Walker Zimmerman pens a letter to his younger self ahead of the World Cup: “There’s absolutely nothing like playing for your country. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Dear, four-year-old Walker,
Put down the SEGA controller for a minute and head outside.
I know you hear Dad calling you and your brothers from the side of the house.
“Carter! Dawson!! Walkerrrrrrr!!!!”
Don’t pretend like you don’t hear him, dude. Sonic & Tails can wait, I promise.
“You guys!!!! Hello? For real … come here. I have an idea.”
Just hit pause and head out to the yard, trust me.
Once you do, you’ll realize Dad’s idea is a super simple one. You might not think much of it now, but over the next 25 years of your life, I can promise you’re going to appreciate it more and more.
“O.K., so the new basketball court is almost all ready, guys! Now what I want you to do is … let’s all put our handprints over here in the corner. Like right into the pavement.”
At first, you’ll think he’s kidding around. He won’t be.
“Then, as time passes, we’ll be able to look back and see how much your hands have grown. We can see … how things change.”
You won’t really get it. Not fully. You’ll basically just nod your head, follow what your older brothers do, and laugh your butt off about how squishy the blacktop feels between your fingers.
But dad will have chosen the perfect word right there.
So much is going to change for you going forward, Walker. Starting pretty much right now.
Up to this point, it’s mostly been lots of running around in the living room for you, lots of video games with your brothers. But with this hoops court on the side of the family’s new house in Lawrenceville, Georgia, you guys are going to take your competitiveness to a whole new level. It’ll be like your very own little arena. And not just for basketball, either. One day it’ll be four square out there, or Wiffle ball, and the next morning it’ll be soccer. Some days you’ll spend all afternoon playing H-O-R-S-E for five hours straight. No breaks. Gatorade bottles propped up in the grass.
Before you know it, you’ll be eight and almost (almost!) able to hold your own on the court with Carter and Dawson every now and again. You’ll do this thing where you think up a code word — Kobe! Mountain Dew!! FUN DIP!!!! — then try to make it so that every time you yell that word, it’s a swish. You’ll all constantly be recreating the best shots from the previous night’s SportsCenter. You will dream of someday making it onto that show’s Top 10.
And you won’t just be joking around. You’ll actually believe that you will make that happen someday. Like that it’s only just a matter of time.
You’ll still be little, Walker. But you’ll already be dreaming big.
That’s going to serve you very well as you get older — better than you could ever possibly imagine. And just in case you have any doubts … buckle up, kid.
One morning, right around the start of eighth grade, you’re going to walk out to that basketball court in the yard with a lot on your mind.
The first thing you’ll do is glance down at those handprints. Yours will look unbelievably tiny. At that point, only Dad’s prints will be bigger than your hands. And just barely.
You’ll be at a crossroads — your first big decision in life. And, of course, it’ll be about sports.
Thanks to your brothers, and the maniacs you guys become when playing against each other in the yard, any time you went and competed against other kids your age, you flat out dominated. Your brothers basically made you into a ringer on any athletic field. (The Pink Panthers, your U6 team, will go undefeated. You’ll average like six or seven goals a game.) All three of you are going to develop this unique type of confidence. Basically the sense that when the pressure is on, and a big play is needed … you’re going to do something special. You guys will even come up with a name for it: “The clutch gene.”
All you’ll ever want to do as a kid is play sports. And you’ll love them all equally. By eighth grade, though, you’ll need to make some choices. When a handful of Select Soccer coaches start calling up Mom and talking about how you could have a real future in the game, there will be this one quote in particular that you won’t be able to get out of your head: “Walker is an incredible athlete … who also plays soccer. We want him to be an incredible soccer player, who is also an athlete.”
So yeah, look, man … let me be real with you. Your fastball was never going to get up into the 90s. Your jump shot isn’t elite. You’re not making the NBA. When you walk out into the side yard in eighth grade unsure of where to focus your energy going forward, do this: Spend some time kicking the soccer ball against that big piece of plywood you and the guys attached to the side of the house, and just … think about how fun it would be to play soccer for a living.
