Coming out and coming back - each was a difficult decision for Robbie Rogers, and one complicated the other.
He told the world in February that he is gay and at the same moment said he was leaving soccer. Now, Rogers is reversing field and has agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Galaxy, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. Both spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because the Galaxy has not announced the deal.
Rogers will be the first active openly gay player in Major League Soccer.
He also hopes to play for the U.S. national team in the 2014 World Cup - and to be the role model for gay teens that he wished he'd had.
Rogers' epiphany to return to the game came when he spoke to a group of about 500 kids at the Nike Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland last month.
"I seriously felt like a coward," he tells USA TODAY Sports in an exclusive interview about his return. "These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I'm 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?"
And so, newly turned 26, he will step onto the pitch again. He couldn't imagine such a thing when he told his secret in February, writing an open letter on his website and linking to it with this pithy tweet: "Just getting some sh*t off my chest."
That was Feb. 15. About six weeks later he told The Guardian why he'd chosen not to play soccer anymore:
"I wouldn't want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you're gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: 'So you're taking showers with guys - how's that?'
"If you're playing well it will be reported as: 'The gay footballer is playing well.' And if you have a bad game it'll be: 'Aw, that gay dude ... he's struggling because he's gay.' (Expletive) it. I don't want to mess with that."
Then, on April 25, Rogers appeared at the LGBT youth forum. Days later, NBA player Jason Collins came out. That made a much bigger splash in American media than had Rogers' announcement. For one thing, Collins was an active player - or, at least as a free agent, he hoped to play again. For another, as an NBA player he was from one of the four major North American team sports.
Rogers was out of his sport - and his sport was soccer. Still, he's had a more consequential career than Collins in several respects. The winger has played for the U.S. national team in 18 international matches. He won the 2005 NCAA championship with the University of Maryland. He led the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup in 2008, when he was named to the MLS Best XI (for the league's top 11 players).
He'd just been released by the English soccer team Leeds United when he announced his sexual orientation and his retirement in a 408-word post on robbiehrogers.com, writing in part:
"Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions. ... Secrets can cause so much internal damage. ... Try convincing yourself that your creator has the most wonderful purpose for you even though you were taught differently.
"I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. ... Now is my time to step away. It's time to discover myself away from football. ... Honesty is a bitch but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man. I can move on and live my life as my creator intended."
His invocation of creator is an integral part of who he is.
"I'm a soccer player, I'm Christian, and I'm gay," Rogers says. "Those are things that people might say wouldn't go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in.
"So the same principles that raised me to be an honest person are the same things that made me want to come out. I know I was created this way for a reason. ... Being Catholic - and people may disagree - but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I've always lived that way."
Soccer was the furthest thing from Rogers' mind a month ago.
"I had no intention of coming back," he says. "Of course I missed it, but there's so many things I've gone through the past eight months that were more important to me."
He saw a video of himself playing soccer while in New York "and I just missed it," he says. "That's when I sent Bruce Arena, the coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, an email and wanted to see if I could come train."
He talked it over with Landon Donovan, his longtime friend and future Galaxy teammate.
"I sat down with Landon and just wanted to get an idea of what he thought of me coming back and what the atmosphere might be like," Rogers says. "Regardless of the perception, we both agreed that we are at our happiest when we are helping people. I believe I'm happy now because I know that I'm helping people."
February wasn't the first time Rogers had come out. In late October, he told his family and felt overwhelmed by their reaction.
"They were really supportive," he says. "I got to show them that it's still me, and it was great to be able to share that with them. I'm really lucky, because not everyone has that type of support."
With the backing of his mother, father and four siblings - he's the middle child - Rogers began rebuilding his life. To do that, Rogers says he needed to step away from soccer indefinitely. Ultimately, though, he decided that the sport that had defined him, and the identity he'd kept hidden, could coexist.
"Thousands of people - gay and straight - emailed me after the letter and told me how much it helped them," Rogers says. "Honestly, I was (writing) it in a selfish way. I just wanted to get it off my chest and be honest with everyone but then, in the end, it helped others as well. I'm happy God used me that way. ...
"My life is in order now. It's simple to love people and I never would believe that God would create us to be the same. We are designed unique."
WORLD CUP ASPIRATIONS
Rogers has been training with the Galaxy for several weeks.
"I was a little scared to put myself back in that situation but after the first few days I was like, 'Wow, I miss this, I love this,' " Rogers says. "Once I got on the field, I felt really normal. More normal than I ever did in the past."
Rogers says he's been feeling more and more at home, though he admits he still needs to get back to game shape.
"I want to compete and be successful," Rogers says. "I just want to be able to compete. Every day in training, make my team better and prove myself."
Rogers could provide punch for the 4-3-2 Galaxy, who have struggled to generate much offense outside of Mike Magee. They are in fifth place in the Western Conference.
"I want to win," Rogers says. "I don't want to go back just to be back. ... Whether it's ping-pong or I'm on the field, I always want to win."
Rogers has his sights set beyond the MLS season, on the national team and a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster.
"I want to get past the point where I was before," he says. "I want to get back to the national team. I was so close to making the World Cup in 2010, I want to be there for the next one."
Rogers got a call from Collins, that other newly out pro athlete, "the afternoon after he released his story, and just wanted to see how the process had been like for me with media and the attention," Rogers says. "I just tried to give him as much advice as I could. He seems like such a nice guy."
Rogers turned 26 on Sunday. He remembers how utterly confusing life was for him as an American teen a dozen years ago.
"I started feeling very different," he told The Guardian, "and it was a case of, 'All right, I'm good at football and I get attention from girls. Why don't I want that? What's wrong with me?' I realized I was gay when I was 14 or 15. I was like, 'I want to play football. But there are no gay footballers. What am I going to do?' "
Now that he's coming back after coming out, there is a gay footballer.
"I want to come back and be that voice, be that role model," Rogers says. "I want to compete on the field. I want to make it back to the national team. I want to be a role model. I have a lot of motivating factors working for me right now."
"There's a lot to be excited about. It's awesome to be part of a movement that is changing our society."
Mike Foss & Erik Brady, USA TODAY Sports