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Rogers marches to his own beat

FOX Soccer News: Rogers announces he's gay, retires from soccer.
FOX Soccer News: Rogers announces he's gay, retires from soccer.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Out of the blue, a message appeared on one-time US national team, Columbus Crew and Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers’s website titled “The Next Chapter...” He posted a link to it on his Twitter account accompanied by the message: “Just getting some [expletive] off my chest.”

In 400 poignant words, the 25-year-old Rogers, who was highly-touted as a prospect but disappointed in recent years, announced that he was gay and that he would “step away” from the game, leaving unclear whether he was taking a sabbatical or retiring permanently.

“Things are never what they seem… My whole life I have felt different, different from my peers, even different from my family,” wrote Rogers. “For the past 25 year[s] I have been afraid, afraid to show whom [sic] I really was because of fear. Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations.”

“Life is only complete when your loved ones know you,” Rogers continued. “When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. 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 [that] you are gay.”

Within minutes, the American soccer community inundated Rogers’ Twitter account with praise and congratulations. “100 percent love and support for one of my best friends Robbie Rogers,” wrote US and Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan. “You will be missed on the pitch. Amazing talent, amazing person.”

“Much love and respect to my boy @robbierogers!” wrote Bolton and former US teammate Stuart Holden. “Proud to be your friend bro.”

David Testo, the first North American soccer player and active professional in any major team sport in the Western Hemisphere to be openly gay, called the coming out of a national team player a major milestone. “I couldn’t be happier or prouder to hear it,” he told FOX Soccer. “This is a big moment for soccer and for the movement we so desperately need. He’s part of the ladder that we have to climb to ultimately eliminate homophobia in the sport. It’s a big advancement for our movement.”

But when the jubilation settled, a sobering question imposed itself: Did Rogers feel like he had to retire in order to come out?

He never stated unequivocally that he wouldn’t play again. But reading between the lines, he seemed to consider his career a thing of the past, a page turned when he moved on to “the next chapter.”

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Rogers wrote fondly of his professional career, during which he played professionally in the Netherlands, Major League Soccer and, most recently, England. He appeared in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the under-23 US national team. From 2008 to 2011, Rogers made 18 appearances for the senior team, from which he was one of the last players cut before the 2010 World Cup. He appreciated the experiences and the friendships, he wrote.

But he also wrote of the agony of laboring under the heft of such a burden in a sport that counts just one active homosexual player, Anton Hysen in the Swedish third division, among some 500,000 professionals worldwide.

“Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret,” wrote Rogers. “I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined… Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football.”

Rogers’ career, which once held so much promise, was flagging of late. A litany of injuries had marred his Jan. 2012 move to Leeds United of the English second tier. He was loaned to third-tier club Stevenage for the first half of the 2012-13 season but suffered yet more injuries. Upon his return to Leeds on Jan. 15, both parties agreed to dissolve his contract.

There seems to be the consensus that Rogers still has the ability to play in MLS if he’s healthy and wants to, that is. Close friend and former Crew teammate Andy Iro told the Columbus Post-Dispatch that Rogers had “been uncertain about if he was going to make a public statement or just fade out of the game,” suggesting he has no intention to return.

“I can definitely understand having been in his shoes before what it’s like to make that announcement and not knowing what life is going to be like after that,” said Testo, who came out on Nov. 2011 after his contract with the Montreal Impact ran out and never found another professional employer, in spite being only 30 years old at the time. “From what it sounds like, he just needs to deal with what’s going on right now and maybe he’ll reconsider it later. He’s probably having a lot to deal with right now and wanting to be a free man and explore his life away from football.”

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Yet his return to the game could have a significant social impact. “I’m not sure he even knows how big of a deal it would be,” said Testo. “I can say, ‘Everyone wants you to keep playing to evolve the cause.’ But maybe for him just coming out is enough. He might not need soccer if it’s not the one place he can be himself anymore.”

Rogers may have already moved on. He recently tweeted about his “work experience” – an English term for an internship – in the London office of Men’s Health magazine.

His decision to come out was daring. And he could make an even bolder statement by staying in the game.

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