MLSsoccer.com continues its look 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 bald-pated former MetroStars icon – and the first player in MLS history to be traded – Rhett Harty. (Check out more from the series here.)
Where He Was Then
Let’s begin this look back with a little piece of trivia:
Flash back to the inaugural MLS Draft on Feb. 6, 1996. With their second-round pick – No. 19 overall – the New York/New Jersey MetroStars select defender Troy Dayak. General manager Charlie Stillitano summons team administrator Chris Unger to call Dayak with the good news. But the reaction on the other end of the line is not what was expected. Dayak basically tells Unger he will retire before moving to New York. The war room is silent.
In Rhetty Harty, the MetroStars had their first cult hero. The Empire Supporters Club was soon brandishing a banner with his likeness and the name “Mr. Clean.” The team held “Rhett Harty Haircut Day” and gave free admission to any fan willing to get his head shaved in the parking lot before the game.
When the first day of the draft is completed, it takes only about an hour-and-a-half for the Metros to come up with a solution to their dilemma. Assistant coach Ralph Perez and goalkeeper Tony Meola tell Stillitano and head coach Eddie Firmani to ask the San Jose Clash if they’d take Dayak for the player they had selected at the end of the fourth round.
A kid out of Stanford named Rhett Harty.
“At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea and didn’t think it was fair,” Harty recalls. “I was familiar with the Bay Area because I went to Stanford, so I saw getting drafted by San Jose as the best-case scenario, and now, 90 minutes later, I was being asked to move to the East Coast.
“But all it took was a short conversation with my dad to change my mind. He said, ‘You’re 25 years old and you have a chance to play soccer for a living in New York City!’ My attitude changed quickly and I got pretty excited to be a part of the MetroStars.”
After feeling a little out of place on a team that was decidedly East Coast in its makeup – led by the Jersey trio of Tab Ramos, Meola and Peter Vermes – Harty quickly earned his spot in the lineup as a rugged, no-nonsense defender. It also didn't take him long to earn his place in the hearts of the supporters.
“Rhett is my daughter’s godfather. He lived with us his first year with the MetroStars. My wife still jokes about how we got after each other when we were watching tapes of the games.
"He was such a great teammate. He was about as tough a competitor as you’ll ever see. He was a physical defender who never fouled anybody. Just ask him – every call against him was wrong.
He’s a guy who, unfortunately, is not involved in soccer. He’s an intelligent guy with a lot to offer. One of the toughest guys I’ve ever known and a great guy in the locker room. He became an icon in New York. The fans from way back still remember him well.”
– Tony Meola, former MetroStars teammate
The date was June 19. The Metros had dropped back-to-back to back home games, getting shut out 4-0 by the LA Galaxy in front of more than 50,000 fans and 1-0 by San Jose, when Harty did something bold. He approached Vermes and said, “Shave my head.” His goal was to change the mood around the team.
“We walked into the trainer’s room and asked if he had clippers,” Harty recalls. “He said he did not, so we grabbed a pair of scissors. I sat in the bathtub as Peter cut off my hair until it was short enough to shave with a blade. When I walked down the hall to the team meeting, people – including our coach, Carlos Queiroz – didn’t even recognize me.”
The MetroStars went out that night and beat the Dallas Burn in a shootout, and won four of their next five to climb to respectability. And the team had its first cult hero. The Empire Supporters Club was soon brandishing a banner with Harty’s likeness and the name “Mr. Clean.” The team held “Rhett Harty Haircut Day” and gave free admission to any fan willing to get his head shaved in the parking lot before the game.
Harty’s popularity went beyond his look. It was clear to all the fans that he played every game with full-on intensity. And for the first two seasons in Metros history, as players were shuttled in and out at a dizzying pace, Harty was as close to a fixture in the lineup as anyone to wear the red and black.
“When the league was 10 years old, I figured no one remembered me,” Harty says. “And then someone sent me a link to a story on the MetroFanatic website where they wrote about me, and the day I shaved my head. I got a little choked up, honestly. It was nice.”
