Soccer….Family Style

Why It’s OK to Keep Talking About Robbie Rogers
May 27, 2013, 9:39 pm
Filed under: Major League Soccer, Supporter Culture

After Robbie Rogers return to MLS last night, I was chatting with my friend and fellow supporter, Justin Plasket, about how he felt about Rogers’ appearance. We’ve had several great talks about our  frustrations: mine as a straight woman refereeing men’s soccer, and his as a gay man who likes sports. I asked him to write his reaction. What I got was more than I bargained for, and I hope you’ll read it for every kid who’s ever played youth sports in your presence, and let’s just get to the place where it’s OK we’re still talking about Robbie Rogers:

“And the blood will dry underneath my nails.  And the wind will rise up, to fill my sails so you can doubt and you can hate but I know no matter what it takes, I’m coming home.” – Skylar Grey

I’ve always been sort of the runt of the litter – not so much in the sense of physically or psychologically deficient (though THAT quantification is enough of a hotspot/soap box for me to spark an ENTIRELY different post) but more the outsider.  The Japanese term for it is a “Gaijn” means more than outsider, as it carries connotations of not knowing one’s self or history or not having a place in the world.  Sort of like being that kid you see in the movies who is always watching everyone else enjoy the party, but knowing his place was on the outside, and it was his dues to pay, or some BS like that, that somehow made the pill easier to swallow.

There’s a picture of my soccer team from when I was 10 years old – we wore red in that summer’s Cedar Valley youth league – and in that picture, I’m crying.  Before the picture had been snapped, the kid next to me had punched me twice and called me a “faggot.” But that’s not what made me cry.  I took the hits and heard that word and felt its burn and I knelt there in the back row of players, right in front of the coaches, knowing that I still had a place on this team and that Andy (the name-caller) would still count on me on game day, because I had earned my place and this was a game that I loved – and playing it well – and nothing else mattered.  Even knowing in my heart that he was remarking on my sexuality (and that I knew I was gay) didn’t matter.  I resolved it in my head: “yes, I’m a faggot who is going to save your ass when I clear a ball off the line because you’re taking the near post” or something like that.  What made me cry just moments before the cameraman snapped the picture was that when I turned back to smile at my dad – to show him that I was “invincible” and could take anything for the game that I’d come to love – and my Dad wouldn’t look at me.  All he could muster was “don’t act like what he’s calling you if you don’t want to be called that.”  I was ten.  I’ll never forget those words from my dad – he couldn’t even bring himself to say “gay” or “homosexual” or “faggot.” Looking up and not seeing his eyes, and feeling the rest of my coaches’ eyes – like they were begging me to look to them instead, and feeling like they just wanted me to stop embarrassing them. My 10 year old heart broke and I lost it.

That was it. That was the moment my spirit took a break from the game. I began to spiral away from the pitch and the game I loved (I even had an Orange Ball… how cool was I?  What kid has an Orange ball?) and into a dark abyss of something I never truly understood beyond “Aaron is cuter than any girl I’ve seen and wow… boobs are interesting but they don’t do anything for me.” The feeling was gone.  There was just a whole big NOTHING and my still-developing hands couldn’t grasp onto Nothing.

In the flash of the photo snapping, something changed. I’ll never forget the photographer’s face as he practically begged my coaches – and ultimately,  my father – to let him take another where I was more “together,” but it didn’t happen.

I played one more season, moving up from right back to right wing and there was Andy, in my old spot at back, playing as if we were best friends and teammates.  We were the Sky Blue Team and we were flying high… making it to some final of some competition that I couldn’t tell you what it was.  Andy rode to the tournament in my Dad’s yellow Mustang with me as we blared Weezer’s Blue Album with the windows down.  We WERE friends and teammates.

My last game, I sent a cross into the box that led to a goal and later, in the final minutes, found myself in a spot to rifle a shot into the keeper’s nose… and collect the rebound, finishing the play in a goal before collapsing to my knees to make sure the keeper was alright.  At the end of that game, I couldn’t tell you I would step away from the game for the better part of 15 years.  All I could tell you was that I was happy.

I was happy because the things that had bothered me about myself never ever manifested on the field.  All I felt was the touch of the ball on my instep or laces, the junky pollen in the air as it filled my lungs on some days, the embrace of my teammates after we scored, and the pats on the back from the coaches, even when we were getting blown out.  I was a Soccer Player.  I was a Right Winger.  I was a good person…

And when I stepped off the pitch and took off my shoes, I hated myself.  I hated that I didn’t KNOW myself.  I hated that I didn’t WANT to know myself.  And most of all, I hated that I had nobody to look up to.

I used to dream that my favorite player, Alexi Lalas, would stand over me when Andy would call me a “faggot” and get in his face about it.  Why couldn’t I play too?  I was good.  I had earned my place on the field and what should anything else matter?  Alexi would tell him, and we’d high five and then he’d go and score in another World Cup and the world would be right…

Except that never happened.  I hung up my boots and it would be 15 years until I truly found Soccer again, this time as a supporter.

