By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 25, 2015) US Soccer Players – Every day, David Johnson walks past a pair of soccer cleats he once donned doing what he loved. He has not worn them for nearly eight years, and for nearly eight years he has the same thought running through his mind.
“I look at them every day,” Johnson said. “Every damn day I look at them and I think ‘Can I put them back on?’”
Johnson came up through the US youth national team system and spent time in Europe as well as MLS last decade. Back pain plagued him during his career and still bothers him daily – excruciating back pain is constantly only seconds away. But Johnson, 31, has not tossed all of his dreams away.
Johnson said he will undergo a “nerve-burn procedure” next month and plans on attempting a comeback afterward. The procedure, Intradiscal Electrothermal Annuloplasty or IDET, helps alleviate back pain caused by disc problems. Playing soccer is part of Johnson’s soul and not being able to do so for such a long time has been difficult.
“It’s even still hard for me to watch games on TV. I have every soccer channel… and I try and watch it but it’s still hard to watch. It hits a nerve. Not the back nerve but it gets that emotional feeling going and it’s hard.”
Johnson certainly had the background. A member of the 2001 U-17 and 2003 U-20 World Cup teams, Johnson played for Willem II as a teenager and was a part of the 2005 MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy. However, by 2008 he was out of the game.
It was not stunted development or lack of ability to latch on anywhere that forced him out. Rather, it was a chronic back injury. Somewhere along the way, Johnson became weighted down by three herniated discs in his back. Unlike other injuries he played through, the back pain though became too much to handle.
“After training or a game,” he said, “I was hunched over and went to the locker room and was saying ‘I need some help, man. Someone please check it out.'”
An MRI exam revealed the herniated discs. Eventually, Johnson also dealt with a sports hernia ailment and subsequent surgery, but the myriad of injuries only slowed him down. Johnson parted ways with the Galaxy after the 2005 season and went on some failed trials in Europe before joining the Puerto Rico Islanders in early 2007.
The back had slowly ground him down and by the end of the year he did not recognize himself much. In one of his final games, Johnson and Puerto Rico faced Suriname side SV Leo Victor in a CFU Club Championship quarterfinal match. Johnson was not playing like his usual self.
“I was on the field playing and (Islanders coach Colin Clarke) yelled at me ‘Get your (expletive) head in the game’ and I yelled at him ‘I am in the (expletive) game,'” Johnson said. “Right then I was like, ‘My God.’ For me to say something like that to a man I respect, who does that? Who yells that at their head coach? I wasn’t in my right mind.”
He regained his focus though and in the 90th minute made a run down the middle of the field and at the backline and ripped a shot on goal.
“I strike it perfectly. It goes upper V, left corner,” he said. “I get on my knees and I say ‘Thank you Lord. I can finally breathe.’ No more stress. No more anger. No more bitterness.”
Johnson played one more match, against Trinidadian side Joe Public. Afterward, the back pain engulfed his being.
“I took a year off from doing anything and just laid around, depressed, sad, victimized. I was a victim. My own worst enemy,” Johnson said. “I went through a good three to four years of depression, some mental mind brain games, some major stuff.”
Still, Johnson translated his soccer skills into coaching. He has his “C” coaching license and plans to reach up to his “A” license within two years. He runs youth soccer camps, including one on June 26-29 in Riverside, and spent several years prior as the head soccer coach in a Riverside-based athletic training center.
Even if his comeback is unsuccessful, Johnson plans on sticking with soccer. He hopes someday soon for a USL or PDL club to call Riverside home. Eventually, with his “A” license Johnson wants to coach professionally.
“Right now that’s my number one thing, to be here in the Inland Empire helping the next generation,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any other aspiration other than to help… I’m going to work on getting the top level of coaching – professionally. I feel like that’s part of my calling too.”
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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