USMNT’s Walker Zimmerman is a very good soccer player. He might be a better teammate.

US midfielder Christian Pulisic (L) celebrates with US defender Walker Zimmerman after scoring against Honduras during the World Cup qualifier Concacaf football match between USA and Honduras at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on February 2, 2022. - The United States reignited their World Cup qualifying campaign on Wednesday with a 3-0 victory over Honduras. (Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)
14 min

NASHVILLE — The summers here, Chris Ammons said, “can get hotter than hell’s attic.” When Ammons drove to his job as Nashville SC’s assistant equipment manager, he would leave the windows of his 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix rolled down in the parking lot. The air conditioning had busted, and Ammons had neither the time nor the means to fix it.

Walking down the hallway one morning last summer, Ammons passed Walker Zimmerman, Nashville’s star defender and an ascendant player on the national level. He didn’t know Zimmerman had noticed the battered Pontiac. Or that Zimmerman had recently purchased an SUV to replace his 2010 Nissan Altima. Or that Zimmerman had been waiting to speak with him.

“Hey,” Zimmerman asked him. “Would you happen to want my car?”

Over the years, Ammons had watched Zimmerman become both the face and the conscience of Nashville’s MLS club. He had come to believe Zimmerman was one of the nicest people he had ever met, which does not make him unique among people who have met Walker Zimmerman. Still, the question puzzled him, and Zimmerman could see the confusion on his face as Ammons began to blurt out a question.

“No, you can just have it,” Zimmerman said. “I want to give my car to you.”

For the portion of American sports followers who turn into soccer fans every few years, this month will serve as an introduction to Zimmerman. He is the projected starting center back for the U.S. men’s national team, which opens its World Cup campaign Monday against Wales in Qatar. He wears his long blond hair knotted into a ponytail atop his head in the manner of Thor. He does not have a superpower, but the stories about him can seem too good to be true.

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The son of a pastor and a homemaker from Lawrenceville, Ga., Zimmerman nudged his way into his first U.S. camp in 2017 and continued his steady improvement until, at 29, he effectively locked down a starting role. Coach Gregg Berhalter has called him a “warrior,” praising Zimmerman not only for his aerial dominance and crafty passing but also his ability to bond a team through his magnetism. Hardly a moment passes on the pitch when Zimmerman is not directing a teammate, fingers pointing and mouth humming.

The U.S. men’s World Cup squad will face off against Wales, Iran and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

He is just as active off the field. Zimmerman played a role in completing the national team’s new collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the first one negotiated alongside the U.S. women’s team, historic in its assurance of equal pay for both squads. He has joyfully made his 1-year-old son, Tucker, a ubiquitous presence at Nashville practices and U.S. training camps. He has spoken out in support of racial equality and gun control. He has donated time and money to breast cancer awareness, medical care for Ugandan children, at-risk kids and many other causes. Those around him describe his litany of charitable deeds and kind acts, many of which he attempts to keep private, with no shortage of awe.

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“People want to belong to people like that — ‘I can join with him, and I’ll be fine,’ ” said Doug Allison, Zimmerman’s college coach at Furman. “He seems to always have it together. The cameras are always on him. He’s always protecting his teammates. He’s always guiding. As he gets to a higher and higher level, it doesn’t change.”

Ammons, the Nashville assistant equipment manager, has been the recipient of one of those deeds. When he realized Zimmerman was serious, he told Zimmerman it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him and fought off tears. That night, Ammons drove the Nissan Altima — his Nissan Altima — home, parked in his carport and cranked the radio with the windows up, sheltered from the Nashville swelter. Ammons had spent seven years taking care of soccer players, and now one of those players had taken care of him. The air conditioning cooled his face, and he cried.

‘Why can’t it be me?’

From the start, peers gravitated toward Zimmerman. He grew up tagging along with his older brothers, Dawson and Carter, playing games and sports with neighborhood kids. Even though he was the youngest, he always seemed to win. “You start to realize you can’t call him lucky forever,” Carter said. “Eventually, you start to realize he’s just better at everything than every other kid on our street.”

By seventh grade, Zimmerman had decided soccer would provide his clearest path to professional sports. He devoted himself to it with an uncommonly clear vision, guided by something that felt to him like fate.

