Faces of First Kick: George John

The script read like it could have come out of an ancient
Greek tragedy, had Sophocles only known what soccer was back in 400 BC.

It was MLS Cup 2010 in Toronto. FC Dallas central defender
George John, arguably the best young player on the field in that championship match
against the Colorado Rapids, was about to get sucked into a bizarre sequence
that decided the game.

The final was tied in extra time when the Rapids’ Macoumba Kandji lunged
to toe poke a ball in the Dallas penalty area. While Kandji’s knee ligaments buckled on
the play, the pain was perhaps greater for John, who watched the ball deflect off
his leg for the fateful final touch and the title-winning goal for Colorado.

“They say when your kid hurts, the parent hurts twice as bad,” said
Seattle bank attorney John John, the FCD defender's father. “But I
don’t think I hurt twice as bad as George. I knew him and how much that would be
devastating to him. He does not take things lightly, and I was so worried about
him.”

“It was like a nightmare is the best way to put it,” George
John told MLSsoccer.com. “One of those things that happened so fast that I
didn’t know what happened. I want to say I’m over it, but I don’t know I’ll be
completely over it until I do win an MLS Cup.”

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Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who was the victim of a pass that
was virtually equivalent to an own goal during MLS Cup 1999, had these words
for his teammate later that night: “Don’t let this play define you.”

It certainly didn’t define him in 2010. Not by a long shot. His sophomore
season in the league classified as a bona fide breakout year, and although it may
have flown under the radar of mainstream soccer media, it did not escape the
attention of US men’s national team manager Bob Bradley.

“Bob did contact us and wanted George
and Ugo [Ihemelu] in [to the January 2011 camp],” FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman
said. “George was so absolutely humbled and excited to get that invite. It was
the complete opposite of the own-goal in the championship game. From a complete
low to a complete high.”

But few people know that John played through pain in
2010 because of a bone spur in his ankle. There was no choice but to get it
cleaned out during the offseason, so he was to call Bradley personally to tell him
he had to pull out.

Detractors will point to the ankle and use it to build their
case against John. First the knee in college. Then the hamstrings as a rookie. Now the ankle.
Soft and brittle, some have whispered.

They just don’t know the full story.

Putting It On The Line

With only five games remaining in his senior season in
college at the University of Washington, John tore his meniscus after suffering
a hard tackle from behind. It’s an injury that typically takes three months of
recovery and rehab. The timing couldn’t have been worse, with the 2009 MLS Combine
around the corner.

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Although he had trained with the Seattle
Sounders on several occasions and Sounders assistant Brian Schmetzer was his
former club coach growing up, John had no guarantee the MLS expansion team was
going to select him. There was even talk that the Sounders weren’t totally convinced
in John’s abilities. And no other teams came knocking.

There was only way for him to get back on the map. A month-and-a-half of rehab had to suffice.

“You could see him limping around at the Combine and it was
obvious he was not at 100 percent, but he was still fighting for balls and making
tackles,” said Hyndman,
who in 2005 saw his No. 5 ranked SMU squad dismantled by John and the Huskies.

“I was just a naïve kid in college who nobody really knew
about,” John said. “My mentality was that I was going to play regardless and
get noticed. I guess I didn’t have very good guidance at that point.”

John’s efforts earned him a high-profile No. 14 overall
draft selection by Hyndman, who was managing his very first draft in 2009. But it
came at a price.

The Seattle native had come back too early from that
meniscus tear and he missed his first preseason in order to recover. Then after
pushing himself to come back early, hamstring injuries cropped up on both legs.

His mechanics were completely thrown off and the hamstring issues were connected to the meniscus tear. He missed half his rookie season before his coming out party in 2010.

The reputation among those who know
John is that he’s always been a no-nonsense, humble, hardcore soccer player.
He’ll play hurt. He’ll play with abandon. He’ll play anywhere. When none of his
fellow midfielders wanted to play at center back during the Combine, he
volunteered.