Where He Is Now
After the 1998 season, when an ankle injury limited him to just seven games, Harty’s career came to an abrupt end. He was out of contract and told he was going to have to take a pay cut. He felt powerless. He was also one of the 10 players who filed a class-action lawsuit against MLS, challenging the league’s single-entity structure.
With bitterness he cannot deny to this day, Harty stewed for less than a week, then made a life-changing decision. He boarded a plane – solo – and took off for Southeast Asia.
“Basically, all my life, I relied on my teammates,” Harty recalls. “And I lived on a very set schedule, an itinerary, where I was told where to be and when to be there. I was almost 30, and a little scared of what I was going to do with myself. I decided the best thing I could do was jump into an ice-cold pool, so to speak. So I went on a long trip.”
During a post-career vision quest, Harty visited Nepal on his Asian travels and saw Mount Everest. "It was around that time that I started to see a lot of things in a different way," he says.
(Courtesy of Rhett Harty)
The journey began in Bangkok. Harty learned how to cope as a stranger in a strange land, testing his people skills all the way. He found his way to Nepal where, for three weeks, he trekked the Himalayas, working his way up a “hill” known as Gokyo Ri, more than 17,000 feet in elevation. It was there, with the cold air filling his lungs, Harty took a look around.
“From the top of Gokyo Ri, you have a clear, amazing view of Everest,” Harty says. “It was around that time that I started to see a lot of things in a different way.”
When he came down from the mountains, Harty went to Mother Theresa’s missions in Kolkata, India. He rented a room in the slums and volunteered in a medical ward. He worked with a female Eastern European doctor who called him “Johnny” because she could neither pronounce nor remember his actual name. He called her “Doctor Sister.” They helped a man with tuberculosis, and another with a skin-eating disease.
“One thing became pretty clear over time,” Harty says. “We complain about a lot of things here in the US, but for most of us, even our bad days are Disneyland. At the end of my playing days, maybe I felt sorry for myself. Those days were over.”
In all, the trip lasted about five months. Harty returned to the States thinking he wanted to go to medical school. To begin that quest, he accepted a job as a technical specialist for cardiovascular devices (such as defibrillators and heart valves) with St. Jude Medical in Portland, Ore. Long story short, he found a home and med school never happened. Today, he is St. Jude’s Northwest vice president, overseeing an entire region.
Today, Harty lives in Portland, Ore., where he is the northwest vice president for St. Jude Medical. He is a Timbers season-ticket holder. "I'm just another fan in the stands," he laughs.
(Courtesy of Rhett Harty)
“It was hard to retire from the game when I did because I felt I had more to give on the field,” Harty says. “But it’s worked out. I still love the game and have great memories and friendships from my three years in MLS.
"When I go to Timbers games now and see the crowds and the passion, it’s emotional. I think back to the first MLS game in Portland and it was like I was seeing my dream come true.”
Harty still feels the game with every step he takes. The ankle injury that cost him a lot of games, and maybe even his career, in 1998, has lingered. He had three surgeries on his right ankle while he was still playing, and was back in surgery just last month. Currently, he’s in a boot and undergoing some pretty intense physical therapy.
“I was getting some osteoarthritis,” Harty says. “Bone on bone. So this latest procedure was to try to help me avoid an ankle replacement down the road. If I ever run again, that will be a bonus, but this surgery was about my quality of life and to be able to do the things I do. I am an avid outdoorsman. I do a lot of horseback riding. My days of being a maniac are done.”
He is a season-ticket holder for the Portland Timbers and swears no strangers ever recognize him in the stands on game day, even though there was a time when he was one of the most distinctive-looking and most recognizable players in MLS, not to mention the answer to a great trivia question of which players were involved in the first trade in MLS history.
Really, Rhett? Not a single supporter at JELD-WEN can make out who you are?
“No,” Harty says with a laugh. “I’m just another fan in the stands.”