Commentary

DeCock: RailHawks star hopes to complete long comeback

ldecock@newsobserver.comMay 1, 2014 

— His left foot suspended behind him in a sling, Nick Zimmerman leans forward on his right knee, the one encased in a protective sleeve, the one that has kept him off the soccer field for more than a year. He extends his left leg backward, then moves his foot from side to side, shifting the weight on his right knee. Trainer Geoff Christman uses a piece of PVC pipe to keep Zimmerman’s knee in proper alignment.

“Keep feeling that glute fire,” Christman says.

“Oh, it’s firing,” Zimmerman says.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in the gym at SportHQ in Cary. Zimmerman trained with the Carolina RailHawks for two hours that morning last week after taking part in a Tuesday night exhibition match at Elon. He’ll go through 45 minutes of exercises with Christman designed to further strengthen the right knee, hoping he’s one day closer to coming back.

“I feel like it’s getting stronger,” Zimmerman tells Christman during one drill at SportHQ. It’s not there yet.

Two years ago, Zimmerman was arguably the RailHawks’ best player, their leading scorer with 15 goals from his attacking midfield position, with a quick burst of speed and dangerous skill. A routine knee injury suffered while training with an MLS team in February 2013 turned into a career-threatening one when he needed a second surgery. A year later, as his 27th birthday approaches, he hasn’t played since.

“He’s now had over a year when he hasn’t been able to play, and he’s not the most patient guy in the world,” RailHawks coach Colin Clarke said. “Great to have around, he’s stayed as positive as anyone could and helped the team in any way he can. Just for his sake, I want to see him get back on the field and playing. He’s a class player, he really is. I miss him.”

The RailHawks played in Ottawa on Saturday, not an option for Zimmerman, on artificial turf in cold weather. Zimmerman is hoping to return to action Saturday, when the RailHawks host the New York Cosmos. His parents and grandmother will be in town from Florida for the Cosmos game. It’s his birthday. It’s a perfect scenario to come on for 15 minutes as a substitute, maybe even score the game-winning goal.

It’s not up to him, though. It’s up to Clarke, who can’t afford to take any risks during the NASL’s abbreviated spring season. And it’s up to his own right knee, which even now still isn’t 100 percent.

One wrong step

Two summers ago, Zimmerman emerged as the RailHawks’ biggest star. Last summer, he watched from the stands like everyone else.

A native of Rhode Island whose parents moved to Florida, Zimmerman played college soccer at James Madison before he was drafted in 2009 by MLS’ New York Red Bulls. He played 11 games for them that season and eight in 2010 for the Philadelphia Union before landing with the RailHawks in 2011, just before the season started.

One of their most outgoing and charismatic personalities, he exhibited the same flair on the field, making him a favorite of RailHawks’ fans. His 15 goals made him the second-leading scorer in the NASL in 2012 and made him a critically important player for the RailHawks, who picked up Zimmerman’s option for 2013 after the season. But there was new interest from MLS teams in Zimmerman, and the RailHawks typically don’t stand in a player’s way in that situation. For one thing, it tends to keep players happy. For another, the RailHawks stood to negotiate a significant transfer fee if things worked out.

“When you have a year where you score a lot of goals, you have to take advantage of it because you don’t ever know if it’s going to happen again,” RailHawks teammate Zack Schilawski said. “You have to get paid when you can and move up when you can. It’s kind of the nature of the business.”

So Zimmerman went to training camp with Sporting Kansas City in February 2013, and he had been there less than a day when he felt something in his right knee pop during a training session. The diagnosis was a simple and common one: a torn meniscus, the cartilage under the kneecap, and a sprained medial collateral ligament. The cartilage could be cleaned up through arthroscopic surgery and total recovery time would only be a month or two.

It was bad enough being marooned in a Kansas City hotel, bumming rides off guys who weren’t even his teammates, living out of a suitcase for two months, no way to cook his own meals. (He finally ended up renting a car, so he could train twice a day on his own.) It was worse when the knee never seemed to get any better.

“They said it was getting stronger, and I had to push through it,” Zimmerman said. “That’s part of rehab. You’re going to have pain. I’m like OK. I’m trusting that. Let’s go out there and see, I guess. I made a move. I just planted. I felt something and said that’s not right.”

That was April 6, 2013. Five days later, he was in a Kansas City hospital for a second surgery on the same knee. He was expecting a chondroplasty, a more extensive version of the original surgery on his damaged cartilage, with a 2-4 month recovery window, until he started filling out paperwork.

“I go in the day of surgery, and the form said possible microfracture, when I was signing it,” Zimmerman said. “I said ‘Hey Doc, what is possible microfracture like, is that better? What is that?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s 6-8 months rehab. You’re on crutches for three weeks.’ I had no idea.”