Before you know it, you’ll have made one of the smartest choices of your entire life.
From there, things will move fast. You’ll make it into the Olympic Development Program and be playing on the U14 national team. You’ll hold your own in those settings. Your confidence will skyrocket.
At one point, there’ll be this presentation during camp where they show a PowerPoint at the front of the room that scrolls through photos of the professional players who came out of the ODP — Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff, guys like that.
I’m going to be up there on that screen someday.
That’s all you’ll be thinking. And you’ll believe it, too. But just when things are starting to look like they’re falling into place, your first taste of adversity is going to enter the picture.
You’re going to go from running circles around your opponents on the pitch, to….
Barely being able to walk.
That’s what it’s going to be. And it’ll hit you out of nowhere. Between eighth and ninth grade you’re going to end up growing six inches. You’ll go from five feet eight to six feet three in less than a year. Sounds cool, right? I mean, out on the basketball court, your hands will be way bigger than Dad’s handprints at that point. Awesome!
That’s growing too fast. It’s going to wreak havoc on your body.
Your back will be in near-constant pain. Your heels will be even worse. It will get so bad that you’ll feel like they’re not going to be able to support the weight of your body anymore. You’ll be in tears after games sometimes because it hurts so bad — arm around Mom’s shoulders so she can help you get back to the car.
On the pitch, everything that requires movement is going to feel totally awkward. You’ll have to learn to play with a completely different body. Whereas in the past everything you did was smooth and fluid, all of a sudden you’ll look like a person playing with someone else’s legs out there. What used to be beautiful is going to be, well … not pretty.
And, just like that, your star is going to start to dim — at least in the eyes of the people selecting national teams. You’ll fade into the background a little bit. You’ll stop getting those calls. It’s going to eat at you.
Here’s the thing, though: Use all that as motivation. Use people doubting you as inspiration to get better. And just know that this period of physical pain and awkwardness … it won’t last forever. When it’s all said and done, it’s actually going to turn out for the best.
You weren’t going anywhere as a skinny five-foot-eight player. But a bigger, stronger version of that? With those same skills? That speed? Now we’re talking.
It’ll just take some time, is all. To grow into your body. To make things feel normal again. But when they do….
The new you will be rounding into shape just in time to get back into the national team at U18. And there’s going to be no looking back from there. You’ll notice almost immediately that not only can you hang with those kids, but that you’re one of the best players out there. You’ll be named captain in short order.
Training back home at the local YMCA — riding the stationary bike and swimming, alongside all the retired folks from your town — you’ll be thinking bigger than ever. It’ll be like: You know what, I don’t want to just be on the U18 national team, I want to make the full national team!
But then, as soon as you say that to yourself, something will immediately push you further. Like, it won’t be enough. Less than two seconds later it will be….
No. No! I want to be CAPTAIN of the national team one day.
Dream big, dude. Dream big.
When the time comes for college, lots of people will think you’re crazy for choosing Furman.
Smallish school. No huge name. Not a big-money powerhouse.
“Weird,” they’ll say. “What’s he doing? I don’t get it.”
Here’s a piece of advice: Ignore those people.
Going to Furman is going to be another one of the smartest choices you’ll ever make. The soccer will be awesome. You’ll love your classes, meet lifelong friends, and play a massive amount of intramural sports with your buddies in the residence hall. (Shout out to Geer 100!) But the main reason why it will be an all-time-great choice has nothing to do with that stuff. It’s bigger than all those things combined.
Furman is where you’ll meet the love of your life.
No Furman, no Sally Tucker. It’s as simple as that, Walker.
So we’re talking about destiny here, man. Destiny.
The first time you see Sally will be during freshman orientation. She’ll walk right by your table at the dining hall, and it’ll be like a scene from a movie.
The only problem: You’re not the main character in the movie. You’re the goofy sidekick. The soccer guy with the silly headband and the corny jokes.
