Zakuani injury hit too close to home

For the first time in my short career as a commentator I had something happen that some people with 20-year careers may never experience: a horrific injury to a player during a game that you are calling. You can never practice what you will say or how you will react during that very moment, and I can say that I didn’t do a great job with my first experience. My reaction to the incident made me realize that, at certain moments, being objective as an analyst can be quite a challenge.

It was very early on in the game when a producer asked me a quick question, as they are known to do when things are just getting underway in a live broadcast. I took a moment to answer back, which took my attention off the field for a split second. The cracking sound of Brian Mullan’s tackle on Zakuani is what brought my attention back on the field. It was hard to make out what was going on down on the field, and I couldn’t figure out where the sound came from. The producer spoke to me in to my headset, “here is the replay.”

It is easy to tell, both by my silence before and after the tackle, as well as by my reaction to that immediate replay, that I was seeing the play for the first time. At the moment of impact, while most people were collectively turning away from their screens in shock, I was not seeing it live. As I watched it back, I realized what the sound was that I had heard moments earlier, and that there was a serious situation going on 100 feet away from us. My stomach immediately dropped, and after the fact I honestly couldn’t tell you what I said during those few short minutes following the tackle. I was shocked. The injury hit me really hard at the time, and is still on my mind now. I am a big fan of Steve Zakuani. I think he is a tremendous player with a very bright future, and seeing him go down so violently was a serious blow to the fan in me. The other reason I think I had trouble with the play call is due to the fact that my own career was ended on a tackle in Colorado.

In 2006, I was coming back from injury for the LA Galaxy when Frank Yallop put me in for the last 20 or so minutes against the Rapids in Denver. With one of my very first touches on the ball, Dan Gargan cleaned me out from behind. The second I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. An MRI the next day showed that I had torn the labrum in my left hip (an injury I had sustained to my right hip a few years prior). I never fully recovered from that tackle and still to this day have pain as a result of it.

Mullan’s tackle on Zakuani hit a little too close to home, and I immediately started feeling bad for not only Zakuani, but also for Mullan. I know Brian well and saw how destroyed he was after he realized what he had done. I realize that his subsequent emotion doesn’t excuse his actions. He made a terrible decision and I am sure you will see a ban from MLS that will support that. I came to his support during the broadcast for the very same reason I have no ill feelings towards Dan Gargan: His intentions were not to inflict such devastating damage.

At that moment is when the player in me spoke in place of the analyst in me. I let a past experience affect my ability to call the play as I saw it. It’s kind of like when a hometown referee makes a few bad calls against the home team to make sure no one labels him as biased. After reflecting on that experience I realized that I was far too casual about the situation to overcompensate for how bad I felt while it was happening. I realized in that very moment how challenging it is in this profession to make sure your own past experiences in the sport do not proceed your commitment to unbiased opinion of play.

I think it is very important for an analyst to bring their experience of playing the game to the broadcasts. It is what differentiates us from others who know the game. When I listen to a game, I love to hear commentators who make insightful critiques based on years of experience. There is a fine line that they walk on every broadcast, however, and I lived that line on Friday night. Watching the video back, I can see now that Brian let his frustrations get the best of him and made a terrible decision when he engaged in such a reckless tackle. Regardless of my opinion of him as a guy, my job as an analyst is to call it as I see it. Personally, I think it is relevant to express my opinion that I don’t think that Mullan is dirty or malicious as a player, but the focus of my comments should have expressed the severity of his actions as well.

Although it was a difficult way to realize it, I got a good glimpse at one of the toughest challenges we all face as we take on this wonderful honor of being an analyst. It is not about us or our careers anymore. It is about using the knowledge of our experiences to critique the game we all love. I hope that I have a long career as a commentator. I love the job very much, and it gives me great joy to be close to the game again and not feel sorry about one tackle, one night. Hopefully it will be a long time before I am faced with another moment like we had in our broadcast Friday night, but if it does come around, I know I will be able to rely on the lesson of this experience. We are all the sum of our experiences, and it is how we grow from those experiences that molds us into the person we want to be.

My thoughts and prayers are with Steve Zakuani. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Kyle Martino is a former U.S. Men’s National team midfielder and Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year who provides analysis on FOX Soccer’s MLS broadcasts as well as FOX Soccer’s Super Sunday Plus.