FRISCO, Texas — Ugo Ihemelu has been to hell and back over the past six months.
Having been named team captain before the start of the season, the defender played every minute of the first 10 games of the year. Little did anyone know that his season would end on a warm Sunday evening in early-May due to a concussion suffered in a home loss to Colorado.
That only tells half the story.
In the days and weeks after the blow, the Dallas native struggled with post-concussion syndrome that made even the most mundane tasks a frustrating battle. Through the summer months, Ihemelu was rarely seen at FCD practice as the bright sun caused headaches to flare up.
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However, in recent weeks Ihemelu has made major strides and last Friday, with most of the team inside for postseason tests, he joined in an impromptu 4-v-4 game with some of his teammates.
“Your feet aren’t doing what you want them to do, you can’t breathe and your head feels like it’s filled with hot air,” Ihemelu said after the spirited game. “But I love it, it’s fun. It’s what I live to do. It’s an escape, if that makes any sense.”
Escaping from the headaches that he’s been plagued with for the past few months has been as much of a mental battle as a physical one. But step by step, Ihemelu has returned to a more normal daily routine. He’s now able to run on a treadmill without too many issues and Friday was the first time he’s been seen playing in a game environment since the concussion.
“It’s night and day,” Ihemelu said about how he feels currently. “Before, just cleaning my kitchen I felt like I was dying and now I can actually run around. It just feels good to be able to not have to control everything I do. I can just be myself and live life.
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“It’s been huge. The last month there’s been a lot of progress and I’m just grateful for that. There was a time where I was really questioning whether I was ever going to get past it.”
While playing with his teammates on Friday morning was no doubt a liberating feeling, the fact remains that a friendly pick-up game is a far cry from a full return to the field, something he hopes can happen early next year.
“Honestly, this is all I know and this is what I’ve done for so long,” Ihemelu said. “It’s been such a big part of my life and to not be able to do it would be tough for me. That’s what I’m working towards.”
Meanwhile, FC Dallas have until Dec. 2 — the day after MLS Cup — to decide whether to pick up Ihemelu’s option.
“[Ugo] and I had lunch last week, and he really would like to come back and play,” head coach Schellas Hyndman said. “He’s a great guy and a wonderful player. How badly did we need him this year?
"This comes from everyone in the club, the No. 1 thing we’re concerned about is his health.”
Daniel Robertson covers FC Dallas for MLSsoccer.com.