At an under-13 national team camp, organizers showed videos of U.S. stars from past national teams. While a Clint Mathis highlight played, Zimmerman felt a sensation wash over him. On the drive home, he told his mother, Becky, “Something in me said, ‘You're going to play on the screen one day.’ ”

Zimmerman rose through the sport among the top of his age group, playing on national and regional teams that traveled the globe. He had tremendous athleticism, especially his vertical leap, and became a leader on every team he ever played on. Nuno Piteira, his youth coach at Gwinnett Soccer Academy, watched teammates literally follow him around Buenos Aires during a tournament — if he went into a convenience store, a line of teenage American soccer players tailed.

The U.S. men’s national team will be one of the youngest squads at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and will feature many players new to the global tournament. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

But Zimmerman did not stand out in a way that suggested he would one day star in domestic promotional commercials for a World Cup. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2013 MLS draft. He made his first national training camp at 23. Still, the entire time, Zimmerman expected he would reach his current prominence.

“A lot of people [say], ‘I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would be the path,’ ” Zimmerman said early this fall over lunch. “The way that I was raised and the competitive spirit of my family and brothers, kind of always pushing the limits and trying to be the best, it feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be. It feels like the natural progression. There has to be someone to do it. So why can’t it be me?”

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Zimmerman’s faith has shaped him. The children of pastors, Zimmerman realized as he grew up, would either rebel against the church or become ardent followers. “You hear the jokes — they go one way or the other,” Zimmerman said. “There’s so much pressure that’s put on them at a young age that it’s hard. You’re always knowing that you have to be the moral compass of your friend group. There’s a responsibility there that whether it’s fair or not, it’s just reality. I didn’t struggle too much on wanting to rebel and get outside of that. But I definitely felt the weight.”

At Gwinnett Soccer Academy, Piteira arrived at one training session in a fragile state, rattled by a personal matter. As players started a warmup lap, Zimmerman, 15 years old at the time, broke from the pack and approached Piteira.

“Coach, you all right?” he asked.

“No, Walker, not so much,” Piteira said. “I’m dealing with some stuff.”

“Coach, that’s not a bad thing,” Walker replied. “That’s a good thing. The tougher life gets, the closer you get to God.”

Zimmerman turned to rejoin the warmup. Piteira stood there stunned and speechless. It was the only time Piteira remembered Zimmerman saying anything to him connected to religion.

“There are certain things people say in a moment, and it shapes your life,” Piteira said. “Maybe you expect it from a grown-up, somebody in my age group. My whole mind-set, my whole mood, it went out the window. It’s like, ‘Dude, are you kidding?’ ”

‘Dave & Buster’s might not be happy with it’

Last year, Zimmerman’s brothers, Carter and Dawson, visited him with their families. When they retreated to their room at night, Carter’s wife pointed out the brothers had done nothing but play games the entire day. “I didn’t even realize that,” Carter Zimmerman told her. “That’s just the way we relate to each other.”

Zimmerman relishes competition on a profound level, the result of all those days spent playing in the street. He does not play games so much as solve them from the inside out. When he was in high school and his brothers came home from college for Easter, he would arrange an elaborate egg hunt. The brothers never played darts until someone hung a dart board in their garage, and then they played one holiday break until their shoulders got sore. Carter had him beat until he watched his younger brother, unable to hit the bull’s eye all game, nail three in a row on his final turn.

“When he is put under pressure, he isn’t like the rest of us,” Carter said. “We’re all like, what if I missed this shot? Or what if this happens? He goes the opposite way, where I don’t even think he has those self-thoughts. He’s only concerned with winning.”

On the pitch, Zimmerman can be ruthless. The way he attacks balls in the air with abandon scares his mother, Becky. Zimmerman was best friends with a center forward at Gwinnett Soccer Academy, and sometimes Piteira worried the forward would try to fight Zimmerman because of how viciously he played. “But always within the game,” Piteira said. “Within a half second, Walker was able to look at him, smile and defuse the whole thing.”

Zimmerman’s reverence for play may have reached its apex during his five seasons with FC Dallas, when he and a handful of teammates hatched a scheme to take down the house — at Dave & Buster’s.

“I feel bad about releasing this,” Zimmerman said. “It's legal, but Dave & Buster's might not be happy with it.”

