Charlie Davies – Between the Goalposts of Life

“He never told me until I stumbled upon it!”

Charlie Davies came home from school one day with a permission slip for his parents to sign. The six year old thought this would allow him to participate in American football. “Because that’s what all the kids in my neighbourhood played.” Even when his father, a Gambian immigrant who first came to the United States to play college soccer and was later a semi-professional in Massachusetts, looked at him and asked him if it was what he really wanted, Charlie said, yes please! It was only when they went into a store to pick out cleats, shin guards, and a ball that he realised his error. “I was thinking, what have I gotten myself into? But Dad was so excited that I couldn’t tell him it was a mistake!”

Contrary to what you might expect from a story like this, Charlie didn’t get picked for the team. “I was sad and felt like I had disappointed my father a little bit.” His father, however, went straight to the heart of it. “Do you want to be good at this sport?”

Every day after school, Charlie would finish his homework before his father picked him up, on his way home from work. They would go to the field to practice until neither of them could see the ball anymore. Two weeks later, the coach of the same team approached his father, asking if Charlie could play for them now. 

“My dad took me to the rival team!”

This incident is a microcosm of the determination and spirit that glows bright in Charlie even in the present day, the same spirit that has allowed him to overcome everything along the way and somehow come out not only stronger, but more hopeful than ever. He gets both his pursuit of excellence and the love of a challenge and proving doubters wrong from his father. But it would be two more years before his passion for the beautiful game was truly cemented.

Charlie and I meet for our chat at the Explorateur cafe-bar in downtown Boston. By then, I have known this former USMNT and MLS star (and fellow Gooner) for only a few months, but am already aware of just how much positivity he radiates; how thoughtful, compassionate, yet driven, he is. The Man Utd-PSG Champions League fixture is already underway on the screens facing us and throughout the conversation we find our combined attention drifting towards the action.

One of the first questions I ask him is about the moment he knew he wanted to be a professional footballer. He smiles. “The 1994 World Cup.” His father came home with tickets to see South Korea versus Bolivia. For most, that wouldn’t be the most exciting of games, but when you’re eight years old and it’s your first live match—what more does one want? Well, Charlie was lucky enough to also walk out with a dream.

“To see the passion and the excitement and the collection of different races all in support of the sport…as soon as that first whistle kicked off and you heard that cheer, that roar, I was like, this is it. This is for me. This is what I want to do.”

What it takes to build a dream

From that day on, his entire life involved the ball. “In some shape or in some fashion, I was playing outside, I was playing indoors, I was playing on a team. I was playing in the house. And I loved it.” Pretty soon, his younger brother, Justin also picked up the sport and they would play against each other. Their father, who worked at Hewlett-Packard during the day, was right there, planning, inspiring, and pushing them to be their best. For Kofi Davies, this was a way to “tap back into his love, his passion, reconnect with the sport.” Charlie smiles. “He loved it and wanted me to be better than he ever was. But when I talked to all his friends, they said, ‘Your father was a fantastic player. Skilled, fast, strong. It’ll be tough to be better than he was.’ That drove me to want to be better.”

But none of this came easy. His father had a drug addiction and Charlie’s mother, Kathleen, an inspector at Raytheon, had a mental health condition that meant she was in psychiatric wards on and off from the time he was around seven. “It’d be, it was just really difficult…it was almost as if one parent at various times was gone.” But Charlie, the older brother who had to take on responsibilities no kid should have to, doesn’t hold any sort of ill feeling. Instead, there is a quiet, heartfelt gratitude. 

“They did whatever they had to do to make sure that my brother and I had a roof over our heads and some food to eat, but I think as anyone knows, you can always be in a tougher situation. Our upbringings were drastically different from our friends, but when I look back, we were definitely fortunate enough to have new clothes, a house, food—they did the best that they could with what they had.

Charlie Davies
Art by Charbak Dipta

“My mom made sure she dropped us to school whenever she was around, and my dad was always there for every soccer game. He never missed a game, was always there for practice. It showed how much he cared about my development and growth and about me. It was important for me to realise as a kid. 

“But, I think, if you’d have asked him now he would say, ‘yeah, I wasn’t the best father because I let your mother down and I let you guys down because I wasn’t there.’ But he still was; I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for him.”

Today, his dad’s clean, and both his parents live in San Diego near his brother Justin.

Charlie grew up in New Hampshire, but from the age of twelve, he primarily played in Massachusetts because that is where the best level was. “Dad knew that in order for me to continue to progress, I had to play in the best competitions and with the best players.” When it came to high school, he and his father decided on Brooks School, a boarding school in North Andover, which had a good soccer program. In his freshman year, he realised that all of his speed and dexterity with the ball would be for nothing if he didn’t work on his size and strength. He joined the school’s wrestling team. By his senior year, Charlie was a New England champion in soccer and wrestling, breaking records by scoring 73 goals in his last two seasons.

