Worse, Rooney was coming off a melancholy season. Hoping to reconjure his passion after 13 pressure-packed years at global powerhouse Manchester United, the former England captain had engineered a romantic return to his first club, Everton. Yet the team, which he had grown up supporting, was a joyless mess, and his dreams of returning it to glory turned into a nightmare. Watching Rooney trot out in his boyhood blue was as sad as witnessing a salmon swim upstream back to the place he was born to spawn and die.
The tropes of the modern English tabloid suggested that the rest of Rooney’s life was predetermined to follow a grim pattern of schadenfreude-filled decline. A 32-year-old celebrity humbled, left to stumble out of nightclubs as a cautionary tale along with the likes of Hugh Grant or David Hasselhoff.
Instead, Rooney found in Washington the return to glory that he’d sought at Everton, challenging, coaxing and inspiring his young teammates to pull off one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in Major League Soccer history. D.C. United, stuck firmly and hopelessly in last place from May 7 through Aug. 13, will clinch a playoff berth if it wins its last home game of the year Sunday. Like a human defibrillator, Rooney has jolted the locker room with confidence and tenacity. It’s a third act worthy of a mythic hero, and the joy — and humility — Rooney has shown along the way is a reminder that behind the scores and stats, the real thrill of watching sports is the human story of it all.
With hindsight, I should not have been surprised. From the moment he first stormed onto the field at 16, Rooney has always exhibited a singular stubbornness — he’s a man not afraid to make his own decisions and live with the consequences. Hence his bucking of convention this summer to turn down lucrative offers from China and decamp suddenly to the DMV. But Rooney’s chosen destination felt like it would decrease the chances of things going well for him. At the time of his signing, United was receiving last rites. Its glory years, which I had witnessed firsthand as a resident of Adams Morgan in the late ’90s, were long past. The team had become an also-ran beset by a culture of losing. RFK Stadium, which I had once seen bounce with joy, was rotting in raccoon-infested decay. Rooney arrived at a club at rock bottom. His signing smacked of a desperate attempt to build buzz to accompany the team’s move into a spanking new (and expensive) stadium, Audi Field.
One of the things I love about following soccer, though, is that it constantly reminds you how little you know about life, because Rooney has proved all the naysayers, including me, to be shamefully wrong. He has executed his extreme makeover in ways both big and small: refusing to accept the offer of business-class air travel or a single hotel suite on the road, preferring to travel coach and share rooms like the rest of the team. He has also done it with the intensity of his performance, best symbolized by “The Play”: a 96th-minute game-winning assist that combined tracking down an opponent, obliterating him with a tackle that belonged in the NFL and slinging a pass across nearly half the field precisely onto teammate Luciano Acosta’s head for a crucial, stunning goal. This smash-and-grab highlight play from August went viral on both sides of the Atlantic . It was definitive proof that the classic Rooney of old was back to compete the only way he knows how: all-out, with full force. (On Wednesday night in Washington, he did it again with another goal that’s going viral, a curling piledriver of a free kick from 35 yards away.)
After “The Play,” I charged down from New York to watch Rooney in person and found that new stadium sold out and rippling with a sudden, surging optimism. That energy felt like it emanated from Rooney, who took to the field with the same joy and freedom I had witnessed when he broke through as a stocky teenager at Everton, the wondrously hapless club he and I were both fated to support from birth.
It has been a profoundly enriching human achievement to see Rooney reborn in Washington because I have closely watched all the highs and lows of his career: a journey from glory to challenge to redemption. I revered Rooney from the moment I first saw him swagger onto the field in 2002, thrown into action as a late substitute for Everton against defending champion Arsenal. Though barely post-bar-mitzvah-aged, the teen pulled the ball out of the sky in the 90th minute, spun around, then thrashed a 30-yard arrow into the top corner of the net. It was stunning technique, executed with the kind of brazen confidence one would not normally associate with a player wearing an Everton jersey. Watching agog in a bar in New York, I dropped a full beer into my own lap in shock, then grabbed a stranger’s pint and poured it over my own head in astonished celebration.
Rooney’s life was forever changed, as he began an ascent to superstardom, quickly securing a move to global megabrand Manchester United. Charging round the field like a Scouse Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, he became the greatest English player of his generation — but the Brits love to destroy their heroes, an impulse captured by Steve Coogan’s observation that “the British get more pleasure from seeing other people fail than ourselves succeed.” Rooney’s private life was mined with relish by the English tabloids, which seized any opportunity to revel in his misfortune, especially when his form floundered and the anger and fury that once sparked his play appeared to turn inward . To watch Rooney struggle on the field, or woodenly fulfill his commercial obligations off it, was to witness a man ground down by the unforgiving business side of the game he once loved.
But to see Rooney now, away from the scrutiny of the tabloids, scoring, laughing and loving his time on the field once again, is to watch a man who has known youthful victory, and then loss, experience vindication. In ancient times, an epic Greek poem would have been written about that journey. Sadly for Rooney, he had to settle for a trip to New York to film a television special with me about his career. (It airs Monday at 5:30 p.m. on NBC Sports.)
We sat in my studio, two follically challenged lads from Liverpool who both grew up dreaming of becoming England’s top goal-scorer, one of whom went out and did just that. Rooney was in an introspective mood as he talked about the three acts of his life: childhood, superstardom and American rejuvenation.
I asked him for the secret of what he has told his young teammates to inspire their remarkable resurgence. He laughed and told the story of how, at 16, he was advised by a veteran club captain to enjoy every moment of games because his career would go by fast. At the time, Rooney rolled his eyes and said, “What do you know, old man?” He has since discovered that to be the truth. “The older you get, the more you realize your career does go quickly,” he admitted. “So I tell the young guys to remember it is only a game — go out and enjoy themselves.”
The fact that Rooney has catalyzed D.C. United’s magical turnaround with these kind of life truths may only enhance the team’s threat once the MLS playoffs start at the end of the month. Self-knowledge is one of the most powerful intangibles in sports and life. Before Rooney left my studio, I forced him to reexperience his first Everton goal with me — the wonderstrike with which he defeated Arsenal and announced himself to the world. He told me that his love for the game back then was so strong, he’d celebrated by returning to the rough Liverpool neighborhood where he was born, to play soccer with his mates in the streets. I think about that story when watching Rooney today. It suggests we are witnessing a man come full circle, rekindling the same passion he had as a child, and realizing that the true joy of life is to love and be loved. When that happens, as we have seen with D.C. United, anything is possible.
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