The road to Brek Shea’s house snakes through the jungle-like forest. Under a thick canopy, treacherous turns coil around low-slung homes, eventually leading to the end of a narrow street. There, our story’s Colonel Kurtz pops out of his two-car garage barefoot. He’s wearing camouflage shorts and a tank top that reads “IF….” His unmistakable white-blond locks further elongate his 6-foot-3 frame.
His house resembles an oversized, suburban cabana, except with a big, granite-countertop kitchen and cathedral ceilings. Brek and his long-time girlfriend, Carling – named, like all women in her family, for her ancestors, who started the famous Canadian beer company – only moved in a few weeks ago after bouncing between hotels for six months. Eric Avila, Shea’s Orlando City Soccer Club teammate and close friend, moved in soon after. Only the TV room is set up, with white couches and a pool table-sized flat-screen. Every other room is strewn with bags, boxes, suitcases and unplugged televisions. There is no furniture. Nothing adorns the walls but a Texan flag.
This battlefield of unarranged possessions – boxing gloves; colorful fedoras and bowler hats; a wine cooler with a soccer ball painted on it; the pink sneakers Shea designed himself – is the upshot of the nomadic existence of a professional athlete; especially that of an American soccer player good enough to go to Europe at a young age, only to get caught up in a maelstrom of short-term loans. In a few weeks, one of his brothers will drive a U-Haul from Texas with his many artworks and painting supplies, as well as a gun collection of mysterious quantity – “More than I’d want to admit; more than my mom would want to know that I have,” Shea says with a smile. Oh, and his brother will bring some furniture as well.
Out back, there’s a pool and a large patio, both covered by an enormous net meant to keep out steroidal bugs. Push through the pine trees outside the cage, over the crunchy floor of dead needles, and you get to the water – one of the countless lakes that puncture the sodden land.
When he and Carling looked for a new home, all he wanted was a pool to swim in, a lake to fish in, and a yard secluded enough to pee in without anybody noticing. He didn’t much care what the house itself looked like, so Carling picked it out. He just wanted to have a base.
On one of their first days there, Avila spotted a long, black snake in the yard, to Shea’s delight. He caught it – “Just picked it up and grabbed it by its head, so it wouldn’t bite me” – and set it loose in the vacant lot across the street. Avila, a city guy from San Diego who’s more at home people-watching in coffee shops, hasn’t trusted Florida’s outdoors since.
Not Shea. There’s bass in the lake; ducks on his little beach; woodpeckers in his trees; fishing rods and a kayak at the ready; bears roaming the street for trash at night; and an occasional snake to catch. He hasn’t seen an alligator yet, but he’s hopeful. He’s happy here, the country boy returned to something vaguely resembling the countryside – while Avila stays inside the cage, where he’s safe from nature.
“The house is just … Brek,” Avila explains – sort of. Speak to the people who know him well, and “Brek” becomes an adjective as much as a name. “He’s just so … Brek,” they’ll say when you ask what he’s like. He’s hard to capture in words.
* * * * *
I had come to Orlando – well, the suburban sprawl north of Orlando, the sort of place where the Targets become Super Targets and the McMansion developments have elaborate fences to protect them from the other McMansion developments – because I’d been told that I was all wrong about Brek Shea.
After occasionally covering him for a few years, I knew two things about him. That he was a soccer player of great promise, and that he was a gifted painter, one who made pleasingly colorful abstract art. A third thing I thought I knew was that Shea was something of an idiot-savant – very good at two things and strictly nothing else.
I’m fairly certain I wasn’t the only one to hold this opinion. Aside from the soccer, the art, the seemingly random tattoos and the outrageous hairdos, there seemed to be nothing to him. He was either an artist trapped in a soccer player’s body, or it was the other way around, but neither made the things he said any more interesting.
Speaking to the media after Major League Soccer or U.S. men’s national team games, he came across as vacuous. He wouldn’t make eye contact and mumbled only the blandest of inanities. Even graded on the professional athlete-curve, he was a desperately poor quote.