Looking back, it is perhaps easier to trace the threads of determination and grit, of that never-give-up attitude, to his formative years, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Or the fact that such a fire needs to come from within and it needs to be nurtured for it to continue burning. Charlie had both; still does, and they have stood him in good stead.

“There were various things in my life, I think, that helped shape me into the person that I am today. Like I talked about my mother’s mental health, my father’s drug addiction, I always had this feeling about life in the sense that no matter what comes at you, life is still going. You have to keep going. Otherwise, you’re not going to go anywhere. So, I would always kind of put things in the rearview mirror and just keep going, and soccer was my way of getting out. Getting out on that field and playing, that was how I expressed myself and how I was able to get the stress out of me.”

Europe and another football dream

Like you and me and almost everyone else who has ever watched football, Charlie was fascinated by European football from a young age, by its history, its legend, its aura. 

“Europe for me as a kid, watching European football, you see the best of the best, so I have always strived to be on that level. And, I think, ultimately that is what it came down to, choosing to play here in the MLS or choosing to play in Europe, and I chose Europe because that was my dream.”

And when he got to experience it for himself, it was better than he had ever imagined watching it on the telly. “It blew my expectations out of the water,” he says, of his first professional experience at Hammarby in Stockholm, and the immersive introduction to Europe, to their fan culture. It was the first place he truly imbibed the why.

“The Hammarby fans are among the best in the world. The dedication, commitment to the team, it’s a lifestyle. It’s almost like a religion. They are so involved and invested in the club and you feel that, you thrive off that. So I was very fortunate to be brought up, so to say, in an environment where you see what it means for people to support the club, so when you go out on the field, not only are you supposed to play with passion, but you know why it’s so important.”

Hammarby and its fans were also responsible for moulding and cementing Charlie Davies the football professional. It was in Stockholm that he really understood what it meant to be a professional; the demands of day-to-day training, the expectations, the responsibilities, all of which were new to him. “If you ate poorly and people saw it, it got back to my coach. But we also got free meals because supporters owned restaurants or worked there, and that was cool. [Overall] it was a really valuable experience. And I got to play against one of my childhood idols—Henrik Larsson—which was extremely special for me. He told me to stay focused and keep working, and he wished me luck.”

That first starstruck moment, so to speak, was an important moment during his stay in Sweden because he was on the field with a player he had looked up to since he was a kid. It brought about the realisation of how far he had come, but also how far he still had to go, how much he still had to work for his dream. 

That next step in his growth and development would come with his 2009 transfer to Sochaux in Ligue 1 and the USMNT call-up that followed. Both experiences would give him a taste of the international game, of its quality, and push him to want to be worthy of the sport at this highest of levels. He would get a taste of the very top flight—”everything was crisp and clean and fast”—and want more, just like when he was a kid at his first live game.

Charlie remembers playing in the Confederations Cup against a Spanish side that hadn’t been beaten in two years (the USA went on to stun the European Champions 2-0 to make the final). “I was in the starting line-up and I’m looking at Sergio Ramos and Xavi and Iniesta and Fernando Torres and David Villa and Casillas and I’m thinking, wow, I’ve made it. Playing against Italy in the group stages, the same unreal feeling, looking at Buffon in the eyes (who stands in the PSG goal that very afternoon in front of us) and Zambrotta—what?”

While this education shaped him on the field, the continent would ensure his exposure to different cultures, cities, food, broadening his world and how he saw it. Even languages. “When I played in Sweden and Denmark the majority of the players and staff spoke English due to a requirement in school. France was different. Most of the players and staff spoke only French and it forced me to learn the language quickly!” He smiles. “It was special to be able to experience Europe in ways that not many people get to. In your off-time, you got to travel, even if it was just taking the train to Paris, or visiting other US internationals at their clubs.”

Charlie had to wait until he was eleven years old to watch his first live USMNT game—a 2-2 draw against Mexico at the Foxborough Stadium in the April of 1997. It was the peak of the USA-Mexico rivalry, a constant battle to be the best country in CONCACAF, and he dreamed of playing in that line-up one day.

Twelve years later, in August 2009, he was part of the squad to play the USA’s World Cup qualifier versus Mexico. The Azteca lies at an altitude of 7200 feet above the sea, the largest stadium in Mexico, named in honour of the country’s Aztec heritage. It’s hallowed ground for what it has been a witness to, throughout footballing history—the 1970 World Cup final, the 1986 World Cup games including the “Hand of God”—and not a place even many professionals get to experience. All of this was on Charlie’s mind as he walked through the tunnel and saw plaques of Pele and Maradona on the walls; this special ground he was about to step onto on the way to fulfil a dream. But then to score against the home team within the first ten minutes? I don’t think even he saw that coming. 

