TUKWILA, Wash. -- The deep scars on Steve Zakuani's right knee and calf are a daily reminder. Of when he was deemed damaged goods.Of when he thought his soccer career was over. Of when his dreams were seemingly shattered. All at the age of 15.
Zakuani, a 22-year-old midfielder in his second season with Sounders FC, remembers the day seven years ago in London. Zakuani was mixing with the wrong crowd, and after a friend stole a Moped, Zakuani took turns riding it around the neighborhood next to their school.
When the fun was almost over, Zakuani wanted one more go-round.
"That last one is always the one that gets you," he says now.
Zakuani lost control of the bike and slammed into a parked car. He tried to walk away from the crash, but felt his knee buckle. Later at the hospital, Zakuani's father, Mao, asked the doctor when his son would be able to play soccer again.
"We're just trying to get him to walk again," the doctor told him.
Now, after overcoming years of rehab, self doubt, failed tryouts across Europe and a 4,000-mile journey to America, Zakuani is finally realizing his dreams as a professional. And whenever he pulls up his soccer socks before a game or practice, the scars remind him how he got here.
"The story is unbelievable," he said, with a heavy English accent. "And I'm excited to see where it's going to go."
FROM AFRICA TO LONDON
Zakuani's story began in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), but his soccer story begins in England. Mao Zakuani moved his family from its African home for reasons political and professional. Mao doesn't like to elaborate on the politics; the professional piece was a job offer as a translator in London.
Steve Zakuani, just 4 years old, didn't know any of the neighborhood children or the language--his family spoke French and a couple Congolese vernaculars.
Foreign as he was, Zakuani's love of soccer quickly won him friends.
"When they noticed that he could play football very well, they respected him," said Mao Zakuani.
As Steve grew older, his skills caught the attention of professional scouts. As early as 9 years old, he earned interest from West Ham United. Later he tried out for the youth team of Queens Park Rangers.
In 1997, Zakuani signed with the prestigious Arsenal Academy, which at the time had arguably the best senior team in the world. For five years, he trained with and played against emerging stars around the world. Then on weekends he'd watch Gunners greats Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg--now a Sounders FC teammate--in the English Premier League.
It was a proud time for the family.
Maybe too proud for Zakuani.
"My dad was mad at me for this, but I remember I used to wear my Arsenal track suit at school," Zakuani said. "When they saw my jacket, all the kids at school would know that I played for Arsenal."
Pride, however, turned to entitlement.
Cocky and brash, Zakuani didn't have to try out for his secondary-school soccer team or even care to do homework.
"I was like, 'Henry doesn't do his homework, so why should I do mine?' " Zakuani said.
Convinced he was destined to become a first-team player for Arsenal, the 14-year-old Zakuani was released by the team in 2002.
After being dropped by his dream team, Zakuani's passion for the game had gone.
He eventually caught on with a lower-division club in England, Leyton Orient, but his heart wasn't in it.
"I was just going through the motions," he said.
Outside of soccer and school, Zakuani got involved with the wrong crowd. Girls and parties were a few of the many distractions in a time of teenage rebelliousness. Then came the Moped crash that injured his knee and foot so bad he'd wouldn't play again for 18 months.
Two surgeries on his knee weren't the worst of it. The crash had severed the nerves in his foot so badly he could only drag it, due to what doctors called "dead foot."
While riding the subway to rehab one day, Zakuani told his mother, Cecile, that he wanted to give up.
"I remember telling her, 'I'm going to just do school and get a 9-to-5,' " Zakuani said. "I just said, 'I'd had enough. I don't want to do this anymore. It's not worth it.'
"I didn't even complete my rehab. I was like, 'I'm done.' "
Thinking his soccer career was over, Zakuani took school more seriously. But his previous poor grades had already put him in danger of failing. He joined an after-school program for academically at-risk students, with teacher and mentor Paul Goodison.
When Goodison took Zakuani to watch motivational speaker and evangelist Myles Munroe, the light finally clicked on.
That night Zakuani vowed to turn his life around and get rid of the bad influences. Before he went to bed, alone in his bedroom, he recommitted himself to making it as a professional soccer player
The injury went from being an excuse to a blessing.
"I had to take the gift that God gave me away to realize I was human, and this thing is very fragile," Zakuani said. "Life is fragile."
OFF TO AMERICA
With his spirit renewed, Zakuani traveled across Europe to find a new team. He tried out with the senior teams of Queens Park Rangers and Wigan in England, then to AZ Alkamaar in Holland and Real Valladolid in Spain.
He wasn't back to full speed, and some teams thought he'd never recover.
The University of Akron entered the picture by chance, when the Ohio program was scouting a friend and teammate at the small Independent Football Academy where Zakuani joined to train.
It didn't take long for Zakuani to catch the eye of Zips assistant coach Ryan Higginbotham, who thought he could be the best player in the country.
Skeptical of America and the NCAA, Zakuani didn't take the interest from Akron seriously at first. But unable to find a team in Europe, he eventually accepted the scholarship.
Embracing the new beginning and the free education, Zakuani was a revelation on the college soccer scene. He scored six goals his freshman season and later earned a professional offer that summer from Preston North End, a club in England.
Keeping his promise to Akron coach Caleb Porter, Zakuani came back for his sophomore season and led the nation in scoring with 20 goals. Porter said half of them were individual efforts of "40-, 50-yard runs and beating three or four guys along the way.
"Steve Zakuanis don't come around very often."
Zakuani became the first draft pick of the expansion franchise Sounders FC, which selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft in January 2009.
Two seasons later, the 6-foot midfielder is one of the team's most dangerous offensive weapons.
"If he hadn't had that injury he probably would've gone on a different path," Porter said. "Maybe he'd be in the EPL (English Premier League) right now. Because of the injury he took a fork in the road, but he's still gotten to where he's wanted to be and been able to realize his dreams."
TIME TO GIVE BACK
Sounders FC teammates praise Zakuani's vibrant, fun-loving personality off the field, but also his potential on it.
"He needs to set his goals as high as possible because the sky is the limit," teammate Peter Vagenas said. "He has all the talent in the world."
And with that talent -- Zakuani hopes to debut with the Congolese national team in the next year or so -- comes the opportunity to give back.
This year he founded Kingdom Hope, a nonprofit that offers summer camps and a scholarship program to boys aged 16-18. The ultimate goal is open schools worldwide where young men can receive soccer training and mentoring, but he knows that might take a while.
If anyone has learned patience, however, it's Zakuani.
"I had a lot of people help me when I was down and low," he said, "and that's what I wanted to do in return, was along the way, help as many people as I can to realize their dreams, too."