SANDY, UTAH – Right now, in this moment, Stuart Holden is intensely happy. "It's like a re-birth," the inexhaustible USA midfielder says, hunching forward in a hotel lobby chair and picking at the carefully-managed tufts of blond hair he's about to go have cut. "I always maintained a positive outlook. But my girlfriend and everybody around me have noticed that I'm back to myself again. The fact that I'm healthy and playing soccer - I'm just loving it."
As a professional soccer player, "healthy and playing soccer" may seem like rather a natural state of being, but it's been elusive for Holden. Three weeks shy of his 28th birthday, Holden has lost a total of almost three years of his seven-year professional career to a succession of freak injuries; the time he was randomly attacked outside a Newcastle night club; the leg-breaking tackle administered by Nigel de Jong in 2010; Johnny Evans' stray cleat getting caught in his knee in March 2011, which sidelined him until January of this year.
But in between all of that hurt, all of those monotonous rehab stints in the basement of a Jewish community center in Wilmington, Delaware, Holden exhibited something quite precious: a rare blend of technique, vision, grit and a lust for labor.
"He's got that fighting spirit in his blood," says United States veteran DaMarcus Beasley. "He wants the ball; he takes the ball. And when it gets dirty and he needs to get a bit nasty, he gets in there and [gets] nasty. But if it needs to be pretty football, he can do that as well."
During those healthy snippets interspersing the long tales of suffering, he's become a fan favorite for both the United States men's national team and his English club Bolton Wanderers - "Stu-S-A, Stu-S-A," their fans like to chant. The fans have stayed singularly invested when writing him off and pouring their emotional capital into some other player's lot might have offered more instant gratification. Seldom have so many rooted for the same player to return.
Video: Klinsmann: Holden will return to USMNT
Because it isn't just the on-field ability that keeps people hooked on Holden's up-and-down narrative, it's his relentlessly sunny outlook throughout some really rotten luck. That's what's made him a cult hero. During all those days of aching exercises and agonizing stretches in Delaware, Holden never stopped cracking jokes.
"Obviously, I wish the injury never happened, but it's something that has happened and you deal with it and you get on with it," Holden says. "I look at it in the sense that I'm unfortunate but then I look at it in another way that I'm constantly being challenged and I tend to react well to challenges."
Indeed, he has yet to wither in the face of one, as evidenced by his return to the United States national team fold. Holden made a pair of late substitutions with the "A-team" in May and June and in the "B-team's" ongoing 2 013 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign played a strong half each against Guatemala and Belize, against which he scored. "I consider myself a competitor and to be in that competitive environment again is great," he says. "Before it was always me versus me, me against my knee. But now to compete against other players, it's a nice change."
Holden's positivity is nurture as much as nature. He lost his father to cancer four years ago. His mother Moira pressed the family to stay positive, to keep living fully through bad times. And it's this unwavering optimism that helped Holden make the 2010 World Cup squad less than three months after breaking a leg and wasn't fully fit. He's a glue guy, as they say. Locker room moods are lighter for his presence. "Stu's just that type of guy," says US striker Herculez Gomez. "You can talk about marveling at his positivity but that's just Stu. We all love Stu. To see him come back and come back the way he has - it's positive but it's more inspiring."
The appreciation is mutual. "A few guys on the national team - Michael Bradley was one, and Timmy Howard - they said to me, 'No one will know what you've been through except for you. But all we can say is that we're happy to have you back in camp,'" recalls Holden. "That was a nice feeling, when your peers respect you for what you've been through."
Stuart Holden has scored three goals in 21 appearances with the US men's national team (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images).
Since coming back, the tackle-happy Holden hasn't altered his game much. He'd be forgiven for hesitating to dive into the crunchiest of challenges, but he roams the midfield unfettered. "I honestly don't think about my knee in tackling people," he says. "For me it was a great feeling when I got back to playing that after the game I wasn't worrying about how my knee was but about how I had played."
Well, he has made one change. "I know that my friends, my family, when I'm down on the ground, they worry that something's happened to me," Holden says. "So I get up as quick as I can and let people know that I'm alright."
Any evolution as a player was born of a natural maturation that occurred even as he was kept away from the field, a product of his studying all the soccer he watched on TV. "I'm tactically more aware," he says. "Covering zones and cutting off passing lanes as opposed to always being up on someone's back."
So now, Holden being Holden, he expects to emerge from the misery better than he was before. There were lessons learned, and perspectives gleaned. "I tell the young players at Bolton that get injured: 'It's a terrible thing that you were injured but if you use this in the right way and you do your rehab right and realize what you have to keep maintaining that and what you should be doing for your body, it's going to hold you in a better place throughout your career," Holden says.
Beasley sees it to. "Before he got injured he was working his way up to becoming one of the best midfielders in US Soccer and he still has a chance to do that now," the USA's Gold Cup captain says. "He's shown glimpses of being back to his old self."
"I think I'm very, very close to my best," Holden continues. "Physically, I'm in a much better place than before. I'm really excited about this tournament. I think it could be a great catalyst for me and set me off to have a great year. The plan is to be a part of the World Cup team for Brazil."
Optimism. For there's a lot of clutter in the American central midfield pool. But then what did you expect from him?