MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former San Jose Earthquakes defender Chris Roner.
Where He Was Then
Chris Roner didn’t have a particularly long MLS career. But the former University of California star packed in a lifetime of highlights into one postseason. He’s perhaps best remembered for his 90th-minute equalizer against the LA Galaxy in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, completing San Jose’s impossible rally from a four-goal aggregate deficit.
Two weeks later, the Earthquakes hero nearly turned goat in the MLS Cup final. With San Jose up 3-1 on Chicago in the second half, substitute Roner scored an own-goal and was whistled for a penalty that nearly put the Fire back in the game.
The second-year defender ended up celebrating San Jose’s second title with his teammates, but that triumph marked the beginning of the end for Roner. Ankle issues that had dogged him since college began to catch up with him, and surgery that winter eventually prevented him from ever appearing in another professional game.
Where He Is Now
If you’ve known Roner for any length of time, he’s still Chris. But if you’re doing business with him, he answers to a different name.
“It depends on who you’re talking to,” he says from his home in Emeryville, Calif., just next door from where he went to college in Berkeley. “It’s Chris to old friends. But I’m trying to transition to Thor."
And that's no joke.
"I just like it better," he added. "It has a little more of a nod to my Scandinavian heritage.”
Roner’s middle name is the one he uses when he’s trying to raise money for his newest project: a footwear company he’s named, fittingly, Heroyk.
“Like ‘heroic,’” he explains, “but with a ‘y.’”
Now 31 years old, the former Quakes hero and his wife are furiously trying to round up capital for their start-up and, despite the mixed economic environment, they believe they’re onto something. Roner says his new project combines his passions of design of sport. But the challenges are many.
“It’s much harder than playing pro soccer,” the Bay Arena native admits. “Half the battle is trying to get introductions to the right people. We’re trying to raise money through angel investors – they’re harder to find than institutional investors. The introductions can take weeks.”
Roner can’t share too many details as he says he wants to protect his investors, but he’s starting slowly with one model – a running shoe – that he co-designed with former Nike and adidas engineers.
But therein lies some sad irony: The persistent ankle issues that cut Roner’s career short prevent him from truly enjoying the very product he’s designing. His ankles are “shot,” as he puts it, and these days he gets his endorphin fix from cycling.
It’s not for lack of trying. Roner spent years trying to rehab his right ankle, the more problematic of the two. The original surgery he had at the conclusion of the 2003 season set off a chain reaction of setbacks that derailed his promising soccer career.
First, it was routine arthroscopic surgery that revealed greater damage. Then came an experimental procedure in which cartilage from a cadaver was inserted into his ankle. Then a third procedure got him nowhere. He says he tried all kinds of treatments, including visiting a doctor in Mexico whose unorthodox method was, in effect, injecting sugar water into the problem areas. None of it was worth it.
“Looking back on it, I really regret getting that [second] surgery,” Roner says. “It wasn’t worth what it did to me. It was a really invasive procedure. They cut bone and made a lot of incisions. The odds of me coming back were very minimal.”
But he persisted anyway. Dominic Kinnear had him in Quakes preseason camp in 2005, and Roner even scored a goal in a scrimmage against the US Under-20 national team. But the pain was still too great and forced him to call it quits. Three years later, Frank Yallop called him back into camp again when the Earthquakes were re-formed ahead of the 2008 season. Roner gave it another go, but knew it was over.
“At some point, I just realized my ankle wasn’t going to hold up,” he says. “I had no choice but to focus on what I was going to do with my life.”
Roner remained in the Bay Area, and went on to work in advertising as a graphic designer, both at a San Francisco agency and as a freelancer, with clients ranging from Sony to Visa. Eventually, he and wife Maria-Elena crafted the idea of starting a company, and Heroyk was born.
And these days, Roner has finally gotten over his frustrations about how his career ended, too. He’s even started following MLS again and has finally put his personal demons of MLS Cup 2003 to bed.
“That game was, by far, the worst of my career,” he now says, going on record about that match for the first time in nine years. “There is not a simple explanation why, but I can tell you that I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was angry that I wasn’t going to start in the final and the odds of coming in as a sub were minimal. It was just pure inexperience and immaturity and, when I got into the game, I wasn’t ready.”
There is, of course, an argument to be made that, had Roner not made that ill-timed tackle of Chicago’s Damani Ralph in the box, it might not have set up the inspirational moment of Pat Onstad saving Ante Razov’s spot kick – something many players involved in that game still believe was the turning point of the match. But Roner doesn’t buy that.
“I believe we would have won that game despite my performance,” he says. “Our team was so talented that year and my teammates rallied around me.”
What They Said
“He was so athletic – he was fantastic in the air and quick. He was a great kid and a good player. I was always impressed by how intelligent he was. He had a great, dry sense of humor. I’m glad I got some time with him. It’s really a shame his career got cut short.”
– Frank Yallop, Roner’s coach with San Jose