“It was so special to come into that stadium and there’s 1,00,000 people there, all whistling and jeering at you. To score in the first ten minutes, to have it go silent and to celebrate in the corner…” He laughs. “Definitely a memorable goal.”

Not bad for someone who fell into the game by mistake, right?

The United States lost that game 1-2, but heading into the 2010 World Cup, the future was unwritten and exciting in its potential, for both this lightning-quick forward and the USMNT.

In October 2009, the USMNT had qualified for the 2010 World Cup, beating Honduras 3-2. A few days later, they were in Washington D.C. to play their final qualifying match, a game versus Costa Rica. On October 13, two days before the game, after a night out, Charlie got into a car with two women he didn’t know very well. The car rammed into a metal guardrail somewhere on the George Washington Parkway and split into two, killing one of the women. The other, who was driving, eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison. And Charlie? He was just lucky to be alive.

He woke up in hospital with a lacerated bladder, fractures to his right tibia and femur, to his face and his left elbow, bleeding on the brain and dozens of staples in his abdomen. Following multiple surgeries, he would be left with a right leg one and a half inches shorter than his left. There were doubts about if he’d ever walk again.

He was 23 years old.

The accident

“Because it was so devastating, in respect to my injuries, my only train of thought was ‘I need to get back as soon as possible because this dream that I had, the ultimate dream of playing in a World Cup was in my hands, was in my grasp, and I can’t let it slip away just like this.”

Charlie had suffered a meniscus tear in college. It wasn’t a major injury but required his first surgery. During those five months of recovery, he had suffered some depression for the first time in his life. “I wasn’t motivated to go to class, I wasn’t motivated to go to workouts, rehab. It was a really tough time for me.”

But he credits that time for teaching him that it can get really bad if you don’t talk about some of the things that you’re going through or if you don’t have a support system. In 2009, he was determined to not make the same mistakes. 

“I had the best support system ever in Nina (now wife), my family, my friends—they were all there for me. And my fans. The fans kept me going. They sent inspirational messages to me, sending emails, letters, always commenting on my twitter, always giving me support, and I fed off of that. I needed that.” As impossible as it was, and as impossible as it eventually turned out to be, he had to believe that he could get back to that starting line-up in time for the actual tournament. 

“I had to believe it to get myself out of bed every single morning to work twelve hours a day, whether it was on the bike, or just simple things. I knew I had to do that much more to be back. I fought, I fought, I fought…and I didn’t make it, but I realised that it was more about the ability to say you’re going to get back up and fight. Rather than actually achieving the goal, it was more, no matter what happens, you just have to keep going. Get up and fight and stay positive.” And, of course, there’s the small matter of giving other people hope. “That [knowing that he was giving others in his situation hope] was inspirational on its own. I just carried that with me. If you go through things in life with a positive attitude, no matter what comes at you, you’re going to be better for it and the people around you are going to be better for it.”

Though he wasn’t medically cleared by Sochaux to make the 2010 FIFA USMNT squad, he was on the field a year and a half after it, scoring two goals for D.C. United, his loan team, in a game that he names one of his most memorable for the simple reason of knowing that he could still play this game he loved. “Whether I would get back to where I was before the accident or not, I could still play and have success in the league. [That] meant so much.” He credits the accident for making him a better, more knowledgeable player just because he had to find different ways to compete and compensate. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he also got to play against his ultimate idol later that year. 

I first met Charlie at the Lir for the Boston Gooners screening of the Arsenal vs Sporting CP game in the Europa League. He’d started watching the Premier League at a friend’s house and, like many others, Thierry Henry was the reason he fixated on the team from North London. “An absolute work of art (referring to the Invincibles),” he says, before continuing, “he [Henry] came up to me before our [D.C’s] game versus Red Bull New York and said, ‘It’s courageous what you’re doing and I wish you the best and keep fighting.’ I nearly melted to the floor. I was thinking, how am I supposed to play this game now?’ (Laughs). He gave me his jersey after the game. Special guy.”

We talk a bit about Henry’s coaching misadventures and the impact Ole is having at United, still in the middle of that unbeaten run as soon as he came in. Charlie agrees with me that Titi, while being a special player, hasn’t made the best impression as first-team manager. 

“Just don’t be a diva. Back in the day, it used to work, right? But that’s not going to work anymore. It’s a new culture. Though just being human and showing humility and being honest will always be in style.”

There’s a VAR call on screen and I ask him what he thinks of the new addition. “It’s great because the game has evolved. If they can get it done quickly and efficiently and effectively, then great, it will make the game better. You don’t want to affect the flow of the game, but, of course, you want things to be called right.”

The conversation swings back around to Arsenal, as is expected when you have two diehard Gooners, and Charlie tells me his only regret is not being able to see Highbury, one that I share in, as well. I’m surprised though that he’s never seen the team play live. “I’ve never been to an Arsenal game. Somehow it’s never worked out and it really needs to happen!”

