Since returning to the field from almost two years of injury trouble, Stu Holden had made himself a simple promise. Whenever he went down, he'd get up as quickly as possible. He knew that the hearts of his family, friends and girlfriend would skip a few beats seeing him lying on the ground, knowing what they'd all been through with him.
The broken leg just months before the 2010 World Cup , the stray Johnny Evans cleat that got caught in his knee in March 2011, costing him six months on the sidelines and then, after a follow-up examination unearthed yet more damage, another 16 months of rehabilitation. All that hurt and rehab through the 7-year career of a player a few days shy of his 28th birthday.
So whenever he hit the ground -- which, thanks to the midfielder's take-no-prisoners style, was often -- during his glorious return to the United States men's national team this summer following a 24-month absence, he'd quickly hop up again just as soon as he could bring himself to.
In the 18th minute of Sunday's Gold Cup final, Holden apparently knocked his left knee into Panama's Alberto Quintero but crashed to earth clutching his right knee. He didn't get up. Those closest to him must have known then.
Holden seemed to know it too. After coming off, he buried his face in his hands on the bench. He could muster a few smiles during the postgame celebration of the first American Gold Cup since 2007. But he couldn't walk. First Omar Gonzalez carried him on his back. Then Landon Donovan supported him as he stumbled onto the stage, the first American to receive his medal, at his teammates' insistence.
They probably knew, too.
On Monday came confirmation.
A brief but devastating press release was issued by US Soccer. "US men's national team midfielder Stuart Holden has been diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee following an MRI evaluation Monday in Chicago," the statement read. "Holden will consult with the medical teams of US Soccer and Bolton Wanderers to formulate a treatment plan."
"We are absolutely devastated for Stuart," US manager Jurgen Klinsmann said in the statement. "He is such a great part of our team on the field and the locker room. He worked tremendously hard to recover from previous injuries and had really come back into form. He was fully prepared to head back to Bolton and challenge for a starting spot. Now he will have our full support as he goes down this road again, and we will be with him every step of the way."
Holden had won Klinsmann's heart with, well, his heart. His desire and ache to play the game as he once had, when he was briefly among the Premier League's best central midfielders for Bolton Wanderers in the first half of the 2011-12 season. When all the bad luck, which dated back to a random attack outside a Newcastle nightclub that ruined a trial with Sunderland at the start of his career, seemed behind him and all his potential finally unloosed.
For all the negative things befalling him, Holden remained singularly positive. It was a trait he and his family had picked when his father died much too young a few years back. And it was in ample evidence when I spent a day with him as he went through the grueling and endless rehab in Delaware last year. Holden never stopped cracking jokes. But his sunny disposition never eroded his zeal either. "I know I'll get a million other surgeries until I can frickin' play again," he said in a rare moment of seriousness.
When he was in Major League Soccer , he supplemented his meager income with considerable online poker winnings. That's how he was able to play out his deal with the league -- rather than succumb to a slightly better renewal offer -- and become a free agent and make for Europe . He bet on himself and he won.
Holden always seems to, even when the odds are very poor. They are stacked against him yet again.
But Holden has beaten them before. And chances are, he will again:
I will rise again! Big love and thx to all the @officialbwfc and @ussoccer supporters, we will conquer once more. Lets do this #noholdenback
-- Stuart Holden (@stuholden) July 29, 2013