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It’s the attitude of a player who only realized as a junior
in college that he could become a pro. And he takes nothing for granted.

The characteristics are a reflection of values formed during his upbringing inside
a close-knit Seattle family, woven together by Greek culture and the Greek Orthodox
religion.

Greek Pride

Although you wouldn’t suspect it from his name, John is a
proud member of the Greek-American community. His grandfather had his original
Greek surname dropped at Ellis Island in New York when he immigrated back in
1909. The family may have lost its name, but the roots of its heritage would grow
deep in the American Northwest.

He may not speak the language, but John is steeped in Greek
lifestyle and culture and proud of it.

“We wanted to give them whatever we could of what we
valued so much in the culture,” said John’s father, a former Sounders
season-ticket holder when the team played at old Memorial Stadium. “For some
reason, Greek culture really connected with him. He loves everything
about it. And the Greek community loves him. He’s one of them.”

[inline_node:331145] George John grew up attending Greek camps and later serving as camp
counselor. He volunteered with a Greek youth group called Sons of Pericles and also
fundraises for the Hellenic Studies Department at the University of Washington.

His fans have repaid the favors, naming him Greek-American
Athlete of the Year, an award he picked up in Washington, D.C., last year. And nearly
400 members of the Greek community in Seattle cheer him on when FC Dallas visit Qwest Field. He has received the same reception in Dallas.

“He’s taken us to a few Greek restaurants,” FCD teammate Ihemelu said. “The owner comes out and checks in with George. And they ask
him to sign autographs. He has his Greek people out here. He’s really part of the
Greek community in Dallas. He loves it and it’s great. And he’s always talks
about Greek dancing.”

Yes, the Greek dancing. After his love for Horiatiki (Greek
salad) and Pasticcio (Greek lasagna), it’s one of the most passionate parts of
being Greek for John. In fact, he is the only MLS player ever to be a Greek dancing
national champion.

“Once in a while we’ll hear the hoopla on the iPod with the
Greek dance and he’ll get out there and dance a little bit and the guys have a little
fun,” Hyndman said. “He’s a very proud man about his culture and his heritage.”

During spring season in college, John would ask to be excused to
participate in Greek dancing competitions. He even taught Greek dancing in PE
class during high school. And sometimes Greek dancing took precedence to
soccer.

WATCH: News report on George John juggling both soccer and Greek dancing in high school

“I loved doing it,” John said. “I remember one time I missed
the State Cup game in high school to go to Greek dance competition, as ridiculous
as it sounds.”

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With all this, it should come as little surprise that his
representative is also Greek-American. John says that while he was getting
big-timed by other soccer agents, Ted Philipakos was the only one who stuck by
him in the aftermath of his torn meniscus before the 2009 Combine.

According to Philipakos, they’ve taken notice of John in
Greece, where they compare him to a more refined version of Liverpool central
defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

Although John has two years left in his MLS contract and there
are early discussions about potentially extending his deal, the expectation
is that international clubs, including from Greece, will also be making their
advances at some point.

“Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream get a lot of press, but those two
guys play in bigger markets and on a national stage more often,” Philipakos
said. “George has been flying under the radar in a relative sense. But he’s
right up there in the conversation when you talk about best and brightest
center backs in American soccer.”

And if you don’t believe it, John is determined to prove you
wrong. That’s what he’s been doing all along. From no-name player to first-round
draft choice. From the MLS Cup final and now the cusp of the US national team,
which he calls his biggest dream. All before turning 24 years old.

The higher
the hurdle, John keeps finding ways to rise to the occasion.

“Growing up my dad would always say that he was never the
smartest or brightest but he worked the hardest and that’s why he did the
best,” John said. “That work ethic was instilled in me and I pride myself on
working hard. I don’t take shortcuts.

“I was never a kid that got called into youth select teams
and regional coaches never called me in. I’m the kid that worked hard to get
where I’m at and I'm one of the few still standing.” 


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