But then a month or so later, you’ll ask a classmate from Econ about Sally, and that guy will turn out to be close friends with her. He’ll take you over to her dorm room to say hi, and she will be G Chatting with her ex-boyfriend back home when you guys show up. As soon as you walk in … she’s going to shut her laptop.
The rest is history.
Sally will be there with you every step of the way from then on out. She’ll be your best friend. Your support system. She’ll see the good — college All-America honors, a Generation Adidas deal, the MLS SuperDraft, signing your first professional contract at the age of 19. But she’s also going to see you struggle, Walker.
She’ll see the injuries begin to bog you down as you get your professional career underway in Dallas — sports hernias, leg injuries, you name it. (You’re going to be away from the pitch so much that first year, you’ll actually call up the local PetSmart to see if you can come in and help with training some dogs.)
Sally will hear all about the new coach in Dallas, who at the start of your second season will call you into his office and read off the number of games and practices that you’d missed because of injury during your rookie year.
There won’t be all that much you can say when that happens. He won’t be wrong. I mean, you’ll be sitting in there, injured … during the meeting where he’s talking about how you’re always injured.
At one point he’ll be like, “I need a center back who’s reliable, dependable. That’s not you. I’m ready to turn the page.”
You’ll not really know how to respond. You’ll understand where he’s coming from. But you’ll tell him, “I’m here to show you that I can stay healthy.”
“I’m ready to go out and prove you wrong!”
Then, right on cue….
The injuries are going to continue. You’ll barely see the field. Again.
You’ll feel lost, adrift, and not really know what to do about it. You’ll lean on Sally, and she’ll be a constant source of support, but during the toughest times it will feel like it might be the beginning of the end for your soccer career. Nothing will seem to be going in the right direction. At one point, after the following season, you’ll be in search of a reboot. You’ll fly over to Sweden to sign a contract to play overseas, even though it would mean living far away from Sally while she finishes up her graduate degree.
You’ll come down to the lobby of your hotel early in the morning to catch a ride to the airport with one of your new teammates for preseason in Abu Dhabi. Your bags will be all packed. But he’s not going to show up.
You’ll text: “hey, what’s up? where are you?”
“Coach said you aren’t signing with us anymore. It fell through.”
When you call your agent, you’ll find out that everything cratered in the middle of the night. You’ll shake your head slowly from side to side, and then board a plane heading from Sweden back to Dallas.
It’ll feel terrible at the time — like another in a long line of bad breaks. But look, man … it wasn’t meant to be. Point blank. You weren’t meant to be so far away from Sally. And that fact is going to become crystal clear, especially after a few more years pass.
She’ll help you adjust to coming back into the fold in Dallas, and just pretty much continue to be everything you need. Then….
Sally is going to take your hand in marriage. She’ll become your wife. New Year’s Eve 2016. What a magical night.
After the two of you tie the knot, it’s going to be like everything in your life begins falling into place.
You’ll be starting for Dallas by that point, playing the best soccer of your life. You’ll help the team secure the best regular season record in MLS that 2016 season and play a critical role in Dallas’ U.S. Open Cup victory. You’ll show that the injuries are a thing of the past and zoom up the league’s 24 Under 24 list. Before long, you’re going to get the call up to play for USMNT.
That will be like a dream come true. Immediately you’ll want to experience that adrenaline rush, that level of competition, as much as humanly possible. So you’ll work even harder at your craft from that point on. And even in those moments when you don’t get the call, and aren’t getting rostered, you’ll always keep grinding so that when you do … you’ll be ready.
You’ll fully realize what people had been telling you for years: There’s absolutely nothing like playing for your country.
It’s the best feeling in the world.
The stakes are higher. The level of competition is better. The build-up of pride and emotion? It’s off the charts. You’ll be hooked. On the pitch, you’ll continue to improve and even earn the opportunity to wear the captain’s armband a few times. You’re going to go from someone who wasn’t certain to be called up … to a consistent and invaluable starting player. And you’ll help the team win a Gold Cup in 2021. It’s all going to feel so good.
And it’s just going to keep getting better for you, Walker. More special. Like … way more special.
I don’t even really know how to tell you this, but let me give it a shot.
