Uchenna Uzo couldn’t have asked for a better start to his professional soccer career. He spent his rookie season with Phoenix Rising FC (then branded as Arizona United SC) in 2016, earning starts in the majority of the club’s league games.
His sophomore campaign appeared to be headed down the same path, but everything came to a drastic halt just a day before the second game of the season.
“The starters were playing against the second team, it was a defensive drill,” Uzo said. “They played the ball behind my head, and I chased. He took a first touch in, and I tried to change direction. My leg just got stuck. My whole body moved, and my leg stayed. I broke my fibula.
“Right away, I knew it was broken. It was obvious. A couple of my teammates got sick just looking at it. It was the worst pain I’ve ever gone through in my whole life. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
The Lagos, Nigeria native had finally reached his dream of being a professional footballer, but all of his hard work was suddenly in jeopardy. He knew the recovery process would be a long one, and it was. The defender had to battle through the pain both physically and mentally.
“I never, ever, had an injury like that before," Uzo said. "I never had surgery like that before. It was just really depressing and demoralizing. All I had to do was try to bounce back from it, which is very tough. The problem was not the healing part, it was trying to get back to where I was. It was tough.”
Following a successful surgery, Uzo wasted no time getting back to work. He was usually supposed to be in the rehabilitation facility four times a week, but logged extra hours of training in to get back to 100 percent.
Monday through Saturday, the defender spent his mornings and evenings rehabbing.
Sunday was a day for church and relaxation, but every other day was dedicated to his recovery. Between his dogged mentality and the help of his physical therapist, Uzo was confident that all of the time spent in the rehab facility would pay off.
“I had a good family there,” Uzo said. “He was the main therapist for the area, so he was on me the whole time. He knew what happened, he felt bad. His kids loved watching me play. He said, ‘Uchenna, I’m going to bring you back to 100 percent.’ He pushed me, even days when I didn’t want to work he made me go.”
Uzo eventually felt comfortable enough to get back in game action after months spent working with trainers. The Nigerian decided to head home and practice with a local team to help him get back into shape.
He spent three or four months with the club, practicing every day and even suiting up for a number of games.
The 26-year-old came to Pittsburgh following his stint back in Nigeria. He signed on for a trial period with the Hounds, and eventually inked a contract with the club.
“Bob [Lilley] saw me, and Bob took a chance on me,” the defender said. “I’m blessed to be given the opportunity to come here and play after having gone through all of that.”
After more than a year of rehab and training, Uzo finally got back into USL Championship game action on May 4 against the Charleston Battery. He subbed in at the 70th minute mark, and the defender’s only focus was to help his team. It wasn’t until after the match when all of his emotions really set in.
“I was just more worried about the game at the moment then everything else,” Uzo said. “After the game, everything hit. Like, ‘Wow, Uchenna. You’ve been going through a lot. You actually played today.’ I went to my phone and had a lot of calls and messages from my family, from my friends back in Phoenix, back everywhere else.”
This season, Uzo has appeared in two league games. He has also seen time in each of the club’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches. For Uzo, there is still work to be done, but he is beyond thankful for the progress he has made.
He put in the necessary work to get back into full form, but credits his faith for helping guide him through the process.
“I just give all the glory to God,” Uzo said. “He was the one that gave me the opportunity here in Pittsburgh. He is the one that took me through all this, through the ups and the downs. I’m just grateful for the opportunity I have here.”