As part of our Hispanic History month coverage, here is a feature about Chris Armas’ comeback from a knee injury 18 years. He was named MLS’ comeback player of the year. It was posted Nov. 26, 2003.

By Michael Lewis

CARSON, Calif. — The setting could not have been more appropriate. On the stage where Hollywood’s finest gives their thanks after winning an Oscar, Chicago Fire captain and midfielder Chris Armas walked onto the stage at the Kodak Theatre and received his just desserts as Major League Soccer’s comeback player of the year award on Saturday night.

While recovering from a crippling knee injury isn’t the stuff from which major blockbusters are made — even though he knocked him out of the 2002 World Cup — it is still an inspirational story lived by one of the top American players in the game.

In the longest and most emotional speech of the night, Armas recalled what he had to overcome to return to an elite level of the game.

“As you can imagine, it took a chunk out of my heart,” he told some 4,000 fans, soccer officials, coaches, player and media in attendance.

But the aftermath, especially overcoming a staph infection and losing 20 pounds during a difficult recovery period, was difficult on Armas. “The tough guy met his match,” said Armas, who got choked up during his speech.

“I did not care much about soccer anymore,” he said. “I just wanted to be healthy.”

It gave Armas, a native of Brentwood, L.I., a much greater appreciation of the game. “I love this game much more than I ever did,” he said.

Only two weeks before the U.S. was supposed to leave for South Korea and the World Cup, he went down with a torn ACL right knee injury. Instead of helping the U.S. surprise the world with a smashing quarterfinal finish, Armas stayed home and watched his teammates on TV.

“I thought I was invincible,” he told reporters before the awards ceremony. “Then I got hurt.”

Someone asked the 31-year-old Armas about how devastating the injury was.

“When you say devastating for me, I think the World Cup hit me hard,” he said. “After I recovered from my staff infection after surgery — that was devastating. I lost 20 lbs. and I was hooked up to an IV for a month. That was devastating. Up to that moment, I could care less about soccer. I just wanted to be healthy. That was the hard part.”

During his recovery, Armas discovered a few things about himself.

“It gave me a great appreciation for the game, which I didn’t know I had in me,” he said. “I thought I had loved it with all my heart. But there are parts of me that came back a little hungrier this year. I appreciated every practice even more and I was one who always loved being out there.

“You think you love the game, you think you have great family. But when you go something like that — people are going through things worse that I went through — last year opened up my eyes to my family and health.”

Armas helped the Fire to a league-best 15-7-8 record, while making life miserable for opposing midfielders and playmakers with his never-say-die play and superior skills as a ball winner and ball stealer.

Despite this year’s success, Armas admitted he wasn’t convinced he was always at full throttle — at 100 percent.

“That phrase 100 percent,” he said. “Seven months ago, I thought I was at 100 percent. I never liked to leave anything out there as an excuse — 90 percent — that’s not my excuse for not performing. A big part of my knee on the outside is still numb, so I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the same. I feel better and stronger this year.”

From the league’s inception to the present, the 5-7, 150-lb. Armas had forged himself as the league’s and the U.S.’s premier defensive midfielder. In the very first MLS Cup in 1996, he shut down the great Marco Etcheverry and scored a goal for the L.A. Galaxy before D.C. United produced its miracle comeback in a 3-2 overtime victory.

He was named to the MLS Best XI — the league’s version of the end-of-the-season all-star team, on four successive occasions — from 1998 to 2001. He had a decent excuse to miss it last season — his knee injury. On Saturday, he was back where he belongs — on the league’s ultimate all-star team.

“Simply, they broke the mold when they made Chris Armas,” said Long Island Rough Riders general manager Jim Kilmeade, who signed Armas to his first professional contract in 1994. “Intellectually, emotionally, physically, there’s no one like him. I have never come across such a competitive athletic as Chris Armas. . . . It’s a classic case of lifelong preparation meeting opportunity.

“He is one of the toughest athletes this country has produced in any sport. Every coach should have a roster of Chris Armases. They’ll win everything.”

Dave Sarachan, in his first season with the Fire, had the honor of being the coach of Armas.

“Through all of the changes that were made when I first took the job, the one thing in all of the models I put together, was to make sure that through it all, Chris Armas remained a Fire player because I felt he was, and is the heart and soul of this team,” he said.

“There was no doubt that Chris was going to come back as strong as ever. He’s that type of individual. As this season has played out, it’s certainly true. To take the captain’s armband from a guy like Peter Nowak and not miss a beat, he’s the ultimate guy to fill that position.”

Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who was fortunate to play in the World Cup, remembered when Armas took him aside before his MLS debut in 2000.

“He was the guy that got me to just relax and go out there and play,” he said. “Even though we were teammates he’s been more than a captain towards me. I see how he talks to the younger guys, and I look up to that. I want to be that kind of leader someday, like he is.”

Armas had hoped to lead the Fire to the MLS Cup crown this past weekend, but it wasn’t meant to be. The San Jose Earthquakes scored the first two goals and held off a late Chicago charge en route to a 4-2 victory at the Home Depot Center.

The loss kept the Fire from becoming the first MLS side to capture the triple — the regular-season title, the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open crown (which is open to all adult American soccer teams — amateur, semi-pro or professional) and MLS Cup.

Armas was gracious in defeat.

“I give all the credit in the world to San Jose,” he said. “Those guys, as we knew, are a hard-working team and can hurt you in a lot of ways. We were just chasing the game all day. We kept coming, they kept coming. Congrats to them. They earned it.

“At halftime we said were not going to stop. We felt we could make it happen. We went down as the champs that we are. For me, it doesn’t really put a downside to our year. We had a great run this year. All the guys can hold their heads up high.”

Armas and the Fire will have to wait until April to begin their chase again.