KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As deep, dark secrets go, Jimmy Nielsen's seems rather tame.
Sporting Kansas City's All-Star goalkeeper wasn't breaking any laws. Plenty of people do what he did with no shame at all. His coaches and teammates knew, as did anyone who covered the club on a regular basis.
So why the sneaking around? Why did he spend two decades hiding his actions from his parents? Why would he tell his young daughters he had to make a phone call, when he had a different reason entirely for stepping outside?
They were only cigarettes, after all. But every time he lit up, Nielsen felt himself breaking a trust.
“It's never something I was proud of,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday, discussing his habit – and how he finally kicked it in the waning hours of 2012 – for the first time on the record. “That's why it was something I would sneak out to do, especially hiding it from the kids.”
And for a player as popular as Nielsen, who has been known to pull over and offer impromptu clinics when he sees a pickup game, his image concerns went beyond his own family.
"They knew a little bit, but I'm talking kids in general,” Nielsen said. “I'm an athlete, out here in this environment. So I was hiding.”
There was no hiding from the sounds his lungs were beginning to make, though.
“I was sick a lot in the offseason,” he said. “Struggling overall. It was time for me to quit. Before I go to sleep, I can hear my breathing like, 'Hhhhrrrrrr, hhhrrrrr.' It was crazy. I'm 35 years old. I am not supposed to breathe like that.”
Nielsen is breathing easier these days – in the physical sense, at least.
Even now, more than two months after his last puff, he's still not entirely comfortable talking about the habit he picked up when he was 15 and didn't drop until this past New Year's Eve. Part of that reticence stems from lingering embarrassment – and part from Nielsen's reluctance to declare “Mission Accomplished.” But he's letting his story be told, painful parts and all.
“It's rough,” he said, taking a deep breath and looking away. “I'm struggling at the moment. I'm having a hard time. I'm having a personal fight with myself.”
It's one he's winning, so far.
“My last cigarette was December 31, about 8 o'clock,” he said. “It was the last one in the pack.”
Just for good measure, he gave up his beloved Diet Coke at the same time.
The cold-turkey decisions capped a year that was one of Nielsen's best as a professional. After being named Sporting's captain in the preseason, the White Puma racked up honor upon honor.
Nielsen led MLS with 15 shutouts, one shy of the league record. He was named an All-Star, a member of the Best XI and the league's Goalkeeper of the Year. He played every minute of the MLS season and all but one match in Sporting's run to the US Open Cup championship, their first silverware of any kind since winning the competition back in 2004.
And through Nielsen's first three seasons in Kansas City, his habit was an open secret around the locker room. With the Atlantic between him and his parents, he could let his guard down – but just a bit.
Sometimes, after a match or a training session, he would disappear for a few minutes and come back with the smell of smoke on his kit. Someone would ask, knowing the answer: “Been off having a lift, Jimmy?” And Nielsen would always nod, and shrug, and laugh sheepishly, and the interview would begin.
That was one of the euphemisms he used, around his family as well as the media. “Daddy's having a lift,” he would tell his daughters.
He laughed wryly, recalling their response: “You don't have any muscles and you lift five times a day.”
Other times, Nielsen would say he had to step out to make a call. Or he'd smoke while walking the family dog.
Taking the Lead: Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting KC
He was never even a pack-a-day man, lighting up five to 15 times daily depending on what else he had going on. He knew even that amount wasn't good for him, but it wasn't enough to get him to stop – until those strangled, rasping gasps finally got the message through.
“If you want to give up any bad addiction, you can,” he said. “It's a question of, do you really want it. I gave up gambling. I gave up smoking. I gave up Diet Coke. If you want it bad enough, you can do it. But if someone comes and tells you, 'You have to give up smoking' – you know it's bad, but if you don't want to quit it's not going to happen. You have to want it. If you don't, you will sneak out, get one there.”
Nielsen already knew that from previous, painful and publicly humiliating experience.
“There was a time in my life when everyone in my family wanted me to quit gambling, but I didn't want to,” he said. “I sneaked out and did it there, and there, and there.”
And then that secret came to light, and it cost him dearly.
In 1999, during Danish Under-21 national team training, Nielsen went out at night with a couple of teammates to gamble in a casino. He lost – big.
The public called him “Casino Jimmy.” Worse, the Danish Football Association didn't call him at all. He was blacklisted from any international consideration for almost two years. Even after that was lifted, the closest he ever got to a cap was a series of appearances for the Denmark League XI, a talent-evaluation squad whose matches were not considered official by FIFA until 2007.
But if there's a bright spot to be gleaned from that harsh lesson, it's that Nielsen has already proven he can walk away from something that has hurt him.
He took no half-measures when he quit smoking. No patch, no nicotine gum. His only concession is a blue-tipped electronic cigarette, for the familiar feel of something in his hand.
“If I can do it, I think everybody can do it,” he said. “I had a rough time. I'm having this battle, but at the same time you want to win. I'm a little bit competitive.”
And, at the same time, human. That's why he acknowledges the struggle – even as he follows it up with a quiet, intense declaration.
“If I go out one night and maybe have a cigarette, I guarantee you I won't fall back again,” he said. “The further you are quitting, the bigger the loss will be if you fall back.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.