I sat down with him once. I tried to get more out of him. But for every single second that we spoke – for a total of just 15 minutes or so – it was obvious that he’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. I wrote my story and gave up on trying to talk to him.
But then somebody very close to Shea told me that I was way off about him. That he was exceedingly bright. That he was good at math. That he had near-perfect recall of conversations that happened months ago. That he actually had an outsized personality. That I’d been played. That, whether consciously or not, Shea more or less pretended to be boring so the press would leave him alone. Because he had no use for the press.
“If I’m not doing soccer, I don’t want to talk about it. Or do it. I enjoy playing it. But I also enjoy it because I’m not doing it all the time.”
I’d come to see what the deal is with one of the most gifted soccer players this country has ever brought forth. That singular prospect who combined those bedrock American traits of size, speed and brawn with the skill, whimsy and vision our aspirational soccer scene yearns for. He’d probably been as fine an American candidate to become a true international soccer star as any. Yet he was one who had come apart in Europe and was now, at 25, rebuilding his image and career stateside with an expansion team, finally earning his way back onto the national team after falling off the map.
Growing up in Bryan, Texas, out in the country, he’d been a good high school football player. He was a kicker, a receiver and a safety. He could have played football. He picked soccer instead – catering to that cliché positing that America’s superior athletes need to pick soccer over other sports in order to win the World Cup – and joined the under-17 national team academy in Bradenton, Fla.
FC Dallas drafted him second overall in 2008 as a 17-year-old. By the time he was 21, he was a runner-up for the 2011 MLS MVP award. He scored 11 goals that season – five of which were game-winners, tied for most in the league – while playing in six different positions, including every spot in defense. He scored some amazing goals.
Most of all, I’d come to Orlando to follow up on a theory I’d developed. Namely, that those outside of pro sports don’t really know who professional athletes are at all – even those of us, and maybe especially those of us, who are paid to know them. We see them in their place of work, when they’re under stress, but also conscious of the image they broadcast. Everything is intentional there. They say a few things they’re comfortable saying, and we, the media, use it do our work. Both parties are cautious not to offend, to maintain a civility. Then, for the most part, we go our separate ways.
* * * * *
It was agreed ahead of time that we’d go fishing. The only time I’d ever fished before was when I was about 10, two decades ago. A friend’s family invited me along. On my first effort to cast my line, it got tangled with somebody else’s. That’s when I noticed that there was a game of pickup soccer going on behind us. And thus ended my first and only other foray into fishing.
When I sheepishly tell Shea about all this, his answer is disarming. “It’s easy,” he says. “Don’t worry, we planted some fish for you. They’re already hooked to the poles.” He tells me he’s affixed my rubber worm with something called a “Texas rig” and patiently shows me how to cast. Growing up, he used to hook himself in the calf all the time. My own attempts are hopeless, but then I hadn’t come to actually catch a fish. I’d come to study Shea in his natural habitat, to get him as far away from a formal interview setting as possible. To talk where he was comfortable talking.
Standing on his little beach, with his colorful fishing hat on – emblazoned with his Left Foot Studio logo, under the auspices of which he sells his art – he explains his love for fishing, which is best done in the mornings, he says, not now, in the early afternoon. Soccer isn’t his entire life. He isn’t an obsessive. “Some people, they have to have that,” he says. “But for me, if I’m not doing soccer, I don’t want to talk about it. Or do it. I enjoy playing it. But I also enjoy it because I’m not doing it all the time.”
“I haven’t really been with a coach that I’ve actually enjoyed … [Orlando] is new for me, and it helps me a lot to be myself.”
So he comes out here, sometimes with a beer. He fishes from the shore, wading in to his knees, or he fishes from his kayak. He fishes for bass, mostly, throwing back all but the very biggest catches. When he gets a huge one, he’ll fillet it and cook it on the grill.
