The Making And Unmaking Of Preston Zimmerman, American Soccer Player

A version of this story originally appeared in the fall 2012 edition of XI Quarterly.

In the late 1990s, you could find a guy named Ken out on a field somewhere in Washington State recording soccer matches. Maybe he was near Spokane, or maybe he was out west, past the Cascades, in a Seattle suburb. The kids would warm up, firing balls at the keeper and stretching, while he'd set up his tripod. He didn't say much to the other parents. He went about his business. When the game started, he'd tell his boy to "go get 'em." He'd clap and yell things like, "C'mon, Preston!" Then, when the kids cooled down after the match, he'd strike his equipment and put it in the trunk of his old Chrysler Cirrus. When his son was ready, they'd drive back to Pasco, Wash.

Sometimes he and his son drove four hours each way. Often, the boy would sleep and he'd just drive, or they'd sit silently and look out at the snowcapped Cascades or the parched landscape east of the mountains. When the Cirrus broke down, which happened not infrequently, Ken would roll his sleeves and spend an hour or so hunched over the open hood, cars whizzing by on the highway.

When they talked, the conversation tended to revolve around their plan, their private scheme: his son's roadmap to the top. The boy wanted to play soccer professionally, and they used Ken's videos to study the game, learning it together, father and son. At home, they'd review tape, identify weaknesses, figure out how to improve. Then, in the back yard, the boy would work with the ball and shot at the goal Ken had set up back there.

Most families in Pasco had parents who worked at the nuclear plant, came home and put steaks on the grill. In season, they hunted. On Saturday mornings, their kids played soccer, but just to pass the time. Nobody thought about playing professionally; some people didn't know professional soccer was even a thing. But nobody in that small community on the Columbia River had ever scored goals like Preston Zimmerman.

In movies, the star athletes have the most friends and get all the girls—as if there's a pure positive correlation between sporting and social success. That's not how it worked with Preston. By all accounts he was smart, articulate and funny. He just didn't have time to socialize. He was too focused, too driven. The other kids distrusted him. Parents saw Ken on the sidelines and whispered about unfair pressure at home. They didn't know the pressure came from Preston. He'd just enlisted his father for logistical support. His mom Pam worried that Preston sacrificed too much for the game. Like maybe that correlation between a sporting life and a social life was really negative: the more you put into one, the less you have left for the other. Preston put in a lot. He was a tremendous young player.

At 14, Preston made an Olympic Development Program roster, then he made a regional team, and then the call came. The United States Soccer Federation wanted him for a U-14 national team camp in Massachusetts.

Amid all the excitement, the Zimmermans forgot to make an appointment for Preston's physical until two days before he was supposed to report for national team duty, but they had a friend, a local cardiologist, who gave Preston the physical on short notice. In the physical, everything checked out except Preston's heart rate, which wouldn't drop below 145 beats per minute. For an athletic kid, his resting heart rate should have been around 53 BPM. The doctor suggested they come back the next day to see if he'd settle down.

When they returned, and Preston's heart still chugged along at nearly three times its expected rate, the doctor knew Preston had a problem. He believed that Preston's bad heart rhythm could be corrected if he could "reset" his heart. The doctor told Pam that if they could just stop the heart for a couple seconds and then get it to beat again, things would be normal. Just like resetting a glitched-out computer. This was terrifying news for a parent, but when you have kids, you have to be the brave one, even if you're crumbling inside. So Pam took Preston's hand and a deep breath and told him everything would be fine, all the while the medical team prepared, bringing in the different drugs for Preston's IV, and the defibrillator, should the drugs not work properly. Preston's heart stopped for what Pam remembers as 15 to 20 seconds. The line on the heart monitor went flat. When his heart started to beat again, the relief in the room was nearly palpable, but Preston's heart still had that bad rhythm.

The doctor said Preston needed to go to Spokane, a city with a top cardiology facility, and he needed to go now. They loaded him into an ambulance and set of down Highway 395 for the 150-mile drive northeast. In Spokane, the cardiologists scanned Preston's heart, listened to its beat, talked privately. A surgeon explained that the heart receives its signal to beat from a node on the heart itself. Most people have only one signal-sending node, but Preston had two, like a boat with an extra coxswain. The surgeon said he needed to find that rogue signal and stop it. If he didn't, the heart defect could cause Preston to suddenly die.

