Back when most of us first heard of Robbie Rogers, he'd already had the soccer career that thousands of kids across the country dream of.
He had grown up as a gifted athlete, whose family endured tough times while carting him and his siblings to practices. The Southern Californian soccer prodigy had left home to play on the national youth team in Florida. He had already struggled with the decision to go pro in Europe as his father and overseas recruiters wanted, versus playing at college, as his mother encouraged him to do. He had left the University of Maryland after one year, where he led the team to an NCAA championship, to go professional. He'd been to Europe and back to the States to play on professional teams. He played on America's World Cup team in 2007, the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, and then found a spot in Major League Soccer on the championship winning Columbus Crew. He had made 18 appearances on the U.S. National team, and played with Leeds United.
When most of us heard of Robbie Rogers, we heard that he was a gay soccer player.
And that he was retiring.
But even that is not the whole story. While Rogers had been kicking a football around through his adolescence and early 20s, he was full of fear, loneliness, and anxiety. By the time he had reached his first professional goal — playing on a professional team in the Netherlands and being paid quite handsomely — Rogers says he spent his time on the team feeling isolated and deeply depressed. He worried that he would have to eventually choose between being a soccer player, and being openly gay. And after all of the work and sacrifice he and his family had endured for the last two decades of his life, the stakes had become so high that he built a paralyzing fear of coming out.
When Rogers wrote an open letter in 2013 copping to the fear he had built up inside, it followed a terribly long coming-out process with his family.
"Secrets can cause so much internal damage," he wrote nearly two years ago. "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. Try convincing yourself that your creator has the most wonderful purpose for you even though you were taught differently."
It was that letter, which also announced his retirement at age 25, that gave him a second wind in the face of fear.
"The response that I received when I wrote that letter and posted it to social media — I wasn't expecting that kind of response," Rogers says now. "It had a bigger impact than I thought."
That's what spurred the idea to write a book. Rogers worked with Eric Marcus (with some help from his sister, and his mother) to pen his memoir, Coming Out To Play. The book, which was released last week, takes a long look at Rogers's journey from being a boy whose father grew enraged at the sight of seeing his son playing in a dress, to becoming an internationally renowned soccer player with a secret, and finally a man with a family that supported him. It was a process that Rogers says was therapeutic, both for him and his family, who had only been vaguely aware that Robbie was dealing with some serious internal demons.
"My mom said, when she was reading the book for the first time, that at times she laughed and at times she cried," he told The Advocate. "She uses words like 'glorious' and 'wonderful,' but she also would read back to times that I was really sad and depressed, and even [now] I'm like, 'Mom, don't worry, I'm over this part.'"
Just as his father fell apart at the sight of Rogers as a little boy wearing a dress while playing a dress-up game with his sisters called "Cool Girls," his mother and sister had said things about homosexuality and marriage equality, not knowing how much of an impact it was having on keeping Rogers closeted. They were an average Catholic family, tied closely to their faith. Looking back, Rogers says he doesn't hold a grudge and that he is still faithful, but even the smallest statements and actions seeded the idea that coming out could have jeopardized his entire relationship with his family, the strongest aspect to his life.
"Those kind of [experiences] just kind of scar you a bit," he says. "Like, if I say a bad word, my little niece will remember it. If something happens on TV, she remembers it. Our minds are really sensitive to those things. So to bring all those things up was emotional, and was just a little difficult for me, but it was very therapeutic."
Reading the book, he says his mother "was like, really apologetic...But I wasn't trying to get back at people, but I just wanted to be honest about things."
Rogers' honesty is endearing in this book recounting his career and the aftermath of his public coming out. These days, Rogers is pursuing his other passions: he's got a fashion line, he works with LGBT organizations for visibility and advocacy in sports, he signed another contract to keep playing with his team the L.A. Galaxy (which yanked him out of his premature retirement), and his life is the source material for a television comedy series being developed by out producing team Craig Zadan and Neil Meron called Men In Shorts.
"There's not a lot of comedies that take place in the the sports world, with the locker room and the traveling, and then you add the gay athlete concept," he says. "As of now, I don't know how many [professional] athletes have come out — it's not a ton, but it's a topic a lot of people are talking about, and I'm sure more people will be talking about it more as more athletes come out."
For now, Rogers is the only openly gay player in Major League Soccer. But with Coming Out To Play, and perhaps Men In Shorts if it goes to series, another young player out there might not feel as alone as Rogers once did. And there might be another gay character on Rogers team, whether he's fictional, or real.