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Darius Charles interview: Wycombe defender who just refused to quit
Surgeons told Charles that he should stop due to hip problem
Last Updated: 06/09/19 6:48pm
Wycombe Wanderers defender Darius Charles was told that he should retire but he somehow found another way. Adam Bate caught up with him at the club's training ground to hear his inspirational story...
"Honestly, I just believed," Darius Charles tells Sky Sports.
"There is this great saying that I have on my phone. The universe makes a way for those who know where they are going. I decided I knew where I was going to go. I wanted to become a footballer again. As soon as I made that decision, everything around me began to change."
For a while, that decision looked to be out of his hands. Charles had arthritis in his hip and had not played a game for six months. As recently as the spring, the 31-year-old Wycombe Wanderers defender was sat in a surgeon's office faced with a stark choice. Quit football for good or face the prospect of a first hip replacement before the age of 40.
"He was very clear with me. 'If have your first one now, you can only have three and that means by the time you are 60 you will have had your third hip replacement. You are still a young man, you still have so much of your life to live. You have to decide whether it's good for your well-being. You have a nine-year-old son.' He told me he would not operate."
Even now, it is emotional for Charles to revisit that day. "It was a real shock to my system," he says. "I had to decide between trying to find a surgeon who would operate on me and risk the hip replacement in the coming years or quit football and manage it the best that I could. There was no option really. Stopping playing was the only decision for me at the time.
"It was very hard for me not to start crying right there and then in the office. I didn't say much. I came out with the physio and there was just a big sigh. I got on the train and was replaying the conversation in my head. Did he say what I think he said? It was like I was having an out-of-body experience and I was watching it. I don't think I could process it.
"Being a footballer defined me. Once I left the training ground, I didn't stop being a footballer. That becomes who you are even if you don't realise it consciously. Having that taken away had me at a loss. I realised that I had never done the character building that you go through in your formative years when you are trying to figure out who you are.
"I went from primary school to high school to football. I was acting on instruction for my whole life. My biggest fear was the thought that if I am not Darius the footballer then who am I? I don't know how to do anything else. I didn't know where to begin. I am not used to change. I have had a few clubs but only one job. I had found the thing that I loved doing."
There were more tears when Charles went into manager Gareth Ainsworth's office to discuss his situation towards the end of last season. He had delayed the conversation as long as he could. Wycombe were battling against relegation and Charles did not want to be a burden. In fact, he apologised to Ainsworth for not being able to contribute.
The gaffer is an unbelievable man. Forget being an unbelievable gaffer, he's an unbelievable man because he supported me emotionally.
Darius Charles on Gareth Ainsworth
The response overwhelmed him. Ainsworth told him that he had contributed more than he would ever know. "The gaffer is an unbelievable man," says Charles. "Forget being an unbelievable gaffer, he's an unbelievable man because he supported me emotionally. That is what I needed most. I was crying." And after the tears came a bold prediction.
"I told him, I think I can come back."
Ainsworth made it clear that if Charles could somehow get fit then the door would always be open for him at Wycombe.
It was the end. But it was also the start.
Charles got in touch with Rob Gallagher, a mobility specialist who'd had the same injury, and he began to do the exercises that he prescribed. "I began to feel better." He also became a vegan and slimmed down his body considerably. "The weight was hindering my progress," he adds. "The less weight you carry the easier it is for your body to bear that load."
What followed took time, work, mental strength and inner drive. "It was hard in the sense that it was very tedious. There is a lot of boring, low-level work. The kind of things that your grandparents would do and I have to do it morning, noon and night. There are always times when you are struggling and you want to give up. But it is easy to do that."
There were the podcasts that got him through the summer and the books too. Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul conversations led him to Brene Brown's Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Emotions he is touch with now. "Every conversation that I have about it is like therapy," laughs Charles.
Slowly but surely he began to feel he could manage the pain and agreed a short-term deal to return to Wycombe in August. Then, the moment came. An injury crisis before a midweek game at Fleetwood. Charles played and played well. He kept his place for the win over Southend and the clean sheet away to his former club Wimbledon. Three games in 12 days.
That is a huge ask for any player but especially one whose arthritis has not gone away. He is managing his condition. He does not train with the rest of the team on a Monday and Tuesday - a situation that brings with it the customary banter. "I am not going to coin the phrase 'lower-league Ledley King' but if people want to give it me then…"
Crucially, Ainsworth understands.
"This is an ailment that I have so I need to be micro-managed," says Charles. "The gaffer allows me that time. I am just here at his disposal."
For how long, though?
His contract only takes him through to January. Some players would find that unsettling but Charles does not think like that. Not any more.
"Listen, I have got arthritis in my hip," he says. "It is what it is. For now, I'm still a footballer but I can only defy medical science so much. I have a body with limitations. I can't possibly tell you how much longer I am going to play. I don't think about it. If I start to think that I wish it would last longer and then my body breaks down then I will have to deal with that.
"But the biggest thing is acceptance. Once you shed the expectations you just become a lot lighter. It makes it easier for me to wake up in pain and smile. If I wake up and don't feel great then I don't feel great. This is an incredible story but I may not play another game again. But I set my heart on something and I did it. I am grateful for that. It is a blessing.
"I have shown my son that you are capable of overcoming anything if you truly believe and you can become anything you want to if you are determined. I could not give him a greater lesson than that. My son is very intelligent but I have one GCSE. What else can I show him? It's a great life lesson and I have been able to show him that through example."