You know that competitive drive you feel right now to beat your brothers on the Genesis? How it’s the coolest feeling in the world when it happens? You know the excitement and anticipation you get right before one of them hands over the controller and actually gives you a shot to show what you can do against the big boys?
Well, imagine that times about a million. Because as I’m sitting here writing you this letter, it’s one of the last things I will do before I pack my bags for Qatar.
For the 2022 World Cup!
And buddy … you already know the plan.
We’re not happy just to be on the plane. We’re not looking to have a good time. We’re looking to win the whole thing.
Block out anyone who laughs or tries to tell you otherwise.
Just like when your middle school teachers and college professors lectured you about the odds of becoming a professional athlete, or when people called you crazy for committing to Furman … you’ll be tuning out the nay-sayers. You’ll know your team can do big things in Qatar. You’ll believe.
So when you close your eyes and think about the tournament, what you’re going to see is….
You and your teammates, your brothers, gathered closely together, jumping up and down while holding up that shiny gold trophy — against all the odds.
Dream big, right?
The World Cup is going to be amazing. No question. The time of your life.
I can’t wait for you to experience everything about it.
But I actually want to end this letter with something that has nothing to do with Qatar. It’s not even mainly about soccer.
Walker, I want you to understand that life is about so much more than soccer. It’s important to remember that what really counts is what you have when soccer falls away. It’s all about family, and good friends, and bringing joy to people, and being truly appreciative for all that you have in this life.
So do me a favor, kid.
Twenty-five years from now, when you return from Qatar, promise me this. When you get home — win or lose, hero or goat — take a moment to reflect. Walk through the front door, pause for a few seconds, and consider how fortunate you are. How good you have it.
Most importantly … you’re married to the love of your life. Your soulmate. Your best friend. And you guys have landed right where you were meant to be.
After moving on from Dallas, and two blissful years in Santa Monica while you played for LAFC, you and Sally have set down roots in Nashville. And you two absolutely love it there.
It feels like it was meant to be. Like Destiny all over again.
You’ve helped build a franchise from the ground up in that city, and playing for the Nashville SC fans is absolutely electric. You scored the first goal in team history! Unreal. A moment you’ll never forget!
And it has somehow actually gotten even better from there. Everything you ever will have wanted — both in terms of your career, and in life generally — seems to have happened once you arrived in town. On the pitch, awards and accolades started to roll in. (Get this: You actually scored a goal that had you at No. 1 on the SportsCenter Top 10 that night! So you’ll cross that lifelong goal off your list.) And you feel like a real part of the community. There’s a true connection. You take pride in doing all you can to help make Nashville as great as possible. You’ve bought a house, gotten a dog, done all the things that grown-ups with families tend to do.
But even better than all of that, you and Sally … you’ll be blessed with a beautiful baby boy.
You’ll name him Tucker, to honor your wife’s family name.
Tucker is one now, and as I sit here finishing up this letter, Sally is over in the living room reading him a story. It’s all like a dream come true, like something out of a fairy tale.
I can’t wait to teach him about his grandparents, and his crazy-competitive uncles, and the unbeatable U6 Pink Panthers, and … how to play Mario Golf on the Nintendo. (Believe it or not, I still have the exact same N64 that — spoiler alert! — you’re going to get as a birthday gift two years from now, when you turn six. It still works! Just fired it up last night for some Super Smash Bros.) And, of course, Tucker’s already kicking the soccer ball around.
There’s really only one thing missing, as far as I can tell. But we can fix that pretty quick. When you get home from the Middle East, after taking a few moments to appreciate everything in your life, head straight outside and … take a look at that driveway of yours.
It’s getting about time to replace the surface, wouldn’t you say? You know what to do, right?
Make a few calls and get some fresh pavement poured out there. Take Tucker out to the side of the house, and sink your hands into the blacktop. One big. One small. (For now.)
Then, just sit back and watch how things change over the years.
I guarantee you’ll have a big smile on your face.
This article was originally published on theplayertribune as Letter to My Younger Self.