Rogers comeback provides hope for all sport

The 26-year-old became the first openly gay current athlete in America on Sunday and his story could prompt others to come out of the closet
By Zac Lee Rigg

First he came out. Then he came back. The stadium flood lights snapped off as a television crew interviewed Robbie Rogers pitch-side. A camera light illuminated his cheerfully smiling face and carefully combed hair.

The crowd stuck around for a post-match fireworks show. This was an event to celebrate. On Sunday, Robbie Rogers entered a Major League Soccer match in the 77th minute. The LA Galaxy beat the Seattle Sounders, 4-0. Rogers didn't score. He had barely a handful of touches. But he created history.

"If you were to saw my face I just had a huge smile of enjoyment," Rogers said. "Of just, 'OK, I'm back. This is normal.'"

Rogers became the first openly gay male in American professional team sports.

The new LA Galaxy winger will make an effective poster boy and a sturdy role model. He has the jawline, the hair part and the sharp dress sense to appeal to his base. He also has the soft voice, the earnest manner and the kind courteousness to win over grandmothers.

It took time, though, for Rogers to accept his new charge. In February, in a blog post, Rogers came out as gay and retired from professional football.

"It's crazy to me to think I stepped away from this game at 25 years old," Rogers said.

Rogers didn't think a gay man could survive in the professional game. But, still in his physical prime, he missed soccer.

With his family based in the area, the Galaxy made the most sense if he returned. He'd trained with the team, coached by Bruce Arena, when recovering from an injury as a Leeds player.

"I was pretty afraid to come train. I don't know why," Rogers said. "I was a bit nervous for that. So I think in one of my interviews I said: 'Maybe I'll go train with the Galaxy', not really thinking I would, but I said that. Bruce reached out to me and said, 'If you actually do want to come train ever or want to even come to a game, feel free to.'"

During a trip to New York in March, Rogers watched training clips, which helped reignite his spark for the game. Late one night, he shot Arena an email, and they scheduled a one-day training session.

"After the first day it was completely normal. I obviously really enjoyed myself," Rogers said. "I just kept coming in."

Following a month of training, the Galaxy traded Mike Magee to the Chicago Fire for the MLS rights to Rogers. On Friday, they decided to try to play him against the Seattle Sounders. On Saturday, his International Transfer Certificate arrived, and Rogers knew he'd be in the 18-man roster. On Sunday, the anxiety hit.

"Earlier today I was a bit nervous," Rogers said. "I don't know why, I just had like two hours before I left my apartment that I was like, 'Oh gosh.' But once I got to the stadium it felt totally normal."

Still, the drive from his apartment to the stadium started to affect him, so he called Alicia, his older sister.

"I was driving over here and I gave her a call. I just needed to hear someone's voice," Rogers said. "We were talking about my dog – just kind of get my mind off things. I guess part of me was just afraid – not afraid, just a little nervous.

"I understand that, I guess, historically this is a big thing, but for me it's just another soccer game. So I was battling with both those things. Ok, it's just a soccer game, I've done this a million times. But then obviously I know – I'm not naive – I know people are watching."

At half-time, with the Galaxy already four goals to the good thanks to a Robbie Keane hat trick, Arena told Rogers to expect a 15 – 20 minute run-out.

With his parents, grandparents and friends in the stands, and with Schmid on the opposite bench, Rogers replaced Juninho in the 77th minute.

"I keep saying the word 'normal, normal'. But it was," Rogers said. "Once I got on and [heard] the support, I just zoned in."

It was Rogers' first game since December 2012. It was his first game since coming out.

"I've been on this huge journey to figure out my life, and now I'm back here where I'm supposed to be," Rogers said.

In an otherwise unremarkable 13-minute cameo, Rogers made history.

Landon Donovan called Rogers "an inspiration to all of us as human beings". And the world will look to Rogers for guidance. Until Jason Collins finds a new NBA team, Rogers is the only gay male athlete active in American professional sport.

"This is a learning process for me as well," Rogers said to a press conference stocked with national and international press. "I would ask people to remember that I'm human and that I'm a 26-year-old. I think I'm just going to be myself. I'm not going to change anything. I'll maybe think things through when I use Twitter, but besides that I'll just be honest with people and try to be a good person through this whole process."

Robbie Rogers is a major story. Hopefully, the next athlete who comes out won't be.