Had Gordon Wild gone into the family business, one that dates back to the 19th century on his father’s side, he might have been riding a unicycle instead of attempting bicycle kicks or manning the midway instead of collecting passes from the University of Maryland’s midfield.
The sophomore striker on the nation’s top-ranked men’s soccer team is the son of former acrobats — a German mother and Danish father who performed as a duo in traveling troupes before creating their own circus company.
Wild’s half-brother entertained on Royal Caribbean cruises for a dozen years. His great-grandmother walked a tightrope over a lion’s cage.
“I am not from a normal family,” Wild said. “It’s cool, and I’m 100 percent proud of it.”
He has perhaps started a new family tradition: scoring goals. After sharing the 2015 national scoring title at a lower-tier Division I school in South Carolina, the transfer has posted a team-high 16 goals for the Terrapins, who will carry a 15-game winning streak — the longest in program history — and the No. 1 seed into the 48-team NCAA tournament this week.
With a first-round bye, Maryland (18-0-2) will face Providence on Sunday in College Park. The Friars beat Delaware, 2-0, on Thursday.
Like his relatives, Wild has played a starring role, only in a different theater.
“The artist is oriented to please,” said his mother, Irene Wild. “The athlete wants to win.”
His parents introduced him to acrobatics, gymnastics and an audience when he was young. At home, his father, Johnny Meyer, would lie on his back and juggle him with his feet.
“It was my dream to see him become a performer,” Meyer said, “but he was afraid of being in the air.”
Said his mother: “We would take him on stage, and he’d start screaming.”
“I liked being on the ground,” Gordon said, “and moving around.”
While acrobatics were in the family blood, soccer runs through German veins. The family lived in a pastoral village of a few hundred residents, several soccer fields and a stable of rambunctious boys who found joy with a ball at their feet.
“My parents gave me free option of what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I started soccer when I was 3 or 4 and fell in love with it from the first moment.”
Although he was not going to follow in his family’s footsteps, Wild was still part of the show. His parents’ company toured Germany for weekend performances. A regular gig, sponsored by Jaguar and Land Rover, took them to rented castles for two-day events.
Often, Gordon stayed behind with family friends. When he did accompany his parents, he earned money playing soccer and performing ball tricks with younger children.
“It was a special way to grow up,” he said.
Wild’s father, now 77 and retired in the Netherlands, had grown up in the circus, traveling the world with his nomadic family. He lived in Italy and Australia.
On a tour of New York when he was 9 or 10, he said he sold popcorn at the famed RKO Palace on Broadway for 10 cents a bag. He helped set up equipment and retrieve costumes. He learned nine languages, even picking up regional accents.
Wild’s grandfather and great uncles were part of a teeterboard act, bodies launching, flipping and contorting in harmony. During an extended stay in Houston, they bought an old hearse to transport their board. Colleagues blamed the vehicle for inviting bad luck. Two performers in other acts had died in accidents. They sold it.
Before long, Wild’s father was a world-class acrobat, too.
Wild’s mother was a gymnast who attended the national circus school in Paris. She accepted a job in Germany. Meyer, a widower, already was in the company and looking for a new partner to perform the Risley act, in which he lies flat and supports a person with his feet, leading to a variety of tricks.
They became partners in work and life, he 25 years her elder. Before Gordon was born, they lived in a caravan, pulled by a truck. For a few months, they shared an apartment with an artist couple from Kiev, Ukraine. Before night performances, they would check on Gordon while in full costume and makeup.
Meyer was a natural entertainer: Aside from acrobatics, he was a saxophone-playing clown and a unicorn on stilts. His stage name was “Johnny Novak” because, while in Japan, organizers thought his first wife looked like actress Kim Novak.
When Irene Wild suffered a foot injury, she gave up aerial routines and took on creative pursuits, such as choreography and design.
Work was seasonal: three months in Stuttgart, three in Hamburg, three in Cologne and so on.
When Gordon was young, the couple cut back on travel and settled in a pixel of a town called Steimel, 40 miles southeast of Bonn. Johnny already had a son with his family name, so Gordon would take his mother’s name. “Besides, there are a million Meyers,” his mother said, “and not many Wilds.”
His father’s lifetime of journeys was passed along like a family heirloom. Gordon vividly remembers chopping onions as his dad made Bolognese sauce, learned in Italy, while Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, discovered in New York, wafted through the kitchen.
‘My little American Dream’
Meanwhile, Gordon’s soccer career took shape. He played for a local club until he was 14. Two years later, he moved 1 1/2 hours from home to enroll in the youth academy at Mainz, a Bundesliga club. He struggled. Later, he joined Wehen Wiesbaden, a third-tier operation.
“I was not mature enough” to become a professional, he said. “My mind-set was not where it should have been.”
With his parents’ encouragement, he explored options abroad. Unlike Germany, the United States offered the opportunity to study and play.
“College soccer is my little American Dream,” he said. “I love this system.”
A late entry into the recruiting pool, Wild landed at South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg.
“I had no idea what a conference was, what the NCAA was,” he said. “It was jumping into an ocean.”
His mother said of her departing only child: “In Germany, we have a saying: ‘One eye is crying and one eye is smiling.’ ”
Wild scored 16 of his team’s 30 goals and was named the Atlantic Sun Conference’s freshman of the year.
“I knew I had the potential to maybe play at a bigger school,” he said. “I wanted to challenge myself in a more competitive environment.”
Maryland won the sweepstakes. With few exceptions, the NCAA allows soccer transfers to play right away.
“His talent was undeniable, but everyone felt there was going to be a learning curve: the speed of play, his habits needed to streamline,” Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said. “But he’s got a love for the game and a love for scoring goals.”
He made a quick impression: a hat trick against Hartford in the second game of the season, followed by a last-minute goal to beat Georgetown and a two-goal effort against South Florida. He also recorded a hat trick against Delaware.
Wild’s finishing touch and instincts have not gone unnoticed by MLS scouts. Cirovski — who in his 24 seasons has watched a parade of Terrapins turn pro before their senior years — believes Wild needs another season to polish his skills.
“Sash says players get distracted” by thoughts of leaving early, Wild said. “I trust in the process; we’ll see how the season continues.”
Until he has to make a decision, Wild, a business major, is embracing the balance of education and soccer. In Germany, the soccer-only path dampened his enthusiasm for the sport.
His parents visited for an extended time this fall. They divorced years ago but remain close friends. They have taken to the Maryland soccer community and vice versa.
One day during their stay, they hijacked the kitchen in the apartment their son shares with three teammates and cooked up pans of schnitzel, risotto and potato salad for the squad. To the surprise of Cirovski, it was waiting for the group in the Varsity Team House after practice.
Cirovski couldn’t get enough. He requested — and received — translated recipes.
No tricks necessary. Just an email. It was, perhaps, the former performers’ most appreciated act.
“It was the only way we could show our love for them, for what they’ve done for our son,” Wild’s father said. “In Europe, love goes through the stomach.”