Robbie Rogers sits down across the table at Scala’s Bistro and apologizes for his scratchy voice. On top of all the talking he’s been doing to promote his new memoir, “Coming Out to Play,” his team, the LA Galaxy, had won the 2014 Major League Soccer championship in a 2-1 match with the NE Revolution a few days earlier and Rogers did a lot of shouting afterwards.
It was the second time the 27-year-old was part of a silver-cup-winning team, but a lot has changed between 2008 and now. For one thing, Rogers came out in 2013 and then signed with the Galaxy, making him first out player in U.S. pro soccer.
If he didn’t do much shouting in 2008 when the Columbus Crew won the Anschutz cup, it was because he was a different person then who felt he had little to celebrate.
“I remember thinking, why am I not thrilled?” he says. “I was like, this is all that I’m working for and I’m still not happy after this accomplishment. Like, what’s going to make me happy?”
In a way, Rogers knew the answer, but knowing wasn’t enough: He had to find the courage to be that answer, and the odds seemed stacked against him. One of five kids in a conservative, Roman Catholic family from Southern California, Rogers had been kicking soccer balls since he was a kid, and the sport became his life and obsession. From an early age, all he could see himself doing in life was to play pro soccer. He has played for Heerenveen in the Netherlands and for Leeds United and Stevenage in England, as well as four seasons with the Columbus Crew, and was a member of the US soccer team in the Beijing Olympics.
Throughout his adolescence and into his pro soccer career, Rogers was engaged in an epic struggle with his sexuality. Convinced that being out would end his career, he was terrified anyone would find out. He says in his book, co-written with Eric Marcus (“Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story”), that he believed his discipline as an athlete could be applied to creating a successful romantic relationship with a woman. He’d lost his virginity with a girl in high school and had hooked up with a few other women later on, in part because he was trying to be straight, but also to short-circuit any suspicions by his teammates that he might be gay.
His strong religious beliefs, his conservative family and soccer were “the perfect combo to keep me closeted until I was 25.”
“I didn’t grow up hating myself by accident,” he writes in his book. “You have to learn.”
Often alone between the ages of 19 to 25 whenever he wasn’t on the soccer field, he had a lot of time to ponder his unhappiness, eventually deciding “there was no way that I was created to be this depressed.”
Although he no longer calls himself a Catholic, Rogers is still spiritual. “I believe God has a purpose for me,” he says. “I was created this way and it was extremely difficult (struggling with his sexuality) but in the end, (his faith) helped me out of the closet.”
Rogers’ internal religious debate turned out to be the most formidable of his perceived barriers to being out. Every member of his family, and virtually every one of his friends in the soccer world, was quick to express support for him when he came out. And almost to a person, they wished they could have been there for him during his darkest days.
Rogers wasn’t prepared for that, but he was equally unprepared for being an instant role model to the LGBT community.
“It felt a little bit of a burden my first year playing,” he says. “But this past year, I found the balance. I enjoy helping people, going to events, talking with kids.”
After our interview and a stop at KGO radio to chat with Ronn Owens (who kidded him, maybe, that he’s probably a hot item as a newly single gay guy in West Hollywood), Rogers went to the Athenian School in Danville to talk to kids from both that school and San Ramon Valley High.
He was introduced by two students, one the co-captain of the men’s soccer club at Athenian, and the other co-chair of Interweave, the school’s gay-straight alliance.
Before reading the coming-out letter from his book (he admitted the letter’s title was “cheesy”: “The Letter of Life”), Rogers signed stock for Rakestraw Books, which helped arrange the event, and posed for photos with kids, teachers and parents.
Derek Liecty was one of the first people to greet Rogers when he entered the school gym. Dressed in a natty blue blazer, Liecty wasn’t there just because he’s a sports fan, although he did play pro soccer with the old Oakland Clippers and was an NCAA referee for many years. He was there as a representative of the Federation of Gay Games, hoping to enlist Rogers into becoming an ambassador for the organization. Things have changed a lot since Liecty played for the Clippers in the late ’60s.
On the other end of the age spectrum were Hunter Barr, 15, of Danville and Faven Brook, 16, of Oakland, co-chairs of Interweave.
Having someone like Rogers speak to the kids was important, Hunter said, because “it means a lot more when people share their stories and you know what they’ve had to go through.”
“It’s kind of my hope and my philosophy that you shouldn’t have to come out,” Faven added. “Like I don’t have to come out as straight, so why should someone else have to come out as gay? It makes me happy when people feel comfortable to be who they are.”
Rogers is clearly comfortable, if belatedly, with who he is, and he is charging forward in various aspects of his life and career. He is an executive producer of a sitcom in development for ABC called “Men in Shorts,” about an out pro soccer player somewhat but not exactly like himself.
On the personal side, he recently ended his 18-month relationship with TV show creator Greg Berlanti (“Arrow,” “The Flash”). That Perez Hilton broke the news doesn’t seem to bother Rogers all that much: He’s had to get used to being in the spotlight.
“You do think twice before you tweet something or post something,” he says. “I don’t want to be overly conservative, though. When there’s a break, you have to be extremely careful because there’s two people. I never expected my first relationship was going to be in the press. I’m sure there’s a point at which I don’t care. So far, I’ve lived a life where there’s not like any scandal.”
If it’s all a big learning experience for Rogers, it’s one he welcomes.
“Oh my gosh,” he says (“gosh” is about as close as he gets to using expletives). “Coming out is when your life begins and you can sit at the table with your family and not be horrified that something will come out that you don’t want to come out.
“Sometimes I get like mad that I didn’t get to experience stuff until I was 25,” he continues. “But then I thank God that I did it at 25 because I hear from guys who are 50, 60 years old who tell me that I really respect you but I don’t think I can ever come out.”
That was how Rogers was feeling when Columbus won the Anschutz cup only six years ago, but not his year.
“I couldn’t imagine winning this last weekend and still being closeted,” he says.
His family was on hand to see for the MLS title win, just as they had been in 2008, and they got to see a different side of their middle child.
“When I first saw my family (after the match), I just started crying. I’m not one that usually gets over-emotional, but I think my family was just happy to see that because they don’t see it a lot.
“In the locker room, I had to lay down on a training bed just to take it all in,” he says. This time, instead of going home by himself after the win, as he did in 2008, Rogers found himself partying with the rest of the team.
“I was dancing with all the wives and girlfriends and someone said, Are you sure you’re gay? And I was like, Yeah, that’s why I’m the only one dancing. It’s just me and the girls,” he laughs.
Rogers may sound a little scratchy at the moment, but he hasn’t lost his voice. You could say he’s just found it, and he’s only begun to use it.
This is an article
by David Wiegand who is a San Francisco Chronicle assistant
managing editor and the paper’s TV critic.
E-mail: dwiegand (at) sfchronicle.com