KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In one moment, C.J Sapong is talking about the split-second decisions that can mean the difference between a goal celebration and the frustration of having a shot miss the mark. In the next, he casually refers to his life as “nothing unusual, not some outlier on a scatterplot.”
There's a lot going on inside the head of Sporting Kansas City's young center forward, who's as happy discussing philosophy with strangers in a coffeehouse as he is putting the ball in the back of the net in MLS. Once he warms to his favorite topics, the thoughts just keep flowing.
And keeping that stream running, the 23-year-old says, is the key to realizing his potential on and off the pitch.
“I try to keep my mind running, but obviously there are situations where you're just going through the motions,” Sapong said earlier this week in a sit-down with MLSsoccer.com. “You aren't really aware of what's going on. You're basically a zombie.
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“Whether it's soccer or it's life, people can just be going through it thinking they know what they're doing,” Sapong continued. “Then all of a sudden, a catastrophe happens, and they're like, 'Oh, snap. OK.' I feel like that's basically a sign from whatever it may be – higher self, higher being, whatever it may be – that you at least need to take a break, kind of look back and try to make sense of something.”
For Sapong, the 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year, that moment came midway through his sophomore season. After racking up five league goals by mid-June, matching his total from last year, Sapong sustained a groin injury that sidelined him for two games. And he was out of the starting XI up until last weekend's 1-1 home draw with Houston – when he went the distance and broke his long goal drought with a 93rd-minute equalizer.
“I would say at the beginning of the season, I was very fresh, very determined, very hungry,” Sapong said. “And after a lot of games, you get a little burned out. That's what happened to me. I looked at the injury as a sign and a blessing, to reiterate the need to kind of take care of my body and to just heal and rejuvenate myself. I feel the hunger again. So that's good, that it's coming now at the home stretch.”
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The injury was a wake-up call in more than a soccer sense, though. For Sapong, it was also a signal that his mind had fallen into the rut of comfortable routine.
“Some people are the type of person that they have to do the same thing every day,” he said. “That's what gets them in their mode. Obviously, if that works for you, that's cool, but I felt like even if that does work for me, I want to broaden my horizons, make myself a little more well-rounded.
"I want to be able to respond to adversity and to adapt, rather than have a narrow way of looking at things and a narrow way of approaching things. Because there's always going to be some situation that throws you out of that comfort zone. Then what are you going to do?"
Sapong's solution was to take a step back, use the downtime to collect his thoughts – about soccer, yes, but also about life and the universe and his place in them.
“I read a lot. I read articles. I read lots of books,” he said. “I like to sit in the park and just watch people, trees, animals, whatever. I like to be more and more aware of my surroundings, and that really started with my injury. All of a sudden, I was not traveling. I wasn't playing, so I had a little more energy to do other things. I believe it's all a sign. I believe it all happened for a reason.”
A good deal of Sapong's reading these days is designed to keep him from settling back into a personal comfort zone.
WATCH: Off The Pitch with C.J. Sapong
"Most of the books I read are about meaning and purpose in life: different religions' views on it, different people's views on it,” he said. “Obviously, I love soccer, but it's just one of the things that I love doing. There are so many people in the world who don't get to do what they love, and they kind of shy away from their meaning in life. I refuse to believe that we're just made out of nothing and just thrown out here to do whatever. I do believe everybody has a purpose they're supposed to fulfill in life.”
What's his, then?
“I have no idea yet,” he said with a laugh. “But I am definitely on the right path. I do feel that where I am right now is where I need to be, and I do see progression in myself every day, on and off the field, It's the journey I'm interested in, because that's where you get your experience and your growth.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.