Faces of First Kick: Danny Califf
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Faces of First Kick: Danny Califf

CHESTER, Pa. – Danny Califf has an internal switch.

Before the game begins and after it ends, he’s an easygoing California dude. He takes his three children hiking, fishing and skateboarding. He cooks breakfast and dinner. He tears through autobiographies. He plays the guitar. He listens to his vast collection of music. He hardly ever raises his voice and gets embarrassed when people recognize him.

Switch on.

When he plays soccer, he undergoes a virtual metamorphosis. He screams at his teammates to get them organized. He’s nasty and mean with his opponents, the kind of player who will “bite, scratch, kick and do anything to get an advantage.” The tattoos up and down his arm, the mohawk he sometimes sports atop his head, it all feeds into an intimidating image that probably isn’t quite representative of the real Danny Califf.

Switch off.

“At home, he’s the opposite of what he is on the soccer field,” says Erin, his wife of almost 11 years. “I get embarrassed because it’s hard for me to see him on the soccer field.”

Of course, Califf has to be that way. Ever since he started playing internationally in 1997 and professionally in 2000, the Philadelphia Union central defender has heard that he’s slow and not athletic. In some ways, he agrees with that assessment – which is why he never gives an inch to the opposing striker that is, invariably, always faster than him.

[inline_node:331548]“I think I’ve gotten to where I’m at today more by self-discipline and determination than by being a gifted soccer player,” says the 31-year-old Califf, who was named the first captain in Union history last season.

“I think what I bring to the team is a level of professionalism and attitude and leadership by example. Those are the intangibles I bring to the field. As far as pure soccer, when you’re talking about all the different qualities you need with regards to skill, pace – I’m probably not at the top of the list in just about any of those.”

Still, Califf has a confession to make: He’s more athletic and a lot faster than you think. Part of the perception, he admits, is his fault because he often jokes that he’s not a very good soccer player.

But as the duality of his on-field/off-field personas goes to show, there’s more to Danny Califf than meets the eye.

The California Kid

Besides soccer, Califf has had only one other job in his life – working at Baskin-Robbins. The rest of his time growing up in Orange, Calif., was mostly spent surfing and playing sports.

“He had the wiring that an athlete has,” says his father, Jon. “The kind that predisposes you to do well in many sports.”

While Califf also played baseball and volleyball – and surfed before school and after school most days – soccer was where he really stood out. And it was the combination of his work ethic and, yes, his athleticism that vaulted him above anyone else his age.

Califf, who played striker for much of his youth, scored 65 goals for his club team one season. Once, when he was about 13, he got laid out in the first game of an all-day club tournament. His dad carried him off the field and drove him to the doctor’s office, where he got an X-ray on his knee. When it was determined there were no broken bones, Califf made his dad rush him back to the field so he could play the rest of the tournament.

Another time, Jon remembers Louie Balboa – a local California coach and the father of former US star defender Marcelo Balboa – watching a club game and wondering aloud who the white kid was giving orders to the Hispanic players in Spanish. That kid was Califf – and it was Balboa’s recommendation that eventually helped the youngster get hooked up with the US youth national teams.

“I could always tell that he was gifted and that he would be able to accomplish things, but the horizon was always different,” says Jon, who was his son’s coach for most of Danny’s childhood. “First, we were hoping he could play on a club team. And then it was, ‘Wow, maybe he can play in high school,’ and, ‘Jeez, he could possibly play in college.'

“As he got older,” Jon says, “every couple of years there was a new horizon.”

A Family Affair

Erin Califf has seen her husband play in countless soccer games, but there’s one in particular that stands out.

On June 3, 2000, when Danny was a rookie with Los Angeles, the Galaxy lost to the MetroStars, 2-0. There was nothing really out of the ordinary about the game – except for the fact that it basically served as Danny’s honeymoon. The couple had gotten married just hours before kickoff.

[inline_node:331547]“He didn’t want to ask if he could have the game off,” Erin says. “He was afraid he’d lose his spot.”

