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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Robbie Rogers
I was out cold before my face hit the ground.
February 18, 2012, should have been one of the happiest days of my life. Instead, I was crumpled in a heap on the stunningly green pitch (what they call a sports field in England), unconsciously breathing in the scent of freshly cut grass.
If I’d been able to hear anything—and I guarantee you that I wasn’t hearing a thing because my brain was still seeing stars— I could have heard a pin drop, because the twenty-one thousand soccer fans in the stands that sunny afternoon were holding their breath to see if the motionless American, who’d just made his debut at the historic Elland Road soccer stadium with their beloved Leeds United, was dead or alive.
Just the day before, I was as conscious as I’d ever been when I saw my name posted on the game-day roster at our training grounds for a match against the Doncaster Rovers. I can’t say I was surprised to see my name as much as I was relieved to finally have the chance to play after a month of training with my new team. Being placed on the game-day roster was no guarantee that I’d actually get to play, because I wasn’t in the starting eleven (the eleven “footballers” who are designated to start the game). But if you don’t get on the bench in the first place, there’s no chance you’ll be called in as a substitute.
It turned out to be a very dirty, ugly game—not much possession, not great passing—but even so, I enjoyed watching and just being there. The Leeds fans are very passionate. From the start of the game they’re always chanting, singing, and cheering for their team.
Going into the second half the score was 0–0. There were five of us on the bench, and once the second half started the coach sent us to warm up at the side of the field, first two of us and then the other three. For a few minutes we jogged and stretched to get ready to possibly go in, and then went back to sit on the bench. And then I got called in.
You don’t have a lot of time between getting called and the start of play, but in the few seconds it took to get from the bench to my position on the pitch I thought, This is Leeds United. This is Elland Road. I’m playing football in England. I’m so proud and excited just being on this field where there’s so much history and so many great footballers have played.
Since I was a little boy kicking a ball up the steep driveway of the house where I grew up in Southern California, I’d dreamed of playing professional soccer in England. They have the biggest leagues and the most devoted fans, the game is always fast and competitive, and the greatest players want to go there. And now, having worked so hard to make this dream come true, I was running onto the pitch for an English team for the first time. If I was at all nervous in that moment it was only because I was making my debut and was eager to make a great first impression with the fans. I had no idea just how big an impression I’d make.
I was only in the game for eleven minutes when one of our defenders kicked the ball up in the air. As it was coming down I challenged for the ball in hopes of winning possession for our team. I could see I was in a good position to head it toward our striker or the opposing team’s goal. So I was backpedaling fast, thinking that I could connect with the ball and flick it off the back of my head. And at the same time, one of their defenders was racing flat-out from the opposite direction so he could flick the ball off the front of his head toward our goal. We both launched ourselves off the ground to meet the ball, but instead of connecting with the ball, my opponent head-butted me straight in the back of my head with the front of his—I was knocked out midair.
If anyone had known the real Robbie Rogers—and up to that point I’d made sure that no one did—they might have said it would take a blow to my head to get me to face facts about my life. But as I lay paralyzed on the field, fighting my way back to consciousness, all I could think was, Where am I and how did I get here? Good questions to consider in that brain-numbing moment—facedown in the grass, an ocean and a continent away from home.
I was a twin. I don’t know how I sensed it without anyone ever telling me, but one day when I was six or seven years old I asked my mother if I’d had a twin brother. But instead of telling you what my mom told me happened to my twin, I thought I’d let her tell the story because she was there:
We lived in San Pedro (which is part of Los Angeles) on Seventh Street in a little Spanish-style house right down the street from my office, where I had a legal practice. I was in the middle of a trial, but for some reason I needed to go to the house and either I’d forgotten my key or the key didn’t work. There was a side window that I’d always left open a crack, so I decided to climb in, not even thinking that it was a foolish thing to do considering that I was three months pregnant. The window was maybe four feet off the ground and I’m only five feet tall, so it was a bit of a struggle to get up to the window, and I slipped and fell.
It wasn’t until I had some spotting and bleeding later that day that I realized there might be a problem. So I called my doctor, John Roller, who was a dear friend. In fact, he’d delivered two of my mother’s children. He said, “You need to come in right now.” And I said, “I’m in trial, but I’ll come in after court today.” Sometimes I think about my behavior at that time and wonder, Was I nuts to wait? But I waited and once he examined me he told me I was having a miscarriage and that he wanted me to go to the hospital for a D&C (dilation and curettage, which is a procedure to remove any remaining tissue from the pregnancy). I said, “No, I can’t, I’m in trial.” As you might imagine, I was extremely upset and was probably in denial about what was happening to me and by focusing on the trial I didn’t have to think about losing my baby.
