Mullan missed 10 games to suspension, but when he returned, Zakuani was still out and his career as a professional athlete was still in doubt. Many feared that he would never regain his distinguishing speed and explosiveness. Following the Sounders from afar, I noticed that there were less and less updates about Zakuani's health and progress. It wasn't a good sign.
People throw around the word forgiveness all the time. As I sat through a mass the other day, I probably heard the word over thirty times. But what is it really?
Forgiveness is the realization, the understanding, that we are all capable of acting outside of ourselves. When that moment comes, when we slip beyond the walls of integrity we've established, how do we want others to respond? Do we want them to respond to our slip, or do we want them to respond to our true integrity?
Apparently Zakuani was able to look beyond the brutal foul, the surgeries, the 15 months of rehab, the long absence from the game and the permanent limp to realize that that was not Brian Mullan. Brian Mullan was not the guy who chased him down and threw his entire body into his nimble leg. He was just a competitive professional athlete who for a few seconds had slipped.
How do I know that Zakuani had actually forgiven him? He never showed any resentment in any interview and always seemed optimistic. But I think the most telling sign was that he was able to come back. If he had dwelled on the wrongdoing, I don't think he would have been able to focus enough on moving forward and getting back in the game. So when he took off his jacket and headed to the bench on Saturday evening, against Mulan and Colorado Rapids, to return to the field for the first time since the injury, I knew that he had forgiven him.
It was a sight to behold. The Sounders were up 2-0 in the second half, so I spent most of that time watching the reserves, wondering if tonight would be the night for Zak's return. When he headed over to the bench, a rumble in the crowd began to rise. When he got up off the bench, the crowd grew ecstatic, even as Colorado scored what appeared to be the tying goal (it was called offside). As his name was called and he took the field, the place erupted. It was one of the greatest sports moments I'd witnessed in person.
He only played about seven minutes, but the fact that he was playing at all was an accomplishment. The final whistle blew and while the crowd celebrated the victory, I watched intently because there was still action on the field. I had read that Mullan and Zakuani had never officially spoken since the incident. As all the players shook hands, I knew something would have to happen between the two. They finally met at midfield and I wondered what they were saying to each other. The skeptic in me thought maybe the cameraman nearby was telling them to shake hands and pose for a photo. But I wanted to believe that Mullan was looking Zak in the eyes and saying, "I am so sorry." After a few brief words, the two exchanged jerseys. Then, instead of just walking away, the two embraced. It was kind, it was genuine, it was forgiveness in its purest form.
Sports isn't always like this. But when it is, it can teach us so much more than just the intricate details of the game itself. A few seconds 15 months ago changed both those men's lives. It could have changed them for worse, but because of forgiveness, it ultimately changed them for the better.