Microfracture surgery, where holes are drilled in the knee bone to encourage the growth of new cartilage, is a big deal. There’s no guarantee of success, as Zimmerman would find out later. He went under not knowing what the doctors would decide.

“They told me, 95 percent chance they’d do the chondroplasty,” Zimmerman said. “I woke up and I asked the nurse, first thing, ‘Was it microfracture?’ She said yes. I was devastated.”

At that moment, Zimmerman’s 2013 season was over, without playing in a single official game.

Risk without reward

The labor agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Unions requires teams to cover medical bills for trialists at the union’s insistence, but there’s no redress for clubs. The RailHawks operate on a razor-thin budget, and a player of Zimmerman’s caliber is not easily replaced on short notice. They could have waived Zimmerman after he failed to report to the team in full fitness but chose to keep him on contract instead.

“You want to give him the opportunity,” Clarke said. “That’s what we’re about: Moving players on. But that’s a commodity that we’ve lost. We’ve had to pay him.”

RailHawks president Curt Johnson spent seven years as general manger of Sporting Kansas City when the franchise was still known as the Kansas City Wizards. Now, as a NASL executive, he sees an inequity that needs to be addressed.

“Sporting KC did a lot right in this, in the sense that they paid for his surgery and they helped to rehab him,” Johnson said. “Having said that, he came back to us damaged, and it was left to us to either decide to retain him – and clearly he made no impact for us on the field last year – or waive him. Neither is a good scenario for us.”

Without Zimmerman, the RailHawks ended up forming a potent attacking triangle of Schilawski, Brian Shriver and Ty Shipalane, one that led the team to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup and a second-place finish in both halves of the NASL season.

That meant nothing, though: Only the first-place team in each half advanced to the Soccer Bowl championship game. (The NASL tweaked the format this year, the so-called RailHawks rule.) And in an attempt to save their key players to lock down the spring title, the RailHawks fielded a weakened team at Real Salt Lake in the Open Cup and were unable to upset a third MLS team in the competition.

Could Zimmerman have made the difference in the NASL season? Would one more quality player have made the difference at Real Salt Lake? Those questions will remain unanswered, frustratingly so.

“When you have limited resources, in order to have a championship season, you have to maximize them,” Johnson said. “With Nick last year, and I know it kills him more than anyone else, one or two season-ending injuries to your foundation players can make the difference.”

Getting closer

Zimmerman returned to Raleigh after the microfracture surgery, then watched the RailHawks miss their targets by such narrow margins. It was excruciating. He’d show up at training sessions on crutches, just to give his erstwhile teammates a hard time, then sit in the stands at games.

“Last year was a humbling year,” Zimmerman said. “You never want to take soccer for granted. Being a professional for six, seven years, you think, ‘OK, I’m going to wake up and play soccer tomorrow.’ You don’t realize until it’s taken from you. It was tough. It was devastating to sit up in the stands, parents and kids asking you when you’re going to be back.

“But at the same time, I couldn’t be prouder of the team, the way they responded, the character they showed. Especially toward the end, when we had the championship in our grasp, you’d love to be a part of that and maybe be the one that could make a difference.”

While the RailHawks competed on the field, Zimmerman went through the rehab process. Underwater biking led to underwater running led to elliptical training. By the time spring rolled around, he was able to take part in a few exhibition games. His training at SportHQ increased in intensity. Still, the RailHawks continued without him.

This season, the RailHawks drew their opener in Indianapolis, then extended their home unbeaten streak to 17 games with a win over Fort Lauderdale before stumbling to a 4-0 loss in Ottawa last weekend. Meanwhile, Zimmerman continues to work toward his uncertain return.

“He’s getting there,” Clarke said. “Slower than everybody wants, but we have to make sure when it happens, it happens and he’s 100 percent.”

It’s not the sprinting that bothers Zimmerman, not the lateral movement, not decelerating from speed. It’s the jogging, the trot from one side of the field to the other as the ball moves from side to side, where he feels the tension in his right knee.

In a training session on one of WakeMed Soccer Park’s practice fields last week, a pass was just out of reach for a right-footed shot. He tried anyway, stopped short and grimaced. He picked up the ball and carried it with him all the way back to midfield, to rejoin the line of players waiting to go through the drill.

“My mentality now is, good luck trying to keep me off the field,” Zimmerman said.

After a hard practice Thursday, Zimmerman is no better than 60-40 to dress for Saturday’s game against the Cosmos. It will be a game-time decision on his birthday. His family will be in town. He has worked for this moment.

Yet Zimmerman, by this point, knows to take nothing in soccer for granted.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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