At seven years old I didn’t know where soccer could take me. I didn’t realize how a simple round object could write so many different stories, how a stadium could speak to me or how soccer would somehow shape my life in the way that it did.
It was 1994 and I stood on Lincoln Boulevard, a mile’s drive from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the eventual venue of the World Cup final that year. My most vivid memory was standing on that street corner watching fans from countries across the globe on their way to the stadium.
I always saw it as a party that the whole world was invited to – where something magical happened inside that stadium. I wasn’t able to attend a match that summer, but wondered how it would feel to be inside those walls. To party with everyone else – or better yet – to be a player representing my own country on the pitch. Either way, that moment created a journey.
Growing up with three older siblings, it was easy to pick up what they had started. My parents walked by a park one afternoon and saw a couple of teams kicking the ball around. It was then that they decided to sign my oldest brother up, and the rest of my siblings soon followed.
Soccer ran in our family’s blood. Although this was not the common sport to play in our neighborhood or America in general, we chose this over playing basketball, football, or baseball because we felt we had discovered something new.
Every time I stepped on the pitch when I was a kid, I felt a freedom to express. I was taught to demand greatness of myself and strive to be the best because, of course, when I wasn’t training, someone else was. I pushed myself because I wanted to, not because of the chore others saw it as.
Those long hours on the pitch fortunately allowed me to play at a collegiate level followed by a four-year professional career.
Little did I know that this sport could offer me more than a sense of hope for just one thing.
Soccer is more than just a game – it connects people.
During my time playing for San Jose Earthquakes in MLS, I met a very special person. Her name was Austen Everett, the fiancé of my close teammate. The night I had the honor of meeting her was at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco following one of our matches. What I remember most about that night was her smile. The kind of smile that immediately demanded attention because of nothing other than the fact that it brought so much positivity into the room.
That whole night she was laughing, dancing, and having fun with our team until the restaurant closed. I later found out that Austen was diagnosed with cancer and had come straight from her chemotherapy session just to meet us all.
To this day, I have never seen a more confident and strong person in my life. She was a nationally ranked goalkeeper in 2008, playing soccer for the University of Miami. Her natural competitiveness made her a true fighter on and off the pitch.
In 2012, Austen lost her battle to cancer, but created a legacy that still lives on today. She made me realize that there was a greater purpose to soccer, that this sport really could be used as a platform to influence others.
In the year that followed, after being down by a goal at halftime of a hard-fought match, my coach gave an unforgettable speech. The key message that stuck with me was, “you have to dig deep and find something that motivates you.” That’s when I thought of Austen – she was my ultimate motivation.
This moment is what allowed me to start my own company that promoted mental toughness, both on and off the field. I trademarked a customizable performance wristband that could be worn during activity as a motivational reminder. A portion of each sale went to the Austen Everett Foundation which helped the battle against childhood cancer. This kept me close to her and the vision she had for all of those people fighting cancer just as she had to.
Since retiring from professional soccer in 2014, I was guided into a more meaningful direction, but a part of me felt my journey wasn’t complete when I began my new career off the pitch. I never got to play in the World Cup, but you can participate in other ways.
Fast forward to June 15, 2018 – I finally attended the party: Spain vs Portugal in a fully illuminated Fischt Stadium overlooking the Black Sea. Leading up to the match, I walked through the streets of Moscow and Sochi and realized that everyone spoke a universal language. All it took was a smile to communicate that you shared the same passion as everyone else.
It’s almost as if someone walked into a shop and picked up one book only to realize they were in a library. A library full of other stories and narratives written for myself and others. When I was in that stadium in Russia, it spoke to me. It told me to slow down and take this moment all in.
When you’re on the pitch as an athlete, everything happens so fast. You don’t have time to think about anything other than the game. Being surrounded by all the fans from Portugal, Spain, and other areas of the world, I felt so many emotions. Something I never had time to feel when I was playing. I didn’t want that moment in Sochi to end.
When I woke up the next morning it was the first time I’d ever felt homesick from an experience rather than a physical location. There was a realization that this can be so much more than just a game.
When you’re inside those stadium walls and just listen, you can hear the true meaning of soccer. I wasn’t meant to play in a World Cup, I was meant to live it.