On the field, in the locker room, on the podium during a press conference, Charlie Davies looks and talks and acts like any other player.
A year and a half into his stint with New England, Davies joins in the high-jinks during training sessions, laughs and jokes at team meals and other casual settings, and drags equipment bags when it’s his turn. Just one of the guys.
He’s not, of course. He’s five years removed from a terrible tragedy that cost another human being her life and left him bloodied and broken nearly beyond repair. That he will take the field Sunday at StubHub Center in the 2014 MLS Cup final is a testament to his toughness and spirit and faith, and the trust and belief and confidence shown by the New England organization to revive a comeback that seemed to stall when he left D.C. United after scoring 11 goals in 2011.
“I have the most appreciation for life itself,” said Davies at a press conference earlier this week. He came to the Revs in August, 2013, on loan from Danish club Randers. At D.C. United, he’d been on loan from French club Sochaux. He vividly expressed joy at being in the right place in his career, and his life.
“Just being able to wake up every day, I’m so thankful. Every time I get to come to the locker room and practice or train, or just be around the guys, I’m so happy. I wake up and I’m, ‘I get to see the guys again.’ It’s a true blessing for me to be able to lace up the boots and go out there and play and make a difference.”
Such was not the case last year; he played just 23 minutes in four games. New England won 14 games and finished third in the Eastern Conference basically without him, yet head coach Jay Heaps took steps to ensure Davies felt he was part of the future as well as the present.
“He joined us late and we had Juan Agudelo coming back from injury, so there was limited time to get Charlie a lot of minutes,” says Heaps. “Every game for us was vital to make the playoffs, so there wasn’t a lot of time for experimenting. But I really felt that for Charlie, rather than getting on the field, the most important thing for him was just getting comfortable somewhere.
“He’d been bounced around during his professional career. After the accident and playing for D.C., he went back to Europe and moved around. He needed to get settled off the field, and just for him to know, ‘Hey, you’re going to be back here next year.’ I think it was really important for him to hear that he’d be back Jan. 1.”
Yet still the transition needed time. Minor injuries and sporadic form plagued him in preseason. In the first dozen league games he played just three times as a sub. Then the Revs hit a skid of eight straight losses; he sat out the first six, then got his first start and lasted nearly an hour in a seventh straight defeat, 2-0, at FC Dallas. He sat out again and the Revs lost again, 2-1, at home to Columbus. But after that, he and they found their flow.
“The past five years it’s always been little victories here and there, where I feel I’ll give a glimpse of my old self,” Davies says of an arduous series of surgeries, sessions, and setbacks. “Those were huge confidence-boosters to know I’m still able to do it, it’s just doing it on a consistent basis.
“This season, the game against Dallas where it was my first start for the New England Revolution, I felt like I took a huge step forward, personally to be able to battle and feel like I’m healthy for the  minutes or so I played, and to feel that I made an impact. I felt I took a step forward with working on the part of my game that needed work, and that was the hold-up play, being a smaller center forward up there by myself.”
In addition to restoring his fitness and self-belief, Davies needed to re-learn the game as per the vision of Heaps. He left Boston College a year early to play for Swedish club Hammarby, for which he scored 14 goals in 2008 while spending most of his time pushed up high, ready to race for balls played over the top.
A move to Sochaux, the loan to United, and a switch to Randers all required adjustments, as did the doctrine of Heaps. “The most important thing is Charlie saw what we were doing tactically. I had a lot of conversations with him about what he needed to do for us defensively,” says Heaps. “We needed him to lead our front line and how we want to pressure and areas where we want to pressure. Once he bought into that, and really committed to that, it was really a turning point in our season. He started to lead that line and allowed us to be a lot more dangerous in certain areas. That’s where he’s grown the most is tactically, understanding the game plan and realize he can really influence the game from that.”
Three goals and four assists in 18 regular-season games (13 starts) doesn’t shout out success, but the Revs’ strong finish certainly does. The addition of Jermaine Jones and deployment of Teal Bunbury to the right flank buttressed the midfield behind Davies, whose teammates recognized the value his stats don’t justify.
“He’s a guy who can stretch the field with his pace, so keeps the centerbacks honest,” says midfielder Lee Nguyen, whose 18 goals earned him status as one of three league MVP finalists. “If they want to hold a high line, they’ll get punished by Charlie. If they want to drop off, players like me and Diego [Fagundez] and Kelyn [Rowe], we can find the ball in those spaces and pockets.
“His play off the ball has been tremendous this year and not only that, but his hold-up play as a target striker, he can occupy two defenders and that helps other players get into the action. He’s one of those guys who can be so effective for us. He doesn’t have to put up the big numbers game-in and game-out. He does so much for us everywhere else on the pitch.”
His numbers have been big in the playoffs. He scored twice in a 4-2 rout of Columbus and leads the team with four of its 11 postseason goals. On Sunday, he will be a key figure in a final for the first time since he played for the USA against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup, less than five months before a speeding SUV hit a guardrail in Washington, D.C., and forever changed so many lives.
He suffered a lacerated bladder, serious head trauma, a torn knee ligament, and a fractured tibia and femur. The driver was hospitalized and survived. The other passenger died.
Perhaps finally he’s found a place where his life has balance, and meaning.
“I make sure every day I don’t take it for granted,” says Davies, who attended the 2011 final at the same venue he’ll pull on the Revs’ jersey Sunday. “The biggest lesson I learned since the accident: the little things we take for granted. You don’t realize how important they are to you or how much joy they bring to your life. I make it a habit every day to take a second and be like, ‘I’m one lucky guy to be doing what I’m doing.’"