Kevin Akpoguma - The comeback of the year

“I remember the collision and falling to the ground. I was dazed for a bit and then wanted to get up. But my head just wouldn’t move. I couldn’t lift it off the ground. It was then I realised something was wrong,” says Kevin Akpoguma, as he remember back to April 21 2017. The challenge which he entered into playing for Fortuna Dusseldorf against St. Pauli. The fall, which changed a lot, but thankfully not everything.

The defender, on loan at Fortuna at the time, had celebrated his 22nd birthday just days before. Now he was lying on the turf unable to move his head. The physios and and team doctor ran to him, and wanted to check him and treat him on the pitch. But Akpoguma refused. “I told them that I did not want them to move my head. The doctors fitted a neck brace and later on I was convinced that something very bad had happened.” On the way to hospital he was asked to move his arms, legs, fit and teeth and fingers. Everything worked. “That was a good feeling,” recalls Akpoguma. The diagnosis from the hospital came shortly after – a break of the cervical vertebra. “It sounds disastrous. It is definitely a horrible injury,” said the 22-year-old, who knows he had good luck in the midst of all his bad luck. “It could have been so much worse.”

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Just one day after the injury, Akpoguma posted from the hospital on Instagram. His message? Clear! “I am going to come back. Don’t worry. Yours, Akpou.” The confident statement impressed Friedhelm Funkel. Akpoguma’s then coach visited him in hospital the same day. He went on to say in November: “I was so surprised and motivated by hoe he dealt with the whole situation, particularly that he would come back as he said. I think this mindset helped him so much to help get him back on the pitch as soon as possible.

The healing of a cervical vertebra normally takes about three to four months, but Akpoguma’s bone had healed and was stable once again after just seven weeks. The mechanism holding his head in place during this time had paid off. After returning to TSG at the end of his loan, he started his rehab – very light practice. The session passed without mishap. Akpoguma, who had not been expected to take to the field again until October, was preparing to make his return in July. The defender said this ‘minor miracle’ was down to the positive mood combined with the rehabilitation. It lead to some astonished faces from fans, media representatives and those at TSG themselves when Akpo joined up with the squad and took to the field for the first day of the summer training camp in Windischgarten. He was yet to head a ball, but Akpo but was back. Akpoguma the fighter. The start of a march into modern football. The opening steps of the comeback of the year in Hoffenheim.

Mini-Comeback against Bologna

Akpoguma continued to fight and work harder, and started to make up for all the lost training time. He even made his return to competitive action on August 5, as TSG took on Bologna in a friendly. “I wanted to give Kevin a few minutes, as he has really deserved it,” said Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann after the game, while the man himself was simply happy to be back. “The injury only happened four months ago but since them everything has gone so well. The fact I can be out there again is fantastic. I am so pleased to have had these few minutes.”

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Nagelsmann was quick to keep everything in check. “He’s not quite in a position to play in a competitive game yet, that will still take some time.” 78 days to be precise. On October 22, the month in which doctors had predicted he would first be able to be on the pitch again, ‘Akpo’ made his debut in the Bundesliga. ‘Back after a difficult injury. A big thanks to the man upstairs,’ he wrote on Instagram. His beliefs saw him through the injury and had helped him through that day too. Whenever he ran on the pitch, he held his head up high. It was a gesture to god. He thanked him for his chance to play football again. “The team look after me so well and just let me play my football. It was so great to be able to play in Wolfsburg,” he told achtzehn99tv after the win. Since then Akpo has appeared in seven further Bundesliga games and a DFB Pokal tie too, amassing 600 minutes to this point for the season. An unbelievable story. Something that warmed the hearts of everyone who knew him.

"Happy with my life"

In the words of his coach: “I have a very high opinion of Akpo. He is a super guy, so friendly, polite and attentive. He always asks after your opinion and is interested in the other side of the argument. I am so happy for him that he can keep his dream of being a professional footballer going after what happened in April. We all know that incident could have turned out so, so differently. Nagelsmann praises Akpoguma’s athleticism, his strength in tackles and his clear head. “He has developed so quickly because of these appearances and remains so humble about his chances. He’s not got above himself, and is able to try so many thing on the pitch,” said Nagelsmann.

Akpoguma confirms his status as a youngster with a clear head. Reflecting on the terrible injury, he explains how the whole ordeal has changed him. “It was very close. The chances of that injury ending my career and putting me in a wheelchair for the rest of my life was definitely there. I have learned the treasure the years as a professional football. If you don’t play you can get very negative and unhappy. I do not have that anymore. I stay positive, and just keep working on myself. I am just happy with my life and am thankful for what I am allowed to do in football. Just before the end of the Hinrunde there was further good news for the defender, as he extended his contract in Sinsheim another two years until 2021. Yes, it was quite a year…

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