So the doctor said, “I’m going to give you a prescription that will at least slough off the majority of the lining of your uterus, and I want you to promise me you’ll get it and take this medication tonight.” I promised I would and I did. I don’t know how I managed in the days and weeks that followed, because I had just lost this child and went through a postpartum depression of sorts, but I dealt with the trial, and looked after my two young daughters, and kept going.
Approximately four months after this miscarriage, I was still feeling like I was pregnant and called John. He said that he thought I was just going through a difficult time after the miscarriage and needed more time to grieve the loss. But at five months I still had that feeling, so I called John again and said, “I know you think I’m crazy, but I think I’m pregnant.” He said, “Well, maybe you got pregnant again. Weirder things have happened.” So I went to see him and after examining me he said, “You are pregnant.” I said, “How far along?” And he said, “Five months!” I had no idea that I’d been pregnant with twins. In those days they didn’t do routine sonograms, which would have shown two heartbeats before the miscarriage and one after. So I remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, what if I’d had the D&C? I would have lost the second baby without even knowing it.
After telling me how incredible this was John got very pensive and said, “Because of the medication I prescribed for you the baby may have birth defects.” Both my doctor and I were Catholic, which is one of the reasons we were so close. He told me that he wouldn’t perform an abortion, but that I might consider consulting with another physician and discussing this option, which I never did. I told him, and I don’t think he was surprised, that I was “looking forward to having the baby and whatever gift the Lord gives me.”
Through the rest of my pregnancy I was extremely worried and I prayed, “Please Lord, you’ve given me this child, please take care of him and protect this little boy.” Then on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1987, Robbie was born. John was there to deliver him and he was overjoyed and pranced around the room with this child in his arms, and said, “He’s perfect! Everything about him is perfect!” And then Robbie urinated on him and John added, “Everything works!” Later, John told me that he’d kept a secret from me. He said, “The last time I delivered a baby on Mother’s Day, the child was very malformed and passed away, and I didn’t want to share that with you until after the birth.” No wonder John had been so relieved.
I never said a word to my children about Robbie’s twin, so I was shocked when Robbie asked me about his twin brother. He said, “I was a twin, wasn’t I?” I’d probably pushed the memory so far down that it took me a moment before I realized what Robbie was talking about. In a way, it was so eerie.
So that’s the story of my unnamed twin. But there was one other thing I told my mother when I first asked her about my brother. I said, “I know I had a brother and before he died, he gave me his speed.”
I’ve always been known for my “explosive speed,” as any number of sports journalists have observed over the course of my career. But whether my ability to run fast comes from my twin brother, God, the universe, or just my genes, to me it was just me. So what I did on the soccer field came naturally and didn’t seem at all exceptional, although I was happy to put my apparent speed to good use against my opponents.
In later years, after I’d started playing professional soccer, reporters writing about my athletic skills helped provide me with some perspective on the gifts I’d been given and when they first became evident. For example, a 2008 article in the Columbus Dispatch newspaper said I’d been a “borderline prodigy in soccer and judo” since I was five. What the article didn’t note was that by the time I was five I’d already been kicking a soccer ball for two years and playing team soccer for one.
In the Rogers family it was inevitable that I’d be involved in sports because sports were central to my family’s life even before I showed up on the scene. My two older sisters, Alicia and Nicole (Coco, for short), were already playing soccer and competing in judo before I was out of diapers. By the time I was three I often went along to soccer practice and games, and to keep myself occupied I kicked around a ball on the sidelines, running back and forth and never stopping until it was time to go home.
I don’t know if it was my right-footed or left-footed kicking skills (which my father helped me hone), or just the fact that I never stopped kicking the ball that caught the eye of one of my sisters’ coaches. But he approached my mom and suggested they enroll me in AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization), even though I was only four and younger than any other players. After that, if I wasn’t playing in an AYSO game, I was at home practicing my kicking or organizing neighborhood games or juggling the ball around the house. My mom and dad really encouraged me to play because they saw how good it was for me and were happy about the lessons I learned from being on a team. (Though my mom wasn’t so happy the one time I kicked the ball in our living room, which was totally against the rules, and destroyed a treasured family heirloom vase—I was so upset that Mom wound up comforting me.)