But all this isn’t why he chose to sign with Orlando City, when he had options. He’d practiced here last summer, during the offseason of his English Premier League club, Stoke City, to stay fit. He was only going to stay a few days but ended up hanging around for several weeks. “I was a fan of the coach here,” Shea says of Adrian Heath. “I was really happy with how he ran the team, how he did training. With how he expected a lot from his players, but at the same time was an approachable person and wanted to make everyone better. In any job having the right boss helps.”
“I haven’t really been with a coach that I’ve actually enjoyed – give or take, here and there,” he continues. “This is new for me, and it helps me a lot to be myself. Because I can be myself.”
Brek being Brek is to say that he’s different. He’s a free spirit in a job that prizes discipline; an eccentric in an industry that prefers its employees square. When he left Dallas for the Premier League in January 2013, he landed in a world that has little patience for oddballs. But when Shea doesn’t get to be himself, he withers. He never got his English career off the ground with Stoke and didn’t fare any better on loans to Barnsley and Birmingham City. Last December, he finally came home, returning to Major League Soccer with Orlando.
“I’m probably not the most normal soccer player there is,” says Shea. “One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy England so much is that it’s so small and soccer is the biggest thing there. So everything you do is magnified times a thousand. So me posting a picture doing something like this [fishing] in England, everyone would be like, ‘He’s not concentrating on soccer. What’s he doing? He’s not focused.’ Here, I can do this, because I can be me. It helps me, in the end, play the way I know how to play.”
One of his many tattoos, across the inside of his left forearm, is in Sanskrit. Translated, it says “Free bird,” for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song about a man as a free as a bird, who can’t change.
Shea’s teammates regularly come over to fish, to hang out. That’s what soccer players do in America. They have barbeques; they go places together. That’s what he was used to. He needs people around to feel comfortable. He needs to feel comfortable and loved and understood to perform. “England, for the majority, you go to work and then you go home,” he says. There was little collegiality. And he was a foreigner. An American. A threat, maybe. Nobody had any time for him. There was hardly anyone to hang out with. He was always flying friends over from the United States or going to the movies. “It was a … fight.”
* * * * *
It’s fairly obvious now that Shea made the wrong choice in joining Stoke. But then the free bird had been caged for too long, fluttering away as soon as the door opened. As early as his second year with Dallas, Shea drew serious interest from Europe. Benfica and Rosenborg wanted him in 2009, he says. But for years, every offer was turned down, either by his manager, Schellas Hyndman, or MLS.
“Whether it was Schellas or the league, I wasn’t allowed to go,” says Shea. “That added to a lot of my frustration.” He and Hyndman were as different as people can be. Hyndman was a veteran college coach. A martial arts master of some kind, capable of taking a kick to the groin without flinching. A hardass. “People would get injured and he wouldn’t understand because he knew pain management,” Shea says. “We were all soft.”
Hyndman was tough and uncompromising. And Brek was, well, Brek. “It was very difficult for [Hyndman] and Brek to get along,” recalls Avila, who was a teammate in Dallas as well, after the two were drafted together. “Brek is very free in things and Schellas is very strict – it has to be this way; you have to do it that way.”
Shea grated under Hyndman and grew increasingly frustrated as one opportunity to go to Europe after another was spurned, leading to a number of private and public blow-ups. His 2012 season was a disappointment. Then, in January 2013, a $4 million offer from Stoke was accepted. “Because I was so fed up, the first time I was able to go, I just went,” Shea remembers. He had little regard for how he would fit into his new team and signed for four-and-a-half years.
“… it’s so small and soccer is the biggest thing there. So everything you do is magnified times a thousand … ‘He’s not concentrating on soccer. What’s he doing? He’s not focused.’”
Stoke played very defensive soccer under Tony Pulis, making the signing of an adventurous winger rather curious. After recovering from a foot surgery, Shea played just once, as a substitute, before Pulis left in May. He scored the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup-winning goal that summer but got injured again in the first preseason under new Stoke manager Mark Hughes. After recovering, Shea didn’t figure in the first team. Short-term loans down to the Championship, to Barnsley in January of the next year and Birmingham City the following September, yielded playing time but little else.