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They found an online guide with tips on how to beat the system. First, they capitalized on the “$20 for $20” offer to join the arcade’s mailing list, which loaded an extra $20 onto their player card when they paid $20. They would go on a Monday to execute the transaction, then leave. They would return Wednesday, when they had night practice and, more importantly, when games were half-price — meaning they had effectively turned $20 into $80.

“So now you’re operating at a way better ratio of money spent to tickets earned,” Zimmerman said, with a seriousness he might use to explain a defensive alignment against a corner kick.

They learned which games they could perfect through practice and “jackpot” — earn a massive number of tickets, which could be converted to prizes. They grew friendly with the staff, who would find more balls from the back to give them more throws in Two-Minute Drill. They would team up in Down the Clown. They could watch the first block fall in Tippin’ Bloks and know whether it was on a fast setting (walk away) or slow (go for the jackpot).

“I was unbelievable at this Flappy Bird game,” Zimmerman said. “It was paying out a thousand tickets a jackpot.”

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They would walk out every Wednesday with around 20,000 tickets. Zimmerman exchanged tickets for his Xbox and two PlayStation 4s, which he sold for more than $300 each after spending, he estimates, about $150 to earn them.

“Honestly, I think my back ended up getting pretty sore in Dallas,” Zimmerman said. “And I think I traced it back to so much playing Down the Clown.”

‘A guy the players looked to’

Zimmerman’s competitiveness and his leadership are connected. He learns how to best motivate each teammate, whether it’s through yelling or encouraging. He communicates constantly. Regardless of the talent or stature of his teammates, his aim remains the same. “If I really want the team to win, then I need to make everyone around me as good as they possibly can be,” Zimmerman said.

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His approach made him a natural in a showdown away from the pitch. The men’s national team had been negotiating with the USSF since its collective bargaining agreement expired in 2018, unable to forge a deal as the federation’s management turned over. As Zimmerman grew enmeshed into the national team, members of the previous leadership council had cycled off the squad.

“Walker just became a guy the players looked to and a guy who was willing to step up and play a leadership role both internally and externally,” said Mark Levinstein, head of the U.S. men’s national team players association. “He’s got great personal qualities. He’s honest and straightforward and thoughtful and empathetic. The biggest thing is to be able to see things from other peoples’ point of view. And they trust him as a result.”

Zimmerman spent hours on the phone with lawyers. When a decision needed to be made, he sent out messages on a WhatsApp chain, explaining offers and provisions to players stationed all around the world. Negotiations were a roller coaster — at times, Zimmerman said, he thought they would end without an agreement.

A breakthrough occurred as the women’s team’s CBA neared its expiration in 2021. The USSF faced a lawsuit from the women’s team alleging unequal treatment, for which the men’s team submitted an amicus brief supporting them. The teams began negotiating together on a deal that would ensure equal pay and benefits.

Both behind the scenes and in public, Zimmerman became the face of the men’s team efforts. When the sides signed the CBA at a ceremony at Audi Field, Zimmerman appeared on a stadium video board with a taped message.

“It’s achieved for the women’s team for the first time. It’s achieved for a federation for the first time,” Zimmerman said in an interview. “But that means there also has to be a men’s team that is willing to do something that’s different than what’s been done before. And I think that should definitely be applauded and not taken for granted.”

Under the new CBA, a child care provision has allowed Zimmerman’s wife, Sally, his college sweetheart, to travel to camps with Tucker. His brothers have seen videos of Tucker with a soccer ball at his feet or a golf club in his hand or tossing objects into a hat. He once built a relationship out of games with them, and now he’s doing it again.

Tucker will stay home for the World Cup, a difficult decision made to ensure Walker’s best performance. He mentioned England’s Harry Kane and Wales’s Gareth Bale as players he’s most eager to defend, to test himself against the best players in the world.

The tournament will provide Zimmerman with a new platform. It has been a busy year — becoming a father, playing an MLS season, globe-trotting to national team camps, negotiating the CBA, planning a charity event to provide healthy meals to those lacking access. Carter said he has seen his brother stressed for the first time, but it hasn’t changed him.

“I feel really confident and comfortable in who I am and who I want to be,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to have anything change just because of one World Cup. And I want to have people try and connect with me and feel like they can relate because they identify with certain things about me that they agree with. And whether that’s being super competitive or being a Christian or being a dad, whatever it is, I hope that they can find things that they relate with me or other teammates. And they’re finding ways that they can believe in this team.”