Sammy Davis, Jr, the famous American singer, actor, dancer and comedian, who before his glitzy entrance into Hollywood stardom, was drafted into military service during World War Two. The African-American was relentlessly abused in the army. White Southern soldiers targeted Davis, who received a torrent of racist abuse. Upon return to his nation, he became an overnight sensation in 1951, thanks to his intoxicating stage presence and unique singing talent. Less than 7 years earlier, life seemed completely worthless, but he eventually became one of the world’s most revered entertainers. He maintained his focus, abandoned his fear and concentrated on his passion to achieve his dream.
“You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.”
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Čech’s career arrives at an abrupt and life-threatening halt
In October 2006, Petr Čech had everything to fear – his life and football career hung in a perilous balance.
The goalkeeper began his journey at Chmel Blšany before he relocated 83 kilometres to Sparta Prague. Čech moved to Rennes as a 19-year-old, then joined Chelsea for a then club-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper of £7 million in 2004. His unwavering footballing gift landed him in the glamour of the swaggering Kings Road, before he became an indispensable component of Jose Mourinho’s unrelenting title chargers.
During Čech’s third season at Chelsea on that fateful autumn night, when playing Reading at the Madejski Stadium, his blissful and trophy-laden honeymoon in England came to an abrupt and life-threatening halt. Seconds after kick off, Royal’s goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann hoofed the ball the length of the pitch. The seemingly lost cause was chased by the busy and tenacious Irish winger Stephen Hunt. Čech quickly rushed off his goal line to collect the ball, but Hunt hurtled into the Czech international. His knee brutally collided with the shot-stopper’s head.
Čech lay stricken on the turf and it sparked the beginning of a tumultuous period that would catapult his life into grave uncertainty. The goalkeeper had suffered a depressed skull fracture and was immediately transported to the Royal Berkshire hospital, before he was transferred to the specialist brain-injury unit at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary. He underwent emergency surgery at 1 am to have two loose fragments of his skull lifted away and replaced with metal plates.
Čech firmly believes that if the incident had occurred at another ground, which was located further away from a hospital, then he wouldn’t have survived. He had narrowly escaped the inevitable, but the injury had left him depleted and vulnerable. He remarked that he couldn’t remember anything that had happened in the tunnel or the handshakes before the game. In fact, his memories of the following three days were completely erased.
Speaking to Chelsea FC, Čech outlined the damaging effect of the injury:
“Everytime I woke up conscious, the doctor kept asking me the same set of questions, which I kept forgetting the answers to. I would fall asleep again, wake up a couple of hours later, and couldn’t remember anything. They must have explained to me 150 times what had happened, but everytime I couldn’t recall it.”
Čech was originally told to forget the rest of the season. Peter Hamlyn, consultant neurosurgeon and director of sports and exercise medicine at St Bartholomew’s in London, suggested it would take six months of intense rehabilitation before Čech could even contemplate a return to action. The possibility of retirement couldn’t be ruled out to preserve his life – a cruel, premature end to a career brimming with potential.
“Nobody knew if I would be able to come back. There were plenty of questions, and not many answers. In my head I had to prepare for the end of my career.”
Commitment or Fear
Čech was pitched at an agonising crossroads and faced the inescapable truth that his life had been changed indefinitely. He was faced with Davis’ age-old proposition: commitment or fear.
“I said to myself, I will do everything that is possible to continue playing the game I love. I set my mind and targets on that. I never asked myself ‘what if?’. I put all my energy into doing the right thing, with the guidance of the medical team. I managed to get through it and end up on the pitch faster than everybody expected.”
The then 24-year-old refused to succumb to his demons. He made the strong and courageous decision to continue with the sport he loved.
“The first time I came back to training, I just dived in at people’s feet. I didn’t have any fear. You know the threat is real, but I accepted it and just got on with it.”
98 days after his traumatic injury, Čech returned to play against Liverpool at Anfield – an admirable fightback against the moment that nearly claimed his life.
“Even with the doctor and the psychologist telling me the Liverpool game was way too early for me to come back in terms of my mental and emotional state, I was ready.”
Although Chelsea lost 2-0 that day, Čech described the occasion as a “personal victory.” He had only resumed full training for a week before Mourinho decided to chuck Čech back into the mix – a testament to his resolve, personality and commitment.
After his comeback, Čech never looked back and his incredible English odyssey reached new and unparalleled heights.
The helmet-wearing icon
There were fears that Čech would never reach the heights of the immense goalkeeper that had won consecutive Premier League titles with Chelsea between 2004 and 2006, keeping 42 clean sheets in 69 appearances, only conceding 38 goals. He was a formidable stalwart of the Chelsea defence that only conceded 15 goals and kept 24 clean sheets during Jose Mouriniho’s debut season in England – two staggering records that are simply untouchable. Players, managers and spectators had become accustomed to the implausible standards that his life-changing injury threatened.
But, as the greatest goalkeeper of the Premier League era, he carried on from where he left off. Two months after his comeback, he was named as the Premier League player of the month – he went 810 minutes without conceding and kept eight successive clean sheets. He was the first goalkeeper to win the award in over six years. Čech started the 2007 League Cup and FA Cup Finals as Chelsea secured the coveted domestic double. He became the first Premier League goalkeeper to go over 1000 minutes without conceding and was the fastest to both 50 and 100 clean sheets. He recorded 202 clean sheets for Chelsea and Arsenal – the most in history. He also won four Premier League Golden Gloves and amassed a glittering trophy cabinet with Chelsea that included 15 pieces of silverware.
Much of Chelsea’s unlikely Champions League success in 2012 is attributed to the unparalleled dominance of Didier Drogba, but Čech’s involvement is equally as decisive. The Ivorian marksman had given away a clumsy extra-time penalty but Čech heroically saved his former teammate Arjen Robben’s penalty to allow the match to go the full distance. The goalkeeper then saved Ivia Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s penalties in the shootout to secure the Blues their first ever Champions League trophy. Čech provided the foundation for Drogba to write the most outrageous script – the unsung hero of Chelsea’s heist in Munich and their greatest European excursion.
His penalty-saving antics featured in his game from its infancy. As a 20-year-old he won the U-21 European Championships, only letting in one penalty in the final against France. This was his nation’s first title at youth level, inspired by the indomitable and domineering shot-stopper, who is Czech Republic’s most capped player, earning 124 appearances between 2002-16.
“Some people questioned if I would be the same goalkeeper, but I never played football to prove a point to anyone.”
Instead of regressing, Čech excelled. The player who escaped death then established himself as the most iconic goalkeeper since the turn of the millennium. The helmet-wearing Czech is steeped in English football folklore. His absurd and unfathomable records will not be broken.
For Davis and Čech, when life appeared at a cruel, unforgiving standstill, both rose above adversity and distress to become two of the most famous figures in their respective fields. Their saving grace was their commitment.
Quotes taken from Petr Čech’s column with Chelsea FC in October 2021 – Petr Cech column: Reflections on my head injury 15 years on | News | Official Site | Chelsea Football Club (chelseafc.com)