Shea had other issues. Trouble kept on finding him. He posted a picture of himself on Instagram holding a pair of shotguns. That didn’t go over well. “That’s just not how they are in England,” he says. “They’re just so straight-laced in a lot of ways. I was raised in a completely different area. In England, it was the biggest deal in the world. Where I’m from, you’re allowed to carry a gun into the store. You can go into a gas station and buy a gun almost. In England, not even the cops have guns. I did that in my offseason, in my own home, in Dallas. I got into a lot of trouble for that.” Two days earlier, he’d posted a picture of himself hunting, shooting a gun. Nobody said anything about that one.
At Barnsley, meanwhile, he flipped a fan the bird, whereupon the club terminated his loan.
And back at Stoke, he was blamed when someone else’s prank went awry. Glenn Whelan, supposedly, had placed a pig’s head in Kenwyne Jones’s clothes in the locker room. Jones, a practicing Rastafarian who doesn’t eat pork, took offense and “smashed up” Whelan’s car, according to the Guardian. Shea, who walked in after all this had gone down, and who was unaware of the tension it had caused, picked up the pig’s head and held it in front of his face for a picture, which he again posted to Instagram. He was blamed for the whole thing. Suddenly, according to the sort of fevered public outcry the English specialize in, he hated Muslims and blacks. “I had nothing to do with it,” Shea says. “I just posted the picture. And then everyone put me as the front person and being against his religion.” He and Jones actually got along very well.
Life in Stoke-on-Trent was starting to wear him down. “I just don’t think I was in the right situation,” Shea says. “The lifestyle outside of the game is hard. Your friends aren’t there, your family’s not there. There’s not much to do. It’s always cold. It’s always dark. It’s always raining. Coming from an environment like this [Texas or Florida] to an environment like that can take a toll. The six-month winter…”
By December, he was ready to give up on his Premier League aspirations. Orlando City, where he’d left a good impression, offered a contract. “Having spoken to the people at Stoke, I know he was training hard and everybody there just thought he needed a change,” Heath says. “And we were delighted to give him that change. I honestly think the best years are ahead of Brek Shea. It seems as though he’s in a good place with himself, he seems really happy. And I think that’s an important part when you’ve had a couple of years maybe not go as well as you’d like.”
* * * * *
“I got to have times where I can say what I want, do what I want, eat what I want, drink what I want, go where I want and switch off …”
Shea’s kitchen has purple OCSC magnets all over it. In that sense, the club is sort of perfect for him. Many of his paintings feature purple hues.
While Brek digs around, through the boxes and bags and drawers, looking for various things to fix a rod with – “Babe, where’s my knife at?” – Carling stands over the kitchen island and tries to define him for me. Because if Brek can’t be sufficiently bothered to correct the record, those around him will try to in his stead.
“His friends and family, he’s hyper and different with,” Carling explains. “But if he doesn’t know people, at first he comes off as this really quiet, shy kid. In interviews, he’s just in his own world. It’s funny because Brek actually is really goofy. He’s very simple, very easy-going, humble. I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. Like, never.”
They’ve been together since they were 14, save for a period when she was off playing tennis at UCLA. “Everyone knows Brek will do anything,” she says. In school, he was the kid who would wrap a towel around his head and take hairspray and a lighter to a beehive while everyone else stood well back. In study hall, he’d see if he could pull his fingers out of a mouse trap quick enough not to get caught. He couldn’t. “That hurt,” Shea recalls as he walks by.
During class, he’d mostly sit in the back with his hood over his head, which he’d bury in his arms. His parents are both professors at Texas A&M and Dane Brekken – but it was always just Brek – had been surrounded by academia all his life. But school bored him. Still, he graduated in the top-10 of his class. Shea plays coy when I ask about that and says his class only had 12 graduates. As often during our day together, I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic.
