Robbie Rogers, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer made history on Sunday night.
Rogers, who had announced his retirement from football in an eloquently-written blog post in February, was making his competitive return to the sport for Galaxy against the Seattle Sounders.
Even though he played just 13 minutes in a 4-0 win that included a Robbie Keane hat trick, it was him that the cameras, reporters and eyes of the world were focused on before, during and after his brief appearance on the pitch.
His, after all, had been no ordinary comeback.
“For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show who I really was because of fear,” he blogged from London just over three months ago. “Secrets can cause so much internal damage. People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay.”
With those words, Rogers both revealed his sexual orientation and announced he was stepping away from the game he had loved all his life. Professional sports and the macho culture of the locker room—a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” code—remained, for him, incompatible. So, he embarked on what he called “the next chapter,” a phase of his life free from both secrets and, tragically, football.
And there certainly was an element of tragedy about his retirement.
At just 25 years of age, Rogers was looking to transplant a successful four-year spell in MLS to England, and while there had been some hiccups at both Leeds and Stevenage, that was not the trajectory of a career that had already included 18 appearances for the United States sloping downward.
But, as a gay man admittedly weary of carrying his “secret,” he concluded the only way to move forward honestly and freely was to unburden himself, even if it meant moving on from football.
It’s tragic that he felt that way, although you can hardly blame him. The thought of being in the spotlight because of his sexuality—nevermind the encounters with teammates, opponents and fans he no doubt played through his mind time and again—must have been terrifying, and it's understandable if he thought the normalcy of just playing football was gone forever.
Thankfully, “normal” was precisely what he found his comeback to be, and in his post-match press conference following Sunday’s win, he appeared a man not only at peace with himself, but confident about what his future had in store.
“You could see it on my face—I had a huge smile of enjoyment,” he told reporters. “Okay, I’m back. This is normal and very supportive.” (LAGalaxy.com)
He added: “I keep saying the word: ‘normal,’ ‘normal.’ But it was. Once I got on and I saw the support, I just zoned in. It was good to be back and I’m excited to move on from here.”
Three months away from football likely did Rogers a world of good, but the break might also have served to pave a route for a return in rather more conducive circumstances.
Just last month, San Jose Earthquakes forward Alan Gordon was handed a three-match ban for uttering a homophobic slur at Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson. While MLS was swift in administering the punishment, Gordon’s own club was even swifter—president Dave Kaval called the incident “deplorable” and told Earthquakes fans the organization had let them down.
MLS, to its credit, actively advocates for respect, equality and dignity in football through its “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign, and the expediency with which Gordon was dealt with seemed to show its tough stance was working.
In that regard, the North American top flight is the perfect place for Rogers to be playing as the continent’s first openly gay member of a professional sports team.
And while there was good reason for the almost festive atmosphere at Home Depot Centre on Sunday night, Rogers conceded there was still so much to be done.
“Tonight I’ll just sit in my bed and reflect that God gave me the courage to do this and to come back,” he said. (LAGalaxy.com) “Obviously, to something that I love, but obviously something that will help kids my age who are dealing with the same stuff that I am.”