ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (April 10, 2019) — Now that he’s played in a real, competitive game, Tampa Bay Rowdies defender David Najem says the long road to recovery is officially in the rear-view mirror.
Najem appeared off the bench in Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the Hartford Athletic, his first regular season appearance in 51 weeks since tearing his left ACL on April 14, 2018. That injury was particularly devastating because he had proven an emerging star through the first four matches last season, only to be injured in his hometown in front of friends and family.
Since then, Najem has worked hard day in and day out to prepare himself for a moment like Saturday night. Recovering from a torn ACL is a grueling process filled with ups and downs he said.
When you walk for the first time, or ride a bike or run, everything feels good. But then there’s a setback or you’re in pain and you start to wonder if you can ever really recover.
Thankfully, those doubts are in the past now.
“(The coaches) gave me a little bit of a heads up around the 50th or 55th minute just to be ready,” Najem said. “I thought I would have 10 or 15 minutes to get ready, but it ended up being three or four (because of Shawn Barry’s injury.) The excitement started flowing. The fans were cheering and I got to put on a real jersey again, which was an awesome feeling. Once I got to the touchline to go into the game, Neill just said to do what I’ve been doing in practice and it would be fine. One play later, I had a ball just sitting there for me and I hit it home. It was great.”
The finish itself was nothing to write home about — Najem likened it to the one-touch passes he played with Rowdies forward Brandon Allen in pregame warmups — but the celebration afterward was intense.
“I just started running like crazy and I saw all my teammates running toward me,” Najem said. “I wanted everyone to be in there with me and celebrate together because that was for all of them. They kept me up when I was down and it was just a great moment for everyone. It was awesome.”
Things got even better when he reached the locker room and got to his phone.
“My phone was going off nonstop with some of the nicest messages I’ve ever received in my life to be honest,” he said. “It was emotional. I got messages from former teammates, former coaches, friends, family, a huge variety of people. It was nice to see all those people cheering for me. I’m so grateful for that. When I was at my lows, they were there for me, so I’m just really happy they got to experience the high with me as well.”
Najem played regularly in preseason this year, but a knock picked up shortly before the season opener, which ruled him out of a contest against Memphis 901 FC and his brother, Adam Najem. It was a frustrating setback, but David Najem knows he might get an opportunity to share the field with his brother soon enough.
While David was out injured, Adam received his first call-up to Afghanistan’s national team and played in Afghanistan’s first match inside Afghanistan in five years. Had he not been injured, David likely would have been on the field alongside his brother that night. David has stayed in contact with Afghanistan’s coaching staff and now that he has returned to action, he’s optimistic that his first international appearance is coming soon.
“I got great messages from (Afghanistan’s staff,)" David Najem said. “They’re excited for me and I’m excited to be at my best when I get into camp for the first time."