As Preston prepared for heart surgery, he felt certain he'd never play professionally. It didn't matter how good your plan is or how well you execute; there are some things a person just can't control. The surgery lasted seven hours, and it was a success. He made a full recovery, and the doctors gave him the OK to play again.

Preston, however, had missed that year's national team camp. He had to start the qualification process and get himself in front of the scouts all over again. Again, he fought his way up the tiered system, from local to state to regional team. Again, he played well. With his heart fixed, he was stronger now.

In February, he made a team that went to a tournament in Costa Rica, where he impressed. When he returned home, he received another phone call from the USSF. This time, the federation wanted him to move to Bradenton, Fla., and enroll in the U-17 residency program. When Pam came home from work that afternoon, there was her son, reddish blond hair, those puppy-dog eyes kids get when they have a stake in their parents' decision. She said yes, although she didn't think a 15-year-old should be a professional at anything but being a kid. But with Preston, maybe it was too late.

With the U-17s, Preston played in the prestigious Milk Cup in Northern Ireland. In 2005, he played alongside Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, and Neven Subotić in the U-17 world championship in Peru, scoring the winner in a group-stage match against North Korea. In 2007, he signed a three-year contract with Hamburg SV, the legendary German Bundesliga club. He moved to Germany when he was just 17.

The plan worked.


I first met Preston in July, on a bright, windy afternoon in Wiesbaden, Germany. I half expected to see the baby-faced boy with the ginger mop I'd seen in photos. Instead, I found a broad-shouldered 23-year-old, his face all angles under close-cropped hair. He's broken his nose four times and describes it as "L-shaped." When he speaks, he pronounces the letter "R" with the slightest hint of a "W" sound, but you wouldn't notice it unless you spent some time with him.

I wanted to know about his Hamburg days, about what it's like to be in a top youth academy as a young foreigner. Preston had invited his friend, Canadian international Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, who was sleeping on Preston's couch while he looked for a new club, to join us that afternoon. When Preston played for Hamburg, Beaulieu-Bourgault played for St. Pauli, the city's other big club. Preston thought his friend could help fill in the details.

As we ate doner kebabs on an outdoor patio and struggled to keep our drink cans from blowing off the table, Preston described how excited he was on signing day in Hamburg, when he shook the club president's hand, his parents and agent by his side. But when Preston told me he thought he'd make Hamburg's first team "right away," he and Beaulieu-Bourgault exchanged a knowing glance and a chuckle. He'd been so naïve.

He may have been one of the best players in his age group in the United States, but in Germany, it didn't matter. "Nobody gives a shit that you played for the national team or that you played in the [U-17] World Cup," he said. "You have to separate yourself somehow."

Of course, he meant separate himself in a positive sense, but without the language skills this wasn't easy; it was difficult to feel like he wasn't doing the opposite. The youth coaches would organize drills entirely in German and then step back and watch what happened. Preston would try to find a way to observe before taking part, standing on the sidelines until the coach called his name, but when his turn came to run through the drill, the coach would stop play and say, " Nein!" Preston knew he'd done something wrong, but what? They'd restart and he'd emulate his teammates, but the coaches screamed. Often, he'd figure out the drills just as the coach called time and explained a new one.

"You go and you train and you don't understand what's going on, and something happens, but you can't talk to anyone about it," he said. "Those are the things that really take a toll on your mind after a while."

The Making And Unmaking Of Preston Zimmerman, American Soccer Player

Preston found it "really hard to be confident." Part of the problem had to do with how the Germans approached the game, which at times seemed just as foreign as the language. He knew the Germans took soccer seriously, but he didn't expect the whole thing to be so joyless. Nobody laughed in training. Nobody smiled. The coaches seemed perpetually angry at him. The other players tried to exploit his every weakness, mental, technical, or physical. "If you don't stand up for yourself, they'll kill you all the time. You've got to get in a fight," he said and smiled wryly. "Then you'll be alright."

