The weight of the moment finally struck Ike Opara as he walked back toward the center of Sporting Park on a warm evening in early March.
In the aftermath of his first goal in nearly 17 months, Opara had broken free from a mob of teammates who swarmed him in celebration, only to look up and realize one more was waiting for him at midfield.
“Welcome back, Ike,” Graham Zusi said with a smile.
Zusi’s three words triggered a series of flashbacks. The surgery. The aches. The uncertainty. It was all present in a jolt that reminded Opara of the doubt he’d felt only an hour earlier.
Nearly 11 months removed from a serious ankle surgery — which he once called a “death sentence” to his career — Opara sat in front of his locker and wondered if he would ever be able to compete at an elite level again.
Later that evening, a quick burst through the middle of the New York Red Bulls’ defense — and the ensuing re-deflection off his head — supplied an emphatic answer.
For fans. For teammates. Even for himself.
Indeed, Ike Opara was back.
One evening last April, Opara and his girlfriend joined a sparse Kauffman Stadium crowd for a Royals game. In the seventh inning, second baseman Omar Infante absorbed a Heath Bell fastball to his jaw.
As Infante knelt on the dirt, blood dripping from his face, Opara reached into his pocket to check his phone. It was buzzing. A doctor was on the line.
A precautionary MRI test, which Opara had undergone earlier in the day, revealed a chondral defect in his right ankle.
His season was over. His soccer career might be, too.
“Straight out of left field,” Opara said. “Here I was thinking, ‘Man, that (stinks) for (Infante).’ And then, next thing I knew, it was me.”
A day later, Opara was called in to the doctor’s office for a follow-up meeting. He expected to learn the diagnosis was a mistake. Perhaps someone read the results incorrectly.
Instead, he was asked to schedule surgery.
A man who prides himself on controlling his emotions — a quality he exudes to near perfection on the field — walked to his car, turned off the radio and cried.
“I broke down, man,” he said. “I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.”
A silver lining emerged shortly after the diagnosis. The rehabilitation process, Opara discovered, would directly affect the likelihood of a full recovery.
“When I heard that, I said (that) I would allow myself to be sad for one day,” he said. “One day. That’s it.
“Then, from that point on, I’m going to grind and fight through everything.”
Rehabilitation wasn’t easy, of course. After four-plus months in a cast, when he used a scooter for transportation, Opara stretched his days over eight hours, arriving at the Sporting Kansas City training facility at 8 a.m. — an hour before his teammates showed up for practice.
Weights. Work in the pool. An exercise that simply required him to stand on the injured ankle for prolonged periods of time.
There were good days and bad days. All included some sort of pain in the ankle.
As a result, early in the process, Opara, 26, concluded it was unlikely he would ever fully return to his customary level of play.
His wish was to at least come close.
“A lot of guys with season-ending injuries, they give up and call it a year,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “With Ike — and his was more of a career-threatening injury, so it was even more serious — he put all of his concentration into coming back in whatever way he could. But even with that, the question was still there: Is he going to be able to do it?”
Opara’s rehab hit a snag in December. After he’d progressed to drills on the soccer field, the pain in his ankle became too much to bear.
Trainers advised he take a month or two off. See how it responds.
Opara grew impatient. He returned a few weeks later, determined to join his teammates for preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz., in late January.
“Ike wanted to come back, but we needed him back, too,” captain Matt Besler said. “Ike was a guy we needed to step in. There was pressure on him to get back as quickly as possible.”
Opara played through soreness in Tucson, and he sat out some daily drills, but the improvement was evident. Although he logged only two preseason halves alongside Besler, his partner in the center of Sporting Kansas City’s defense, he earned the opening day start.
He made the most of it, too. The goal came in the 50th minute, a moment Opara called “overwhelming.” Teammates stopped by his locker after the match, almost forming a single-file line to offer their congratulations.
It was just the beginning.
Three weeks later, Opara supplied the lone goal in a 1-0 victory against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium. Through just four games, he stands one goal shy of a career-high mark.
“Obviously you can talk a lot about the offensive threat, because Ike is incredible in the air, but more important for me, look at him defensively,” Besler said. “He’s been steady. He’s been a rock.”
That description reached Opara after a morning practice earlier this week. He smiled when he heard it.
A month that had started with such uncertainty, he realized, concluded with the most recognized performances of his career.
“You try to tell yourself not to get too high or too low. You try to stay even-keel,” he said. “But right now, I feel like I’m having the greatest time of my life.”
PHILADELPHIA AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 6 p.m. Sunday, at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1; WHB (810 AM), La Grand D (1340 AM)
ABOUT PHILADELPHIA (0-2-2): Offensive struggles have crippled the Union early this season. They were held without a shot on goal during a 1-0 loss to Chicago last Sunday. ... Former Sporting KC forward C.J. Sapong, traded to Philadelphia in the offseason, is questionable to return from a concussion.
ABOUT SPORTING KC (1-1-2): After picking up its first win of the season last weekend, Sporting KC will play without all-star Graham Zusi, who will miss the match with a hamstring strain. Forward Krisztian Nemeth is set to return from a knee injury that cost him appearances in the past two matches.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC has earned draws in its first two home matches this season, scoring only once. Striker Dom Dwyer scored twice against the Union last season, but he is without a goal in 2015.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Philadelphia 1.