MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our fourth annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former Dallas Burn defender Brandon Pollard, who was on the wrong end of one of the more controversial tackles in league history. (Check out more from the series here.)
Where He Was Then
For Major League Soccer fans of a certain age, the enduring memory of Brandon Pollard as a player is vivid, and gruesome.
In the second half of a 1999 playoff game between the Dallas Burn and the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field, with Chicago leading 4-0, Fire rookie Dema Kovalenko tackled Pollard recklessly from behind, shattering the hard-running outside back's leg and ending his season.
The bad blood between the two clubs was palpable heading into the third and deciding game of the series at the Cotton Bowl, and Dallas' own frustrations were only heightened when the Fire grabbed a 2-0 lead inside of six minutes into the game.
But, in a comeback that stands today as one of the most thrilling in league history, the Burn rallied. Chad Deering cut the lead in half in the 55th minute and Jorge Rodríguez equalized from the penalty spot in the 86th minute.
After a standout college career at the University of Virginia under Bruce Arena, Pollard played for five seasons with the Dallas Burn, making 106 appearances between 1996 to 2000.
Dallas finished off the rally when Ariel Graziani scored just two minutes later. The celebration became unforgettable when Dallas head coach Dave Dir carried Pollard in his arms like a child to join the happy scrum.
Ask even the most ardent MLS fan and he's likely to tell you he remembers that Pollard never played another game, and that the Kovalenko tackled instantly ended his career.
"I'm not one to go on Wikipedia or do any of that stuff," Pollard tells MLSsoccer.com by phone from Dallas, where he still resides. "But that was kind of the common zeitgeist. That I was never the same again, or never played again. But after I got hurt, I had an entire season after that. And I also had another preseason after that, down in Guadalajara."
Pollard says it was during that final preseason, in 2001, that he asked himself, "What are you doing?" and made the decision to retire.
When asked about Kovalenko, Pollard says, "I don't think he ever felt he could say 'I'm sorry' enough times. He did.
"I don't hold any ill will towards Dema. He was always very gracious. I didn't take it personally, and it's not why I retired. I decided it was time for me to do what I'm supposed to do."
And so began one of the most fascinating post-playing careers imaginable. We'll get to that in just a second.
But first, Pollard – a three-time All-American and three-time national champion under Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia and a member of the 1996 US Olympic team – shares what he misses about the game he left in the rearview mirror 13 preseasons ago.
"Sometimes sports can be just a bunch of guys who become commodities," Pollard begins. "Pieces that are moved around so people can make money. But I come more from the spirit of the law than the letter of the law. So, I miss the spirit of the people, the spirit of the players, the spirit of the game.
"I've always thought that soccer was an improvisational chess match. There's this ball and this rectangular field, and we're always moving in relation to where the ball is. And I feel that the team that dances better around that ball is the team that wins. I guess if I miss anything, I miss that dance."
Where He Is Now
What They Said
"It's hard not to love Brandon. He brought an incredible personality and work ethic to the Dallas Burn which translated into everything he did on and off the field.
"His spirit was infectious to the team and to the coaching staff. When there was adversity, that's when he showed the biggest influence on his teammates.
"He might be the most enjoyable player I have ever worked with."
– Dave Dir, former Dallas head coach
While playing in Dallas, Pollard befriended a woman 21 years his senior.
"I didn't breathe my first breath of life until I met Susan," he says.
Friendship turned into romance and romance to marriage. They bonded over a mutual love for the planet.
"She's the one," Pollard says, "who woke me up to the life I'm living."
Brandon and Susan are founders of the Texas Honeybee Guild. On the most basic level, they are beekeepers. Beyond that, they are educators who are spreading the word on the importance of pollination, and activists who are passionate about their cause.
"She had beekeepers in her family," Pollard says of his wife. "I remember her showing me pictures she'd drawn as a little girl in the bee yard, helping her grandfather. I was fascinated."
At first, upon his retirement, Pollard took up work as a baker of bread. He says that is where his "waking up" began. It began with nutritional education.
"I'd met this macrobiotic baker toward the end of my playing career," Pollard recalls. "He was making bread for people with food allergies. He was full of information, but he was also killing himself, working 20-hour days. I loved his bread, loved how it was helping to clean out my body. The day after I retired, I went to work for him and I baked bread for him for six years. That work injected me into the community where I live now."
While Pollard and his wife sell honey to make ends meet, much of their work with the Texas Honeybee Guild is in awareness and education – they even dress as bees to speak to groups of kids.
(Courtesy of the Texas Honeybee Guild)
The passion Pollard holds for his profession is apparent in every sentence he speaks. He mentions that Time magazine recently had a cover story with the tagline, "A World without Bees." He said he dreams of a day when he and Susan can just keep bees, but that's not today.
"I'm a fulltime educator," Pollard says. "I just manifest my teaching through beekeeping. I'm a 24-7 beekeeper, but here in the Big D, the importance of pollination has forced us to inject ourselves into urban agriculture.
"With community gardens in Dallas, with school gardens and restaurants that want to have bees, it's become bigger than we could have ever imagined. We're making people realize, if you don't have the bugs to pollinate the plants, you can't be harvesting anything. We teach the importance of pollination."
Brandon and Susan have to do their fair share of speaking.
"It's more than money and it's more than honey," Pollard says. "We pay for gas by selling jars of honey. But it's really important for people to understand that bees are important and bees are in trouble. Beekeepers around the world are experiencing a decline of the species and it's harder and harder to keep them alive.
"These issues are above our pay grade, but the reality is we're fighting for our lives. We're fighting for the pollinators who can't fight for themselves. We have to stand up to pesticide companies that don't care."
They've had to stand before politicians in Dallas, to fight against certain mosquito sprays that kill off bees. They've dressed up in costume to speak to children.
"I wish I could just be a beekeeper," Pollard says. "But we're having to inject ourselves into some of these very difficult conversations. We're talking about genetically modified organisms, we're talking about fracking. We're definitely on the environmental, conservation side of beekeeping. It's taking us to some interesting places."
Says Pollard (at left): "We're making people realize, if you don't have the bugs to pollinate the plants, you can't be harvesting anything. We teach the importance of pollination."
(Courtesy of the Texas Honeybee Guild)
Pollard says he doesn't have the television channels that would allow him to really keep up with the sport he used to play. He's been to FC Dallas games, but struggles with the moral dilemma of burning the amount of gas it takes to get to Frisco and back. He has not stopped loving the game, or at least the spirit of the game, but he's moved on.
"It warms the cockles of my heart when I'm invited to watch a game, if old teammates are in town," Pollard says. "But it's not something I initiate. It's not because I don't care or because I don't love it. There's just new life, and I'm doing what I can to support it."
And, while it's a bit of a stretch, Pollard says there is something about beekeeping that reminds him of what he loves most about soccer: the dance.
"The better the beekeeper you are, the less you get stung," Pollard says. "When bees sting, they die. So if you're a beekeeper and not a bee killer, you're doing everything you can to keep them bugs alive.
"The bees have a waggle dance. In some ways, looking at a beehive is like watching a soccer game. You have all these bugs. It's hard to conceive they're on the same page, but they are. It's really beautiful. When they go to a flower, or go to get water, or to get nectar, they have this dance, to communicate where to go. It's kind of like seeing players communicate on the field, just by their movements."