In the bowels of the Sporting Kansas City locker room, tucked into a trainer’s quarters, Ike Opara lay face down on a table as a doctor squeezed his left calf muscle. He prayed his foot would flinch, that it would in effect offer a sign of stability for his Achilles’ tendon.
But on an April 2015 evening, as two hands dug into his leg, his foot remained still. While only an MRI exam could conclusively confirm the Achilles’ rupture, the squeeze test created in the 1950s was nearly certain.
In a few moments, his teammates would finish off a scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake and join him in the locker room. He cried before some. He yelled frustrations with others. “Why me again?” he asked.
He stayed at Children’s Mercy Park into the early-morning hours that night. He improvised a shower, hopping onto a rolling stool, wheeling himself to the knobs and then letting the water pour onto his face.
During a car ride home, with the clock past midnight, he turned off music that had energized him before the match. After yet another career-threatening injury, his mind had reached a commensurate conclusion.
“I’m done,” he said.
A month into the 2017 season, Ike Opara is one of the top center backs in Major League Soccer, statistically speaking.
Two years ago, he wanted to work in student-athlete development. He obtained his undergraduate degree in 2014, also while rehabbing. A rare chondral defect in his ankle was the culprit for that absence, holding him out for months.
He handled that setback well, his teammates said. After learning the injury would be season-ending, he told those around him they were allowed only one day of sadness. Then, it was back to work with an eye on a 2015 resurgence.
But the ruptured Achilles’ tendon felt different. Like a pattern. Like a never-ending pattern, at that.
So in the days after an MRI confirmed his 2015 season would also conclude abruptly — that his comeback from the ankle surgery would last only six matches — he Googled graduate school programs closer to his hometown in North Carolina.
He told teammates his plans to leave the game behind. In a meeting at the Sporting KC complex, he informed coach Peter Vermes of the decision.
He had been through the rehab process only a year earlier. The daily grind was too grueling. Its reward had proven too inadequate.
Six games, he kept thinking.
“At some point, you just have to realize maybe it’s not meant to be,” Opara said. “I was just focused on moving forward with my life and living a healthy lifestyle.”
But here’s the thing about severe injuries: The rehabilitation is a requirement, regardless of what comes afterwards. For a month after his 2015 surgery to repair his Achilles, Opara could hardly move. He was in a boot and would essentially need to re-learn to walk again, whether he planned to play soccer or stroll along a college campus as a student advisor.
“You understand where he’s coming from when you think about how he went through this (in 2014), and then it happens all over again,” Vermes said. “But I just told him — you have to do the work anyway. That’s the hard part. Let’s wait to see how you feel after that.”
A surgeon told Opara about a new option — a mini-open repair that could hasten the recovery process. NFL defensive end Terrell Suggs had undergone the operation and returned to the field in fewer than six months. A similar timeline would allow Opara to return to practice before the 2015 season concluded.
He promptly had something he didn’t have on April 11, 2015.
As he began rehab, Opara printed off supportive messages he received on social media, many of them from strangers, and stuck them in various places around his home.
“That fire started burning,” Opara said.
On Sunday, when Sporting KC plays host to the Colorado Rapids, Opara will walk into Children’s Mercy Park just shy of the two-year anniversary of his Achilles’ rupture that indeed cost him the remainder of 2015. It was two years ago that he lay face down on a training table and first told midfielder Benny Feilhaber he was quitting the game.
It’s been a long road.
In reality, both the 2014 and 2015 season-ending injuries were labeled career-threatening. And yet in 2017, Opara arrived to preseason in the best form of his tenure in Kansas City. He toted the lowest body-fat percentage of his life, and he reached his top career score on the beep test — a measure of fitness and conditioning.
The proof is on the field. Opara ranks in the top 10 among MLS defenders in duels won, recoveries, aerials won, interceptions and tackles won. He is the only defender in the league who can make that claim.
With Opara back in the center of the defense, Sporting KC has allowed only one goal in four matches.
“When you’re rehabbing (in preseason), you’re so worried about the physical component that you’re less worried about the soccer component, and when that happens, you’ve already fallen behind,” Vermes said. “He came in this year, and it wasn’t about survival. He was able to get himself ready to play.”
For the first time in three years, Opara participated in preseason without daily exercises designed to rehab an injury.
He says no single person talked him into continuing his career — to holding off his graduate school plans. It was a decision that came from within. He felt he owed it to his teammates after “leaving them a little thin.”
That’s in the past. Well, maybe not completely.
“I haven’t forgotten about those hard times,” Opara said. “That’s (shaped) my motto — enjoy every day that I get, every practice that I get.
“Because I was so close to just walking away.”