My first team was called the Purple Octopuses, and then at the end of my first season I was recruited to the “Select” league and a team that was made up of the best players from local AYSO teams. And from there, at age seven, I got recruited to play for the South Bay Gunners, which for a time was an all-Hispanic team, except for me. (I was also two years younger than all of the other Gunners.) While soccer was an increasingly popular sport for kids my age, among Hispanic immigrants soccer was already the number one sport for boys, just as professional soccer is the number one team sport in the world (with the exception of the United States).
What I didn’t know at the time was that none of this was free. My parents had to pay a fee (my mom thinks it was about $1,000) just to be on the league team, and then there was the cost of travel whenever we played a team far enough away from home that we needed to stay at a hotel. It would have been bad enough (and costly enough) if I’d been an only child and soccer had been my only sport, but until I was ten years old, soccer was just one of my two major sports, because Alicia and Coco also competed in judo. And whatever my sisters did, I had to do, too. So very quickly I joined them in class, in competitions, and then on the winners’ podium.
Like my very talented sisters, I won multiple regional championships in judo. (Alicia, Coco, and I all won all three regional championships in our age groups—the triple crown—at least twice. People come from all over the country to compete at these championships, so they’re actually considered national competitions even though they cover certain regions.) Between judo and soccer we got to travel all over California and from New Jersey to Hawaii and many places in between. My sisters even got to go to Japan and England, and my parents paid for it all. I can’t imagine how much financial pressure that put them under, but they never said no.
With three of us playing two sports—and at some point we added my brother, Tim, and sister Katie to the mix—the daily practice and competition schedule was insane. I don’t know how our parents managed it, especially since they had a joint law practice that kept them pretty busy. On a typical weekday one of my parents would leave work early (after going in at six-thirty or seven in the morning) to pick us up after school and drive us to soccer practice, then we’d get a quick dinner, and then go on to judo practice. If we were lucky, we got home by nine and then did our homework. Later, when I’d given up judo and was playing soccer for the Palos Verdes Raiders, my evenings were my own, except on those occasions when my mother would pick me up after club soccer and take me to ODP. That’s the Olympic Development Program, which is a national program designed to identify young players who show skill and talent, and then develop them so there’s a pool of great players for the national team to draw from.
Weekends were in some ways more intense than the weekdays because we’d all pile into the car and my parents would get us to six soccer games and a judo tournament in two days. That was even more demanding than it sounds, because those games and tournaments were typically in different places at different times. Mostly I loved it, but sometimes it got to be too much, so Timmy and I would hide our dad’s car keys so we could just stay home and chill. Dad always found them.
When it came to games and competitions Mom and Dad always encouraged us to do our best, but never came down on us for losing. That didn’t mean we had the option of not playing. We had to play a sport—at least one—and we had to go to practice. My parents were careful not to limit me to judo and soccer and made sure I had opportunities to try other sports, like baseball and football. I also skateboarded and surfed—I still surf.
It took me about five minutes to realize I hated both football and baseball. Mom remembers all of this a lot better than I do:
Robbie was always a talented athlete, always. When he was in intermediate school one of Robbie’s coaches wanted him to play flag football because he was so fast. I went to Robbie’s first formal game and he made three touchdowns. When he got off the field he said it was the stupidest game because all they do is hand you a ball and you have to run with it. He never played it again.
It was the same with Little League. When Robbie was seven or eight I enrolled him in Little League and soon after, the coach said, “This kid has real athletic talent. You should forget about soccer and judo. There’s a lot of money in baseball. He’s incredible on the bases.” Robbie didn’t like standing still, so he got very good at stealing bases. At the end of his first season, when we asked Robbie about playing the next season, he said, “Did you know that Coach So-and-so said to step in front of the ball just so I could get on the bases? I never want to play that sport again. It is so stupid. You run around the bases for a few seconds and then you stand in the middle of a field and wait for the ball to come to you.” That was the end of baseball.
My sister Alicia recalls that one of the reasons I hated baseball, which isn’t something I remember, was that I was so afraid of the ball hitting my “privates.” She said, “During the one season Robbie played Little League, they took pictures of him and you can see he isn’t really paying attention to the camera because he was so busy guarding his privates.” Not surprisingly, none of these photos survive.
To me it didn’t matter how many sports I was good at because from the start I was most passionate about soccer, and soccer ruled my moods. If my team won, I was happy for the week. If we lost, I’d get depressed and my mother would try to cheer me up. The best, of course, was winning a championship, and the first time that happened I was nine or ten years old and my team, the Gunners, won the State Cup.
We were the best soccer team in our age group in California and winning that championship put me on top of the world, especially since I’d scored one of the goals. After we won we were so excited that we celebrated as if we’d just won the World Cup. But we were kids and to us it probably felt better winning that championship than it did for a professional soccer player being the best in the world. I loved the competition and also loved the feeling of accomplishing something great with my team—and it was that feeling that motivated me to keep playing long after my childhood.
