihood and future we’re talking about, and it’s the reason why I’ve forced myself to take my time with my recovery. Time to mentally and physically heal, time to persevere, time to work and time to prepare for what’s next, whether that’s on or off the field.
I am sick and tired of being labeled, “Stuart Holden, that injured guy who just can’t catch a break.” I’m ready for a new title. The question remaining, which one? “Stuart Holden, the professional soccer player,” or “Stuart Holden, the sports analyst, business owner and family man?”
One thing I do know is the lessons I’ve learned over the last couple years through several injuries will serve me long after my playing time is over. Whether that’s a month or eight years from now, I’m ready and will embrace it with open arms. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through every high and every low. When the time comes to make the decision, trust that whatever the outcome, I’ll embrace it and never look back. Clarity will be a welcome change!
The short film above was directed by Gregory Purpura and produced by Arch Rivals.