Several people tell me he’s a good deal smarter than he lets on. “I think those are all lies,” Shea says with a smirk. “Rumors.” He and Avila contemplated taking some college classes together when they were in Dallas, but Brek never managed to get his paperwork organized.
If there isn’t much in his house yet, there certainly are shoes. Everywhere you turn. Many of them purple. None of them a boring color. Carling calls him a “shoe whore.” After every national team cap he gets – he has 32 as of this writing – he buys himself a pair of Del Toros, a designer brand. But he’s into top hats right now as well, which he says he’s going to paint. The only table in the room has a bunch of purple cleats on it. They all have the word “BELIEVE” embroidered on the side.
It says the same across the inside of his right shin, in huge letters. His right groin muscle says “IMAGINE” in the same font. The left will soon say “DREAM.” Wrapped around his left calf, an unfinished tattoo says “LIVE WORK CREATE.” “It applies to everything,” Shea explains. Above it, a man in a space suit waters the ground, from which sprouts a massive tornado, with Albert Einstein’s face in it. Beside it is a street sign. The left side points to “FEAR;” the right to “IMAGINATION.” A man in a suit and bowler hat walks in the direction of imagination, towards the tornado. On his left biceps, two doves represent his younger sisters. He also has two brothers, who are a good bit older than he is, and had moved out early in his childhood. He’s the middle-middle child.
Earlier in the day, I’d asked Avila to take a crack at explaining Shea to me as well. “He’s a funny, humble … He’s just … Brek,” he’d told me, after a yoga regeneration session on Orlando City’s lush new practice fields. “He’s very outgoing. He likes to be around a lot of people. He’ll run after an alligator. He’ll do what nobody wants to do. He’s Brek.”
“A lot of people see him as Soccer Brek, but Brek is just a guy a lot of people need to figure out because he can come off a different way and people just don’t understand him,” said Avi, as Shea and everybody at the club calls him. “He likes to just do things a little weird, in his own way.”
* * * * *
“You have your people that like you because you’re the soccer player and the athlete. And then you have the people who like you for who you are and as a person. You want to make the fans happy, but other than that, you don’t care what people think.”
Now Shea is clad in green sneakers, red shorts, a gray tank top and a black, backward Left Foot Studio hat. With his hair pulled away from his eyes, they look even bluer. We have lunch on the terrace of a lakeside steakhouse in downtown Orlando. He orders sushi. At a steakhouse. But then this is the Texan who doesn’t like Mexican food.
We talk about his mediaphobia. Shea argues that soccer players are expected to face the press after games, when they’re at their most emotional, when it’s riskiest to talk, when they’re prone to venting instead. Yet, he points out, “we’re expected to hold our tongue all the time.”
“I used to be more scared of them,” he says of media. He’s confident now. But he still doesn’t have much interest in interacting. “For me, the media is so hit or miss,” he says. “The second someone’s doing well, everyone wants to jump on him and make him the next big thing. The second someone’s not doing well, everyone wants to talk shit about ‘em. That’s why I don’t care what the people who interview me say. I have people I don’t even talk to anymore, because they were talking shit so bad about me.”
Shea doesn’t feel like he has to advertise his personality, doesn’t see the point in promoting himself. “You have your people that like you because you’re the soccer player and the athlete,” he says. “And then you the people who like you for who you are and as a person. You want to make the fans happy, but other than that, you don’t care what people think.”
He isn’t trying to build a brand or an endorsement portfolio. “For me, the number one thing is having fun,” says Shea. “The second I’m not having fun anymore playing soccer, I’m not gonna play anymore. I don’t care if I don’t have anything else to do. I do things because I enjoy them. I enjoy playing soccer, that’s the only reason I play. I want to have fun all the time.” And speaking to the press is not fun.
In some ways, you can only harness the creativity that makes Shea a special player if you also let it run wild. As such, he needs two separate lives, that don’t much overlap – a public, soccer life; a private life. Or, as Avila puts it, “Soccer Brek” and regular Brek. “I can’t always be switched on,” Brek explains. “I got to have times where I can say what I want, do what I want, eat what I want, drink what I want, go where I want and switch off and I don’t have to worry about things.” In that non-soccer life, there isn’t much room for soccer. Which is why he doesn’t often watch it.
