Every journalist has her white whale. I first spotted mine this winter, and in every Real Salt Lake match since — from the bird’s-eye view of a press box or the radar’s distance of MLS Live — that whale has taunted me. Nat Borchers’ beard, adorned on one of the league’s best defenders, had evaded me for the better part of the season, ridiculed me with its growing fame and girth.
Along the way, the beard has had a breakout season, setting a new standard for MLS facial hair in the process, forcing us to ponder questions that seemed irrelevant before: Should facial hair be eligible for postseason awards? Who’s had the better season: Nat’s beard, or FC Dallas rookie Tesho Akindele? And if we don’t think the beard should be eligible for such honors, are we playing into male grooming biases that have held us back for generations?
Had it been a normal beard, I would have moved on. Instead, amid media sessions filled with unrequited inquiry and post-match Q&As where the beard was kept off-limits, my questions festered. Now reaching beyond collar-bone, prepping to impose itself as a major storyline during Major League Soccer’s postseason, Borchers’ beard was practically mocking me. My leg was left exposed.
But today, out of nowhere, Moby Dick called. Perhaps out of pure pity, Borchers’ beard was saying “You’re Ahab no more.” I finally got my one-on-one.
Here were my 10 questions for Nat Borchers’ beard (with answers articulated by Borchers himself) ahead of Sunday’s playoff game against the LA Galaxy:
1. Did you know you were on the verge of this kind of breakout season?
It was really unexpected. I was only planning on getting a few months worth of growth, but Nat got a lot of positive feedback, namely from his wife. He decided it was time to just keep on going.
2. How much credit do you think Nat deserves for the season, and how much credit do you think you deserve?
I’d say Nat deserves zero credit. Zero. He was just an average defender before this season. Now I’m here. Now he’s great.Photo by AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
3. Grooming: The dos and don’ts. Is grooming even an issue for you? And at what point does that interfere with the work you have to do on the field?
No. Part of why people like me is because I look so intimidating, so grooming is never an issue. I just kind of show up, be me, and people are intimidated.
4. Sorry, but we’re three questions in, and it seems rude that I’m only asking this now … but do you have an actual name?
(Laughs.) Nat’s Beard is what I’m called.
Well, do you ever feel like that’s a slight? That nobody’s taken the time to give you a proper name?
(Pauses.) Not really, because when you look as gorgeous and as beautiful as I do, you don’t really need a name. You just create your own image.
5. This time of year, a lot of people are talking about MVP votes. They’re talking about Best XI places. Does it hurt you that you’re not being mentioned in those conversations?
If does, and to be honest with you, I should be mentioned not only in the MVP voting but Defender of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year – Newcomer of the Year, especially. I should be top of the polls in that one.
6. MLS beards have gotten to where the good ones are celebrated, but they’re still pretty rare, especially before November. Do you see yourself in any way as a trailblazer?
Yeah, I absolutely think so, not unlike a lot of former MVP hairdos and trends. I think I’m a trend-setter. I’m not unlike Dominic Oduro’s hair, or Kyle Beckerman’s hair, or Ned Grabavoy’s facial hair. I’m definitely a trend-setter.
Author’s note: At this point in the interview, I started to sense some pushback, some antagonism. Talking about the league’s respect, whether the beard was in fact setting trends, it was as if I was revealing myself as a fraud — somebody who was missing the obvious. Why was I asking instead of giving way? Why was Kanye being asked to explain his art?
The confession I made before my next question only made it worse:
7. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of people out there who don’t like facial hair. I hate to admit this, but I actually shaved this morning before this interview. How concerned are you about the stigma and discrimination you have to deal with from shavers of the world?
We call people who shave quitters.
And is there a lot of anger in the facial hair community toward quitters?
No, there’s just more apathy than anything. Sometimes, some beards feel sorry for people who can’t grow them, and for people who shave. It’s sad.Photo by AP Photo/David Zalubowski
8. Nat’s partner in central defense, Chris Schuler, has been linked with a national team call-up. Nat’s been there before. What advice would you give Chris’s beard game?
I think Chris has to be very careful about his beard game. It takes many years to grow a proper beard, and to understand where, on your face, are the places to shave and not to shave. I think he definitely has a long way to go.
9. You and Nat face the Galaxy on Sunday. Obviously, a very successful organization, but the beard game just doesn’t seem there since Becks (David Beckham) took his salt-and-pepper out of the league. How do you take advantage of that?
I actually had a conversation with Omar (Gonzalez) about his beard game during the game last Saturday night, and he decided to shave his beard for Movember. But I’ve got nothing but respect for that.
10. Finally, I think the question everybody wants to ask you but a lot are too scared to approach: Do you at all feel like you’ve been overshadowed by Kyle Beckerman’s hair (left, above)?
(Laughs.) I think we’re talking about two completely separate issues. Kyle’s hair and me are definitely two different things. The chin and the head worlds are completely different. I respect Kyle’s ability to be unique and show his character as much as he respects myself — my ability to grow on Nat.
Epilogue: The laugh was reassuring. Before the interview, I hadn’t thought about it, but by question three, the feeling was overwhelming. I wanted the beard’s approval. I wanted it to validate the journey. I needed its respect.
Like any great subject, the beard had lured me into the story. This quest started as an examination of an unlikely star. It ended as an examination of myself.
I don’t know if I’ll be rooting for the beard on Sunday, but I know I don’t want it to go. As suddenly as it entered my life, there’s the lingering threat it could just as quickly vanish.
I’m savoring the now, because at any moment, our era of Nat’s beard could be over.