Early on, there were rewards that went beyond just the sheer joy of winning. My parents, especially my dad, would reward me with things if I hit certain benchmarks (which, come to think of it, probably wasn’t the healthiest sort of arrangement). For example, my dad might say, “If you score six goals in a game, we’ll get you a cat.” I got a cat. Then he said, “If you score seven goals in a game, we’ll get you a snake.” I got a snake, and frogs, and toys (water guns were a favorite), and my bike.
I also learned to make deals of my own with my parents, like, “If I score today I want you to take me for sushi.” I think they would have taken me anyway, but it was a nice incentive I set for myself, and my parents were happy to go along with it. (One time, when I was playing professional soccer for the Columbus Crew in 2010, I had the chance to pay my mom back and told her in advance of a game we were set to play on Mother’s Day that I’d score a goal for her, which I did. We were playing against New England and that goal won the game 3–2—and it was my first goal in nearly a year!)
Beyond my passion for playing soccer, I was also a huge soccer fan, along with all the other soccer-playing kids in my neighborhood. So we constantly talked about our favorite teams and players. My favorite was Arsenal Football Club. Arsenal is an English team based in the north of London. From the first time I saw Arsenal I became a huge fan and fell in love with the way they played—at times it was almost an art form, so they were fun to watch early in the morning on television while I sat on the couch having some breakfast. Arsenal’s nickname was “the Invincibles” for the 2003–2004 regular season because during that time they never lost a game in the Premier League.
Arsenal in those days was an incredible mix of guys who were very talented, including Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès, Freddie Ljungberg, Nwankwo Kanu, Ashley Cole, and Gilberto Silva. They were all stars in their own ways, but Arsenal’s biggest star and my favorite Arsenal player was Thierry Henry—he was fast, technical, and scored amazing goals. But my all-time favorite player when I was growing up never played for Arsenal, and he wasn’t even English. His name is Zinedine Zidane. He was a French midfielder and played for Juventus, Real Madrid, and a few other clubs; he was a true artist on the field and I hoped that one day I could be even half the soccer player he was.
Not all of my soccer friends followed a British team like I did, but most of them followed a team somewhere in the world, whether it was Italy, Spain, or Germany. It’s hard to explain, but you developed a really personal relationship with your favorite team, even a continent away. Whenever we played soccer in the streets of my neighborhood, I always called my team Arsenal. And we’d play against teams named for real Arsenal opponents, like Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal’s biggest rival, Tottenham Hotspurs. We almost always won.
It’s sort of amazing to me that I ever organized those games, because outside of sports I was a very shy child. My mother tells me that I was the kind of kid who would cling to his mother’s leg when a stranger came to the house. And when she took me to school for the first time I wouldn’t let go. She recalled, “Part of my heart was ripped out because that little guy . . . I’d pull one hand off and there would be an automatic flypaper reaction and his hand was right back where it started. I was finally able to peel him off me, but he was inconsolable as the teacher led him into school. So when I got to the office I called the school and fortunately by then he had settled down. He was a gentle, loving, tender child, but in moments like that my heart ached for him.”
It’s not like I don’t recognize myself in my mother’s description, because in a lot of ways I’m still shy, but when it came to sports, something happened to me and I was confident, competitive, even fearless. On the soccer field or competing in judo, no one ever got to see the child who was terrified of leaving his mother on his first day of school.
I loved competing in both soccer and judo, but it was too much. There wasn’t any time to just be a kid, and when I was ten years old I told my mom I’d had enough. I said that I just couldn’t do both and wanted to quit judo. I explained that I’d miss judo, but I enjoyed soccer more. Judo is an individual sport and soccer is a team sport, and I really enjoyed being part of a team. If I’d had any doubt about my decision at the time, it disappeared later when I realized soccer could help me go to college on a scholarship. But the fact that I enjoyed it more than judo really made the decision easy for me, and I never looked back.
It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized all that running around had been too much for my parents, too, and for my mom in particular. In my family, we all see my mom as a powerhouse who never runs out of energy. But she’s actually this tiny person—she says she’s five feet tall, but I’m not so sure if she’s even that tall, and she’s as thin as a rail. With a full-time job and five children to look after and with all those sports to get us to and all of the money it took to keep it all going, Mom was struggling to stay above water. Of course as a child I couldn’t see that anything was wrong, until my parents’ marriage shattered, like a fragile treasured heirloom that got knocked to the ground by a soccer ball.