KYLE SCHNITZER - Monday, September 2, 2013
After a horrific injury in January, Will Packwood nears the end of his journey in a remarkable comeback.
Before a cold January FA Cup meeting at Leeds United, Packwood started seeing first team action with the Blues, for the first time in his career. The American defender played in seven matches, including five Championship appearances and a start in the League Cup against Barnet. But what looked like the blossoming of an up-and-coming American soccer player turned into a player's career being threatened.
On that January evening at Elland Road, the 3rd round FA Cup meeting ended in a 1-1 draw. But for Will Packwood, his season ended that night before the final whistle blew. As the Leeds United goalkeeper cleared the ball, Packwood challenged the opposing player for the header. But when he came down, he left the field on a stretcher.
"I've watched it," says William Packwood. "All that I can remember is jumping to win the header and from then on, all I remember is being on the floor, not able to move."
The 20-year-old suffered multiple fractures to his tibia and fibula after failing to land properly after the challenge. He needed two surgeries to repair the injury and an estimated time of nine to twelve months is needed for recovery. But to make matters worse, Packwood's contract at Birmingham City was set to expire at season's end.
"There was defiantly a real possibility that I wouldn't play again," explains a calm Packwood. "Until that point, there's defiantly a lot of uncertainty."
But for Packwood, his time on the field left a favorable impression with Birmingham City. The club decided to extend Packwood's contract until the end of the 2014 season.
"They said that there's something here for you," recalls Packwood. "When you can build a bond or a good working relationship, obviously it helps because they know they can rely on you as Birmingham showed, they came through for me when I needed it."
With the guaranteed contract, Packwood focused on his rehabilitation. He explained that though the injury was very bad, the injury was isolated to the bones instead of the ligaments. He credits the surgeons who worked on him to make sure the bone healed properly so he could start any sort of rehab.
His time away from the pitch not only affected Birmingham City, but his national team. Packwood's injury kept him out of first-team action with Birmingham City, but also forced him to miss the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with the United States, where a struggling USA was ousted in the group stages.
"I've represented the [United States] for a number of age groups at various levels," says Packwood, who's represented the Under-20 squad nine times. "I was very committed to the World Cup and obviously massively looking forward to going to such a big tournament. At the time of the injury, I wasn't able to go but now that means the next target is the Olympics."
But to get back to the level of competition he left, Packwood had to face every part of the game in individual training. "The key thing we've done is to build my way back [into the game]," said Packwood. He explained how everything is broken down into a 1 v. 1 controlled environment with the Birmingham City's physios, where they worked on everything from jumping, landing, touching, passing, tackling, and striking. He noted how when in training, he's not afraid to go up for a header because he's done them successfully in the past. "Every little bit was broken down into individual parts and repeated to make sure that any sort of discomfort or pain that was there to start with was worked out in a number of week."
But in just eight months after that night in Leeds, William Packwood returned to the pitch on August 26th in a Under-21 match against Barnsley. The American returned to the starting eleven and played 45 minutes, his first game action since fracturing his leg. Richard Beele, Birmingham City's Development Coach, said Packwood looked like he hasn't missed a beat.
"He looked exactly back to where he was before," explains Beele. "He read the game excellently. He looked fit, strong, and sharp coming from his first half after injury."
Beele's worked with Packwood after the American left his home in Concord, Massachusetts and joined the club at the age of fourteen. He credits Packwood's recovery to the determination and professionalism that he brings every day to his program of work.
Although Packwood admits to nerves after this injury, Beele sees no signs of those.
"Will never shies away from a tackle, before his injury, and obviously that can be a factor with such a bad injury, but we have certainly seen no sign of that," explains Beele. "He's come back in training and not short of anything of the usual Will Packwood is."
Since returning against Barnsley, Packwood started on August 30; his second match for Birmingham City's U-21's against Nottingham Forest's U-21 team. Although the Blues lost 3-0, Packwood was featured in the starting eleven, before being subbed for in the 60th minute. As Birmingham City ease Packwood back into action, Beele believes Packwood has what it takes to return to his former self before the injury.
"The breakthrough season Will had last season was very encouraging and if Will can attain those levels, get anywhere to where he was last season, we really see Will as a young and coming football player at Birmingham City," says an optimistic Beele. "If he can get 20 to 30 first team games this season like he did last season, then he's right back to where he was before his injury."
As Beele says with passion, he's happy to see Will Packwood back on the pitch and performing well. But Packwood is determined to return to where he feels he belongs. He doesn't want to be singled out because of his injury, but he wants prove he can still play at the top level. "I'm the same as everyone," explains Packwood. "I'm fighting for a spot in the first team."
Although Birmingham City's manager Lee Clark decides who is featured in the senior squad's starting eleven, Richard Beele asked a himself a question, "Without a shadow of a doubt, do we envision Will playing first team football this year?" His answer? "Yeah."