What would possibly compel anyone to read Bobby Warshaw’s self-published memoir, “When the Dream Became Reality: The Journey of a Professional Soccer Player, and the Push for Meaning, Purpose, and Contentment”?
After all, he never played in a World Cup or an MLS Cup. His pro career spanned six unspectacular years with six clubs across four leagues in three countries. He scored once in MLS.
He didn’t warrant a $263 million transfer fee or marry a Spice Girl. He was a grinding central midfielder with just enough skill, tactical awareness and ingenuity to earn a series of contracts.
On the surface, it seems to have all the makings of, say, a long blog entry.
But here’s the thing: Warshaw’s 260-page work is a terrific read. It’s raw and emotional, introspective and insightful. At times, it’s downright depressing.
The fact that he never reached the towering goals he set for himself doesn’t detract from his story; it supplies the narrative.
He was a first-team all-American, a first-round draft pick and a U.S. youth international. But this isn’t a feel-good, first-person tale by a former athlete, splashed with trophy celebrations and celebrity encounters.
Rather, it’s an honest account from a central Pennsylvania native who studied political science at Stanford and loved soccer more than anything else while struggling with the ultra-high demands he put on himself and others as he navigated his place in the outside world.
“My parents never said it directly, but the prerogative was clear: When you’re born on third base, you sure as hell better make it home,” he wrote. “Soccer became my avenue to do something, to be someone.”
The book begins at his end, at age 27, toiling in the U.S. second division near his home town — full circle after journeys to Texas, Sweden and Norway. He is a broken man. Kids are field-side begging for autographs. “Choose another dream” is what he wanted to say, he writes. Instead, he performs his postgame duty.
Over 30 snappy chapters, Warshaw doesn’t hold back. He describes insecurity and self-doubt. He details clashes with his first pro coach, FC Dallas’s Schellas Hyndman, and friction with executives, coaches and teammates in Scandinavia.
He wonders if he is the problem: “Am I selfish? Am I a brat? Am I mopey?”
Warshaw also sheds light on the team dynamic that few fans appreciate. With rich description of training sessions and meetings, he shows that chemistry and camaraderie off the field are as important as assembling a set of skilled players. When those ingredients aren’t quite right, a team is prone to descend quickly, as he recounts in the book.
Beyond soccer, he tells of loneliness and heartbreak. Unable to fully commit to a beautiful relationship, he writes: “I had grown to love her, but she hadn’t displaced my first love. Myself. … I’d given so much to soccer already, a life it seemed, and I wasn’t prepared to lose my grip on it.”
Separately, he also questions his sexuality: “Am I gay? Have I been missing something? More so, am I even allowed to be gay?” As a male professional athlete, “Am I locked into the expectation of being straight?”
It’s not all heavy. There is a chapter about a madcap adventure in pursuit of an Israeli contract with a nutty agent named Leo. It’s titled, “Seven Days to Become a Jew.”
Warshaw’s book succeeds because he not only shares stories, but tells them with moving prose and eloquence. He’s had good practice, having been published by, among others, Deadspin, FourFourTwo and Howler. He also created an online writing forum for current and former players, called “The Athlete Story.”
“I didn’t have an illustrious career,” Warshaw wrote in the epilogue of his book. “I don’t have juicy stories or rings to show off. I just learned a lot and felt a lot.”