Enforcer. Hard man. Bad boy. Mala leche, in the words of some in the Mexican media. “His nickname was Cujo,” says LA Galaxy boss Sigi Schmid, referring to the 1983 Stephen King horror novel about a demented dog.
Former US national team defender Cle Kooiman, whom Schmid coached as an assistant at the 1994 World Cup, brought a wild-eyed glare and fu-manchu mustache to the field, capped by that distinctive shock of tightly-curled, beach-blond hair, often cut into a deeply-'90s mullet. There was no mistaking the Ontario, California native. Kooiman's kamikaze playing style earned him 12 US caps and unlikely stardom in Liga MX.
“He was – loud isn’t really the right word,” Schmid told MLSsoccer.com. “He was confident, and you knew when he was in the room. I thought he was fun to be around because he was always upbeat, always like, ‘OK, today’s a good day, what are we going to do now?’”
That force of personality is being challenged.
Cle Kooiman has cancer.
He’s been diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of prostate cancer (Gleason score: 9), which necessitated surgery earlier this year to remove his prostate, as well as adjoining tissue and lymph nodes that had been attacked by the rapidly-growing adenocarcinoma.
Courtesy of Cle Kooiman
That’s been accompanied by hormone therapy, a heavy regimen of other medications and drastic changes to his diet to drop weight and improve his body’s ability to fight off this intruder. In a few months, he’ll begin an eight-week stint of radiation therapy.
“Last night my son Cody, who is 4, while helping me take my night pills, asked me if heaven was a good place and if I was going there tomorrow,” he says. “Oh man, tears started running down my cheeks. I told him I will be going there, but not yet. I said I still have way too much love to give him before I go.”
His doctors have given him a prognosis of three to five years.
“I am high-risk and the cancer was out of the bag, so to speak, meaning out of the prostate and in the lymph system,” Kooiman explains.
“My type of cancer loves to grow and divide by eating testosterone,” he says. “In essence we are trying to starve the cancer cells. The problem is that my type of cancer is a smart little [expletive] and will figure out a way to make its own testosterone in its own cell. Pretty crazy, right?”
One of US soccer’s modern pioneers now finds himself staring at his own mortality, confronted by doubt, painful side effects from his treatments and astronomical medical bills, eager to put up the best fight he can and squeeze the most out of the time he has.
The burden can feel tremendous – for the self, for the family. Each day brings different pressures, different challenges, from the crucial monotony of a paperwork avalanche and navigating insurance problems to sifting through the Internet and human-suggestion knowledge bases for something, anything that might help.
“When I first found out I didn’t want to tell anyone, which is usually what I do with heavy issues in my life. I just usually eat the issue myself and move forward, which I’m sure most people do? Hmmmm, maybe that’s how my cancer really started,” he says, tongue well in cheek.
“I need people to understand this and us (people who have cancer): Look, it’s not contagious. I’m not contagious. We just need some extra prayers and love. Our immune system failed for a multitude of reasons,” he continues. “Who knows? We live in a world that has additives everywhere and no nourishment. Again, something has failed in our bodies to combat this thing and we just need from you is understanding, love and compassion."
Shown here in a pre-tournament friendly, Kooiman (Back row; 2nd from left) teamed with Alexi Lalas on the backline at the 1994 World Cup. | Courtesy of Cle Kooiman
Cle Kooiman's body took him south of the border, initially to Cobras de Ciudad Juarez and then on to Cruz Azul and Morelia (before an MLS coda with Tampa Bay and Miami), at a time before Liga MX had hit the soccer mainstream stateside. That body once led a reporter to write "Kooiman looks more like a character from the James Caan film Rollerball than a soccer player" and it propelled him toward becoming the first US citizen to captain a team in Mexico.
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, the strapping defender and avid surfer made sure opponents remembered who he was, from the opening whistle. LA Galaxy assistant coach Dominic Kinnear both played against and alongside Kooiman, and told MLSsoccer.com that "you always knew you were up for a tough game when you were playing against him." Kinnear says off the ball, Kooiman would remind opponents he was tracking them with a hand or a hit, but off the field was "a nice guy."
Former USMNT backline teammate Alexi Lalas puts it this way: “Just a bat out of hell on the field in terms of the tackles, in terms of the way he talked to people, in terms of the things he did. He was a badass. And yet he was a kind and gentle giant off the field – and he still is.”
A father to two young children, Kooiman has also mentored hundreds of teenage soccer players over the years as a coach and director of coaching at Inland Empire Surf, a SoCal youth club where his teams have won national championships and helped kids advance to college careers.
“My favorite thing about coaching is a team playing a wonderful style of soccer, and my passion is truly helping a player who comes to us and turning that player into a college prospect,” he says. “I feel like I am a fixer, taking weaknesses of juniors and seniors and helping that player fix that piece of their game, whether it’s a mental, physical, technical or tactical issue or issues.”
He’s most proud of the PACE (Players Academic Club of Excellence) program, which recognizes and rewards players who attain a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher, driving home the importance of academic success for both soccer and life.
Kooiman cites the stats, that in the past year they sent 51 kids to college from their community, which he describes as one of the state's hardest hit on the socio-economic spectrum, where education takes a backseat to a difficult life. They work to inspire understanding of a degree's potential to help backstop an injury-shortened sports career.
Colleagues and friends at IE Surf have organized a fundraiser for the Kooiman family’s expenses, and a fitting one: On June 1 MASL indoor team Ontario Fury will host a USA vs. Mexico exhibition match at Citizens Business Bank Arena, with 50 percent of the proceeds going towards his medical fund. (You can buy tickets or opt to donate directly.)
“Everything to do with cancer is expensive,” says Cle. “The costs, to be frank, exceed anything that I was prepared for financially. We have had to cut many corners already and are managing, but it’s a heavy burden which I imagine all families who have been hit with someone in this exclusive – but not so exclusive – “C club” have felt. I find that people just don’t talk about it, and maybe feel ashamed or scared of what people may feel or think about them.”
It seems clear that the same things that made Kooiman a US soccer pioneer decades ago are powering his fight against cancer today.
“He represented this mammoth type of personality and physique,” says Lalas. “He’s approaching it with the same type of intensity and passion that he’s approached everything in life, and I think that will serve him well in what is obviously a difficult time and a big fight for him.”
Kooiman continues to handle his DOC work and coach two teams at IE Surf – “I can go about three hours straight on a good day” of coaching, he says – and has dived headlong into a range of health and lifestyle changes to improve his chances of survival. He’s already lost 33 pounds since his diagnosis.
“I have a ton of favorite stories,” he said of his life in coaching, “but the few that really stand out are the big ones which, through discipline, hard work, focus and commitment, we come from behind to win a big one: a state, regional, or national championship when everything is on the line, which needless to say is where I am now.
“I need to come from behind and find a way to win, even if it’s just time we are talking about. Time to be with my family and time to watch my kids grow up. Time seems to be the biggest hurdle and I’m going to squeeze every last second from the reaper."
Courtesy of Cle Kooiman