SJ legend Dayak finds his place in team Hall of Fame

Former SJ Quakes defender Troy Dayak

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Troy Dayak steps onto the pitch at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday to have his jersey enshrined in the San Jose Earthquakes Hall of Fame, he’ll have one arm in a sling, courtesy of a broken collarbone suffered last weekend while dirt biking.

Of course, given Dayak’s history of overcoming injuries, that’s a perfectly fitting fashion statement.

“In life, you can’t hide who you are, and I still play hard in everything that I do,” Dayak told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s one of those things that has motivated me to be better, stronger, faster and always prove people wrong when they say that you can’t. I’ve always been able to be determined enough and have the desire burning enough to come back and say that I can.”

That desire brought Dayak, a Bay Area native, back from a pair of career-threatening injuries and a stint in the lower divisions to reach Top 10 status in terms of San Jose history in appearances, games started and minutes played. The defender had nine goals and seven assists for the club, and will always be remembered for scoring in the 93rd minute to push the Quakes past Miami in the 2001 MLS Cup playoff semifinals.

Four days later, San Jose beat LA 2-1 to claim their first MLS Cup title and cap a triumphant return to the league for Dayak.

“I’ve been put up against some pretty big odds in my life, been told I’d never play soccer again by more than one doctor,” Dayak said. “Making the All-Star Game, winning the national championship and comeback player of the year in front of my family — you just couldn’t really write it better than that.”

Dayak, a multi-sport star at Livermore High School, turned to soccer in large part because he longed to be an Olympic athlete; football — the American kind — was not on offer at that level. He earned a spot on the 1992 US Olympic soccer team, going to Barcelona alongside teammates Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones.

Dayak was an original member of the San Jose Clash, joining the team during MLS’ 1996 inaugural season after forcing a trade from New York, which had drafted him 19th. Despite establishing himself as a solid presence in San Jose’s defense, Dayak was dropped by the club in 1998 after suffering a debilitating neck injury the previous season.

The injury was originally sustained in a freak accident during practice when Dayak tumbled while trying to shield a ball rolling toward his own net and the goalkeeper “slidetackled my head.”

The severity only became truly apparent a few weeks later when Dayak took a hard elbow at the top of his back. He came into the locker room the next week and found doctors conferring with the coaching staff. The diagnosis: catastrophic damage to a pair of cervical vertebrae. Playing soccer again? Out of the question.

“That was a huge blow for me, emotionally,” Dayak said. “I had geared my whole life to being an athlete. To come back and play at the top level was a godsend.”

Dayak worked his way back with the San Francisco Bay Seals of the old A-League, overcoming a severe knee injury in 2000 to rejoin the Quakes. Dayak would hold the MLS Cup aloft a year later and in 2003 as well, before retiring in 2005.

For Dayak, who forced his early trade because he didn’t want to uproot his family, celebrating his career with a sellout crowd at Buck Shaw will be an emotional experience.

“I’ve got a really good connection with the local fan base here,” Dayak said. “I was fortunate to play nearly my entire career here. So it’s going to mean a lot to me. I’m really excited and don’t know what to expect.”

Dayak lives with his family on a 40-acre parcel in Tracy, about an hour northeast of San Jose, and works as a coach for the team’s youth academy in addition to running his own successful youth program, the West Coast Soccer Club. He still farms alfalfa, a trade he picked up as a player.

With his collarbone making sleep uncomfortable, Dayak has been doing a fair amount of reminiscing over his days with the Quakes, including a story of one Saturday when a fast-moving storm put his crop in jeopardy. Without time to call family and friends — the normal routine for harvesting an alfalfa field — Dayak brought in “60 or 70 bales” by himself.

“Usually, you get done and you deserve a hot bath, a cold beer and a shower,” Dayak said. “I was thinking about how hard it was, and then I scored two goals against the New England Revolution that night.

“I’ve always felt, if your mind will let you, your body can do amazing things. I’ve always believed that.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com