A little longer than two years ago, Ike Opara opened the web browser on his computer and searched for graduate school programs on Google. He planned to pursue something in leadership development, perhaps student-athlete counseling.
He notified family, friends, teammates, coaches — anyone and everyone — that he was done with soccer. The latest season-ending injury, a ruptured Achilles in 2015, caused too much frustration. He was overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness.
Earlier this week, these are the moments to which Opara traced back. They made the news all the more worthwhile.
Opara was chosen Thursday as the Major League Soccer defender of the year, an honor bestowed on only three other players in Sporting Kansas City franchise history.
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After multiple injuries derailed the first half-decade of his playing career, Opara’s comeback story finally has a satisfying turn.
“I wanted to change the narrative on my career,” Opara said. “I’ve always thought I had that ability, but so many unfortunate events have slowed me down. When you take a step back and look at it, the odds weren’t really in your favor. To be sitting on top of the mountain in this aspect, it really is mind-blowing to me.”
Opara, 28, played in a career-high 30 matches this season, all of them in a starting role in the center of Sporting Kansas City’s league-best defense. He even added three goals, one of those a highlight-reel bicycle kick that is a nominee for the MLS goal of the year.
But let’s take that step back. It’s become such a critical part of Opara’s story.
A chondral defect in his ankle ended his 2014 season. In an interview with The Star a year later, he described sitting in his car and crying after learning he would need surgery.
But he returned better than ever. Opara was playing “some of the best soccer of my life” in 2015, when he jumped for a header in an April match and his Achilles blew out. He needed the aid of a wooden stool to take a shower in the locker room. By the time he left the stadium that evening, he had decided to retire.
Days later, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes implored him to hold off on that decision until the rehab was finished. “You have to do the rehab regardless — whether you’re playing soccer or not,” Vermes told him.
The rehab wasn’t easy. Opara basically needed to re-learn to walk, and he spent the remainder of the season as the first one to arrive to the Sporting KC practice facility.
“I tried to come in with a great attitude, but there were days that was really tough,” Opara said. “There were days I’d telling the training staff, sort of jokingly, that I’m not pushing one more sled on that hot turf.”
And yet it was during the rehab process that “the fire started burning,” he said. He staved off retirement to give it one last shot.
Two years later, here he stands. The best in MLS over an eight-month stretch, as voted on by coaches, players and media.
Sporting KC relinquished a league-few 29 goals, with Opara residing next to captain Matt Besler in the middle of the defense.
“When you win this individual honor, you have to think about what we did as a unit,” Opara said. “We developed an ego of winning your challenge and winning your day against an attacker. We all know that a defense can have a great day, but all it takes is one slip for the forward to get the glory. We didn’t want to be on the wrong side of that.”
Although Opara credits a long list of people to helping him return to the field — doctors, trainers, coaches, teammates, family and friends — the credit for staying there falls on a new implementation last offseason.
Opara made a point to stay within 170 and 173 pounds this season after playing nearly 10 pounds heavier most of his career. He strictly follows the details of his nutrition, down to tracking his Vitamin D levels. He added fish oils to his diet, hoping to prevent inflammation in his muscles.
There was still one injury scare in his season. In July, Opara was knocked out when FC Dallas forward Maxi Urruti accidentally kicked him in the face. Opara woke up in an ambulance unaware of what had happened. After a few days, the resulting concussion subsided, but he also ruptured an ear drum, causing balance issues that lasted a couple of months.
As he described those symptoms this week — hours after learning of his defender of the year award — he finished with a matter-of-fact statement.
“I’ve come back from worse,” he said.