While Preston had expected a period of on-field adjustment, he hadn't prepared himself for the off-field loneliness. In Florida, he lived with his teammates. It was like having 20 brothers. There was always a PlayStation game to play or a prank to pull. In Hamburg, he was alone. On off days, when the German kids drove home to visit their parents, Preston went home to his apartment by himself. He had trouble relating to the German kids and his life turned into a kind of strange contradiction: He fought to get noticed on the field, and he struggled to fit in off of it. Meeting Beaulieu-Bourgault was a godsend. One afternoon, while scrimmaging against St. Pauli, Preston thought he recognized the Canadian midfielder from his days in Florida, when the Yanks frequently played their northern neighbors. After the game, he asked Beaulieu-Bourgault if he spoke English and when he said yes, Preston said: "Cool. Let's hang out."

With the help of his friend, Preston eventually settled and played well for Hamburg's youth teams and reserve team, scoring goals wherever he went. After signing a first-team contract, he was called into a national-team camp in Switzerland. He didn't make the 18-man game-day roster, but he did receive some encouraging words from then-coach Bob Bradley. Bradley told Preston he was doing well but needed first-team football if he was ever going to really make an impact with the national team. Preston went back to Hamburg and engineered just that.

In August 2008, he moved to Kapfenberger SV, in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he signed a two-year deal. The level of play in Austria's Bundesliga isn't what it is in Germany's, but this was first-team professional soccer. Preston played well. As a left midfielder, he scored three goals in 21 league games, including a winner over Austrian power Red Bull Salzburg.

After that first season, Kapfenberger SV wanted him to sign a five-year deal; Preston did not. He had ambitions, and with respect to the team, those ambitions didn't include spending his entire career in an Austrian town of just 22,000 people. The wrangling over his contract became a larger issue as the season began. According to Preston, it festered to such an extent that the coach—in a moment of rage—asked him to go home and not come back. Preston had been fired. The team, however, refused to release his player rights. An Austrian judge eventually presided over the matter, ruling for Preston. He never sued for backed wages, however. After 10 months in which he seemed to spend more time in court than on the pitch, he knew his reputation had taken a hit and wanted to put the matter behind him.

He moved to FSV Mainz, another German Bundesliga team, in 2010, where he signed with the reserve team. Mainz was one of the only teams in Europe willing to take a chance on him.

In 2011, Mainz allowed Preston to join Darmstadt SV, a nearby 3rd League team. It wasn't what he dreamt of as a boy, juggling a ball in his backyard, but Preston works hard to be at peace with it: "When I came here, I was 17. I thought I had it all mapped out. You've just got to go with the flow. Nothing ever works out like you planned it, but it all ends up OK. It's fine. It's good."


Today, Preston lives in a high-ceilinged one-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street near Wiesbaden's train station. His black Volkswagen Golf is parked out front. Wiesbaden is one of the few German cities to escape heavy bombing during World War II, and on off days Preston jogs among the neoclassical buildings and through the city's centuries-old parks.

His schedule—days of practice and games punctuated by days of freedom—gives Preston plenty of time to reflect. Whatever disappointment or dissatisfaction he feels is offset by the fact that he's lucky even to be here, playing soccer altogether. Whenever an on-field tragedy happens, like that which befell the Bolton Wanderers' Fabrice Muamba, Preston is reminded that he could have been the one collapsed on the field.

For the first time since moving to Germany, he feels at home. His German is fluent. He has a serious, German girlfriend and a group of close friends. When he played for Mainz, Preston met a businessman named Frank who became the young man's mentor. Frank gives Preston off-field advice, and although Preston is an important player for Darmstadt, Frank has urged him to prepare for life after the game. With added encouragement from Pam and Ken, Preston completed a bachelor's degree from the University of Phoenix in business and is now working on a master's. He gave up a full scholarship to Duke University in order to chase his dream, and when he moves on, whenever that may be, he doesn't want to find himself in a position of naïveté again. The kid who blocked everything out in a bid to make it to the top is now focused on taking it all in.

In other words, Preston has finally developed the self-awareness and social maturity Pam worried he'd sacrificed as a teen. Preston realizes it too and is now trying to pay it forward. He is given to tweeting things like, "As a soccer player the most important thing I can stress is that there's so much more to life than soccer, don't let it dominate your life," or, "I know many people who say soccer is life and think their accomplishments in the sport define them as people, it has nothing to do with it."

It's strange to hear someone claim happiness and then warn people not to follow his own life path. This is a guy who fought throughout his youth to ensure soccer dominated his life; he didn't just let it passively happen. He had a plan.

It's enough to make you wonder about his career motivation, and I asked him if he thought he's "made it" as a professional.