Landon Donovan… the Miracle Minute… and I felt something.  I saw the ball escape the keeper on Deuce’s shot and Landon blast it home and for just a moment, while leaping off my bar stool and being showered in beer, I stopped being “Gay but not Obviously Gay Justin” and was just an Outlaw.  I was hugged, picked up, swung around, and maybe even kissed?  It felt good and I wanted more.

I’d always had an allegiance to Celtic FC (I’m Scots/Irish) and grew up with the Fire but as the years wore on and I slowly began to return to the game as a supporter, I felt like I needed a change.  Maybe it was the Xbox logo or maybe it really WAS that Rave Green that sunk into my soul the moment I saw the Sounders on ESPN one night, I’ll never know.  I became a fan.  Watching the game again felt close to what I felt as a kid.  Who I was didn’t matter when who I rooted for was concerned… and I loved this game so, SO much.

And then that day.  My little brother suggested we go to the USOC Final in KC. It was Sporting KC hosting the Sounders, and I went.  Everything from tailgating to the march in, to swinging my scarf, to feeling utterly defeated as EJ’s PK soared up to meet the International Space Station… the world of being a supporter truly opened up to me.  I was hooked.

A few months later I was back in KC for the USA vs. Guatemala game (this time, supporting the WINNING Side).  I was at a point in my life where putting on the jersey or the scarf was no longer a way of covering up or hiding… and for the first time, I truly felt like I belonged when I could feel the fabric against my skin.  Nobody had a label.  Nobody’s mannerisms defined him/her.  We wore the hoops, the sash, the all-white… the Crest.  That made us one. THAT is what mattered.

… And I was finally Home.

And I loved it.  I met Tanya.  I met Doug.  I met Herculez Gomez at a bar after the game.  I was with my best friends – old and new – and never once did I question who I was or if I belonged. I just simply knew.

See, I’m not really the type of dude who ever fit in anywhere before.  Even now in my early-mid 20s, I had been displaced from whatever community where I felt I should belong.  I’ve been told I “act too straight to be accepted” by the gay community (yes, even the gay community can have narrow minded people,) but I’ve always been “gay Justin” to my straight friends.  But there in the supporter community, I was, for the first time in my LIFE, truly belonging.  Which brings me, finally, to my point:

Tonight was March 26th, 2013.  I watched one of the worst played Sounders games in recent memory.  I’ve felt and remembered all of what is written above on top of having a really bad day.  Then, minute 76 happened.

Robbie Rogers, an out gay man, stepped onto the field for the first time since coming out.  And everything above stopped mattering.

I always thought I’d respond to seeing him on the field again as a “well, I’m smiling because I should smile” type of thing (and I’m not really that prone to being emotional).  Even seeing him warming up, I really felt nothing more than frustration at the amateur show from Seattle’s backline and complete longing for Ozzie (out with Injury).  And then I saw the sign.  19 in red, 14 in green…. and  I lost it.

I’m a 24 year old man.  I never really cared too much about “gay” stuff (the whole “outcast” feeling allowed me to just shrug it all off) and so it couldn’t be JUST that.  I saw his first step onto the pitch and it started to hit me – this wasn’t just because he was gay… it was so much more.  For the first time, I saw something in the Nothing.  I saw something to latch onto.

For the first time, that 10 or 11 year old kid who was still inside my soul – who took off his boots and held them as he sobbed and didn’t even know why he was crying… for the first time, he saw something in that Nothing…  And that kid – that part of my soul – he was wearing the Red/White Hoops when he finally stepped forth into the light.

It was also the final piece I needed.  The sport that I loved – that gave me a home for so long, even after I stepped away – finally saw that last part of me step out from the darkness and into the world.  I’m a gay dude.  I’m a supporter.  I still try and pretend to play on occasion.

And when I put on the crest on my replica (I’m a college kid, kinda all I can afford at the moment…) USMNT jersey or my Sounders’ Scarf, the only thing that matters is that I’m Justin: a Sounder and an Outlaw.

THIS is what Robbie Rogers has really done.  It’s not just about the whole “gay” thing.  It’s about finding the courage to be yourself.  It’s about finally finding that one thing to latch onto and help yourself out of the darkness and Nothingness. And it is about the Family that helps you do it.

For me, it is about standing on that table or that stool or in those bleachers and singing/shouting:

“Everywhere we go // people wanna know // who we are // so we tell them // we are the U.S. // THE MIGHTY FUCKING U.S!”

Thank you, Robbie, for helping that last part of me to finally let go.  Thank you MLS for supporting everyone being above the line.  And most importantly, thank you Outlaws, ECS, Green Brigade (at least in the US) for always seeing me as more than just one aspect of who I am.  To the teams and the players who have quite literally saved my life in the past, thank you.  To the supporters who have become my Family, thank you.  To all, I love you.  Wherever you go, I’ll follow.

I’ve come home.

See you in Seattle.

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