Such is his dedication to the sport, and Erin certainly has never questioned it. The two were high school sweethearts and have known each for even longer. When they were both 8 years old, Erin remembers going to a soccer camp where she won the girls juggling contest while Danny beat out all the boys. Danny then defeated his future wife for the prestigious co-ed juggling championship.

These days, she’s more of a teammate than an opponent. The couple has a far tougher juggling act on their hands now, balancing a life of soccer with raising three young children – Paige, 7, Blake, 5, and Jude, 2.

“This game, this job, doesn’t last forever,” Danny says. “So I feel lucky to be able to share that with them. It’s a tremendous gift they’ve given me. The different side is they get to come to the stadium and feel like it’s theirs. It’s special for me to see that in them.”

When Califf decided to pursue his dream of playing overseas in 2006 – he’d spent five years with the Galaxy and one with the San Jose Earthquakes – he naturally thought about how it would affect his family. Erin was supportive and eager to be there by her husband’s side. They viewed it as an adventure, or a European odyssey.

And that’s precisely what Califf’s four-year stint with the Danish clubs Aalborg and FC Midtjylland turned out to be. It just wasn’t always an enjoyable one.

“As much as they say Denmark is the happiest country, they lie,” Erin says. “They’re liars.”

The California couple had a difficult time adjusting to the change into much wetter and cooler climate. There weren’t many things to do with young children. People would run into Erin in the grocery store and not apologize.

While grateful for the opportunity to expose their children to a new culture and language, the Califf family was eager to leave.

“We were ready to return home,” Danny says. “We just weren’t ready to go back to California.”

So on to Philly it was.

The Final Chapter

Califf constantly thinks about how much soccer has given him.

He’s played for the US on the youth levels and the senior national team. He was an All-American at Maryland, a member of the 2000 Olympic team, a champion with the Galaxy and a captain with Aalborg.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” he says. “I’ve probably been to close to 50 countries. I’ve been able to see the world and also just have a unique perspective on having a cool job. And being able to bring up a family in that environment is pretty special.”

In many ways, when he signed with the Union in December 2009, he hoped to put a bowtie around the present that’s been given to him. He planned to accomplish big things in Philly, to finish his career with at least one more championship, to retire as a member of the Union.

The first year of his final soccer adventure, however, did not go quite as planned. The Union sputtered to an 8-15-7 record in their inaugural season, and the defense was mainly to blame. The unit had breakdowns throughout the year and fans often targeted the player they believed to be responsible: the slow-footed, tattooed player anchoring the defense.

Califf – an old-fashioned kind of guy who doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook but does read USA Today – mostly avoided hearing the critics. But it didn’t always escape his wife.

“I’d be on Facebook and I’ll say, ‘Guess what? This guy says that goal was your fault,’” Erin says. “He just says, ‘Why are you reading that?’ He takes it with a grain of salt. He doesn’t want to hear the negatives. He’s dealt with a lot. Being a defender is hard.”

[inline_node:331555]Califf may admit that he isn’t as fast as other players and joke that he should have pursued baseball instead of soccer. But that’s the laid-back, off-the-field, self-deprecating Danny Califf talking. The on-the-field Danny Califf cares deeply about his craft and felt an even deeper responsibility as the captain of an expansion team last year.

And if anyone ever questions his effort or desire, that’s their problem. Not his.

Take Saturday’s season opener against the Dynamo, for example. It didn’t matter that Califf had been stripped of his captaincy in favor of new 'keeper Faryd Mondragón. Five minutes into the 2011 season opener, the defender did what he couldn’t do throughout the entire 2010 campaign: He scored a goal.

WATCH: Califf scores the winner against Houston

His goal stood up as the winner behind a shutout from the back line.

“Regardless of whether I’m the captain or not,” Califf said days before the game, “I’m still going to have to a big role as a leader on this team.”

He owes that much to himself, the city and the sport.

“Looking back on my career,” he says, “I’m satisfied that I’ve given every part of myself to this game. And this game has given me so much in return.”

But there’s more he wants to do before his career ends – namely, winning a championship in Philly. And until he retires, he’ll still have that switch, the one that allows him to balance everything that’s important to him.

It’s just the way he’s wired.


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