"No," he said, but rather than talk about playing in the Champions League or the World Cup, he said, "Making it is at least getting to the Second Bundesliga." Then he paused and considered his present situation. "Do I play in a professional league that's nationwide? Yeah. Do some games get shown on TV? Yeah. Does that count? I don't know."

He sometimes appeared frustrated with all this soccer talk, as though he couldn't quite understand what the big deal was, or why people cared so much about kicking a ball. A year earlier, he'd run his mouth about Klinsmann's selection policy on Twitter. Why had that become news? Why did people care so much about athletes? On one occasion we were eating ice cream from his favorite parlor and walking along the Rhine. The day was cloudless and hot, and I sensed some frustration from him at my line of questioning. I wondered if he enjoyed soccer. "Yeah," he said.

I told him there are many athletes out there who don't love their sport, like Andre Agassi, who confessed to hating tennis in his memoir, Open.

"Well, when you put it like that, it is a job," he said.

Do you have a favorite soccer team?

"No," he said, before admitting to preferring hockey.

Do you follow soccer at all?

He agonized over the question for a moment, looking out over the water. "If I stopped playing tomorrow, I wouldn't follow it."


The last time I saw Preston was on Aug. 29, 2012, when Darmstadt played their crosstown rivals, Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden was at home. The BRITA-Arena, a 13,500-seat stadium just across the road from Wiesbaden's U.S. military base, looked about three-quarters full.

Preston started as a left-sided midfielder, but he frequently drifted toward the center, often high up the field. It wasn't hard to see the traits that got scouts excited about him as a kid. He's fearless, good in the air, strong on the ball. He showed leadership, too, often yelling back to the Darmstadt left back, Michael Stegmayer, who sometimes drifted out of position. In the middle of the first half, Darmstadt went in front when Benjamin Gorka, a long-haired, 6-foot-5 center back, headed in a corner. Late in the second half, two Wiesbaden players stripped Stegmayer as he dawdled with the ball near midfield. His error led to the tying goal.

After the game, it began to rain. I caught up with Preston and asked him what he thought of the game. He talked in platitudes about how 1-1 was a just score, given that his team played away from home and that the game was a derby.

We chatted for a moment before I told him I didn't have any more questions. "Anything else you'd like to add?" I asked. He looked at me for a second, smiled, then laughed. "Not really," he said, giggling. I half expected him to say, "Why would I?" but he just took a deep breath and shook his head. "I'm tired, man."


Postscript

Preston finished the 2013 season as top scorer for Darmstadt, with seven goals. Nevertheless, the team was relegated after failing to win its final game (it tied 1-1 with Stuttgarter Kickers). However, in a stroke of luck for Darmstadt, Kickers Offenbach—another team from the Frankfurt metro area—lost its license to play in the 3rd League due to ongoing financial issues. Offenbach was relegated in Darmstadt's stead.

With another chance at the 3rd League, Darmstadt tried to re-sign Preston, whose contract had expired. Preston refused. They offered to double his wages (he had another, similar offer from FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt), but he'd had enough.

Today, Preston has an MBA. He works in the marketing and communications department of a Mainz-based multinational glass company and plays semi-pro soccer for a local club in Germany's fifth division. The fifth division is a regional league, which suits Preston fine: not as much travel. The extra money is nice too. He's more at peace with the game now that his livelihood no longer depends on his performances. A club manager doesn't control his life anymore, revoking time off after a bad game. Nobody tells him what to eat. Supporters don't accost him in the street anymore, telling him he should have scored on Sunday. He doesn't get emails from fans telling him he played like shit.

The game no longer rules his life.

In retrospect, earning his degree was a major turning point: "I started thinking about what else I could do. I'm not just confined to playing soccer.

"I feel like people only ever saw me or defined me as a soccer player. They didn't think I could do other things, and that's very frustrating. I wanted to be seen as a multidimensional person."

He looks back at his experience in Austria as both a low point and a high point. The low point was him crying in a courtroom, wondering if his career was ruined. But then there's this: "When I was a kid, I dreamt of scoring a goal in a professional first league in Europe."

The goal against Red Bull Salzburg, in particular, "was a really special moment for me. After that, I didn't really ever get the same fulfillment."


Brian Blickenstaff lives in Heidelberg, Germany. He tweets at @BKBlick.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby. Photo by Tom Sekula Jr.