But he’s getting visibly bored talking about himself now. He keeps on twirling his hat around on his head. This is beginning to feel an awful lot like a real interview. As I ask him questions, Shea peers over my shoulder, to a television with some kind of fishing show on. He’s too polite not to answer, but too disinterested to muster any more introspection.
The check comes and we get up. Avila mentions the score in the huge Champions League game between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. “I didn’t even know there was a game on,” Shea says as he casually stretches out his thick arms.
* * * * *
Because Brek gets to be Brek, he’s been his old self on the field for Orlando, as well. Heath has reinvented him as a left back, and the returns have been promising. “He’s been excellent, considering that it’s a new position,” says the English manager in his rapid-fire patter. “He has all the attributes that you would look for in a modern-day fullback. Aerobic capacity, he can run up and down all day. He’s got enough in the final third. He’s a good crosser of the ball. He’s quick. It’s early days for him, but he’s doing very, very well. And it doesn’t surprise me that now he’s back into Jurgen’s thoughts.”
Jurgen being Klinsmann, the United States men’s national team head coach who has eagerly embraced Shea as a defender, slotting him into a long-time problem position. “Brek Shea has the potential to become a very, very strong left back,” he said recently. He’s appeared in all five U.S. games this year and scored twice with splendid efforts against Chile and Switzerland while growing into his defensive role.
Choosing to sign with Orlando was both a safe bet and a gamble. He’d already practiced there and knew the coach. The general manager, Paul McDonough, was one of his old agents. Yet it meant taking a step back, with an expansion team. But so far, it’s working out well. He fits in, feels comfortable again. A club staffer tells me the locker room was completely quiet until Shea signed. That’s when it got loud.
“I felt like it was a place where I could be happy, could play, and could regain my form,” says Shea. He’d been impressed by the buzz the team had created in its market, by its ambition.
“Bringing in people like Kaká,” Shea says of the Brazilian former FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner Orlando signed.
“Avila…,” Avi deadpans.
“Avila coming in,” Shea continues, without missing a beat.
“People thought that I had lost a step – whatever they thought,” Shea says, speaking of feeling the need to prove himself again. “But I wasn’t in the right situation [at Stoke]. I don’t think I was given chances. I was injured a lot of the time. And then when I came back from injury was put on loan in, quite frankly, shit situations.”
It’s time to go to an appearance. The club has donated a purple street soccer court to a local community center in an impoverished downtown neighborhood. It’s just a few blocks from where it will build a stadium of up to 30,000 seats – the exact number is unclear after the club exceeded expectations by drawing more than 62,000 to its opener – by Division Street, once the dividing line between the city’s black and white neighborhoods during segregation.
Shea will paint a mural on the wall beside the court. And today, a few dozen kids will tell him what they’d like him to paint. He’ll be friendly with them, but he’ll be reserved. He’ll be on the clock again. He’ll be Soccer Brek.
“The second I’m not having fun anymore playing soccer, I’m not gonna play anymore. I don’t care if I don’t have anything else to do … I want to have fun all the time.”
They won’t get to see the real Brek. They won’t see the regular, gregarious person who happens to be paid to play soccer. They won’t meet the fear-nothing Brek that I just got a peek at, the guy who naturally commands devotion from his friends and family in spite of doing things like setting the hat he’s wearing on fire or throwing his brother in the pool at his own wedding. They’ll meet Brek Shea, professional athlete. Like everyone, professional athletes have a work personality. A blander, more wholesome and palatable version of themselves. When he gets to the community center, he’ll emerge from his car his edited and non-offensive self.
But first, now, he shuffles from the restaurant to his big, blacked-out Jeep with the Texas plates and the Left Foot Studio decal on the back.
And before regular Brek gets in and drives off, he emits a roaring burp.