“You can’t change what has happened, so you just keep a positive mind and keep going.”

There have been many times during Charlie Davies’ life that he has realised this. So, when in the spring of 2016, their twins were born three months premature, he dealt with it like he did everything—stay positive and hope for the best. By then he was at Philadelphia Union, having played for Randers in Denmark and the more local New England Revolution where he won the team’s Golden Boot award for scoring 10 goals in 33 games and the fan’s play of the year in 2015 and helped them reach the Eastern Conference Championship in 2014.

“It was hard, because I was trying to juggle training and taking care of myself, when I just wanted to be at the hospital with my family.” But when, not long after, he was diagnosed with liposarcoma, his first thought, positivity notwithstanding, was that he was going to die. “The worst comes to your mind. The worst fears enter your mind because cancer is just such a dangerous word, especially when you’re not informed,” he recalls. 

The thing is, he wouldn’t even have known if not for an injury. He had a muscle pull during a game—30th minute, he remembers—and had to go to the hospital for a scan. There had been no symptoms. “Luckily I was in Boston with the best hospitals around. Dana Farber has continued to take care of me.” (In the present day, Charlie has been cancer-free for four years.)

Charlie announced his retirement from professional football on March 2, 2018. At the time of this interview, he was working as a club ambassador for the Revs (he’s since left the official role) and as a commentator for various media outlets. Today, he is the main analyst (“color commentator” for those of you Stateside) for the New England Revolution broadcast as well as the host for the US Soccer Podcast, a new weekly podcast that is US Soccer’s first-ever official one.

On that day in Explorateur, I asked him how he knew it was the “right” time, and whether he always knew what he wanted to do after he stopped playing.

“Once I made up my mind—I didn’t want to move my family around anymore—it was such a relief mentally and physically that I knew it was the right decision. From that point on, I just reached out to a couple of people, people pointed me in the right direction with the right people and all of a sudden there were a number of opportunities that I had to choose from.

“My transition has been so easy, in the sense that the opportunities were there because of the person that I was. I made a lot of good relationships with good people throughout my career and I always valued the people working at the club. I think that just comes from my time at Hammarby, showing respect for the people that do the little jobs, that don’t get respect, and growing up and just having an understanding of hard work and what it means to get things, like how you get things, the work and effort that goes into that.”

As an ex-pro and someone who’s so passionate about the sport, has he ever considered coaching? 

“Not yet. I’ve been focused on learning the business of the sport in the front office and dedicating time in front of the camera being an analyst.”

“Working for the New England Revolution as a club ambassador has been fantastic because it is a club I grew up supporting, a club I played for, and now I work for it and I get to use my career experiences, life experiences in trying to shape the club moving forward. My input is extremely important in the sense that I can say that players aren’t going to like that or players are going to like that, or fans will or won’t like that, or maybe we can do something to highlight the fans. Is there something we can do to benefit the community?

“I’m particularly invested in our newest partnership with Boston Centers for Youth and Families. Educating the inner city families about our beautiful sport and showing them the opportunities the game can provide is a passion of mine.

“Similarly, diving into the TV and media world has been brilliant. I really like that. Analysing the game is something I pride myself on because I have watched the game so much and so intently, and now I am in the position to educate the normal soccer fan who maybe doesn’t really understand the sport. Beyond that, I just really want to do my part in building the next generation of fans. Showing them why it’s a beautiful game. Why is this the world’s most popular sport? If people understand that and then experience it; once they experience it, it’s a no-brainer.”

What does he think about the future of the sport in the United States? 

“The MLS has grown considerably and has made a real effort in developing young talent. There are many Americans who are already in Europe learning at various academies! I can’t wait for the World Cup of 2026. This country is ready for it now and the sport’s going to blow up.”

Apart from the football side of things, Charlie’s always been cognisant of the importance of giving back to the community. This makes his new role at the Boston Children’s Hospital (where his twins spent so many of their frantic, stressful early days) the perfect fit.

“For me, the greatest joy has been to put a smile on someone’s face and have them forget some of the troubles they have been going through or facing, because I know what that can do to a person. How it can make someone’s day and what it can do to them long term. Children, they are pure. They don’t deserve to suffer. Not that anyone deserves to suffer, but children, they particularly don’t. When I was a player, I loved going in to the hospitals to put a smile on kids’ faces. Now that I’m back and I’m more involved with the Boston Children’s Hospital, they nominated me to be on this philanthropic board. It’s just about doing whatever I can to benefit the patients in the hospital, the patients’ families, and the doctors and the research. So, raising as much money as I can because I know what a special place that is.”

Charlie, for whom it has always been about football and his loved ones, finally gets to balance both.

“Outside of work, my joy now is just spending time with my family.”

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.