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Boehm: Reggie Cannon, a Nobel Prize and a special trip to Colorado

Reggie Cannon isn’t yet old enough to buy a beer legally, but he’s already logged nearly two full years as a professional, become an everyday starter for an MLS Cup contender and made his US national team debut.

In many families, that would make the FC Dallas fullback a rock star. In his, however, he’s the odd one out.

Cannon comes from a clan of high academic achievers, to put it mildly – starting with his maternal grandfather, Dr. Warren Washington, a Nobel Prize-winning climate change researcher, National Medal of Science recipient, former chair of the National Science Board and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Penn State, where he earned his doctorate, recently informed him that he’ll soon have a building named after him on campus.

Now 82, Dr. Washington has made the advanced tracking of greenhouse gases and their effects on the planet his life’s work, spending the past half-century building groundbreaking meteorological models to track both the cause and effects of our warming planet. Though he retired this year, he remains active in his field, traveling often to give speeches and presentations.

“I never realized the magnitude of what he did until I was older and I could actually grasp the concepts. He shook [President Barack] Obama’s hand, won a Nobel Prize and all this stuff,” Reggie told MLSsoccer.com of his grandfather this week. “It’s honestly an honor. Coming from a family of, my mom went to Brown, my stepdad went to Dartmouth, my dad went to Brown also – they all went to Ivy League schools and I’m the first athlete in the family that really broke out and became a professional athlete.

“It was kind of weird for my family to deal with, just to see a soccer player instead of an academic, study type of person. I’ve had an interesting journey so far, but my family learned to deal with me.”

Cannon’s grandfather has served in an advisory role to five different US presidents starting with Jimmy Carter. And as just the second African-American to earn a doctorate in the atmospheric sciences, he’s also a trailblazer who’s mentored dozens of aspiring young researchers over the years, among them his own seven children, many of whom went on to earn advanced degrees and carve out high-powered medical and scientific careers of their own.

That includes Reggie’s mother, Dr. Tracy Cannon-Smith, an accomplished urological surgeon in Arlington, Texas.

“My dad, he definitely is a genius,” said Dr. Cannon-Smith, a Brown University alum – she captained the Bears’ rugby team – who went on to earn her PhD from the University of Michigan. “If you ever met him, he’s super humble, never said anything to all his grandkids about his accomplishments.

“I know for all those kids growing up, we had very high expectations academically. All of his kids went to colleges and graduated, many of us have advanced degrees. So that was always the expectation – and not just us. He mentored many people to get, especially, degrees in science. That was the biggest thing for him, for people to go into the scientific field.

“You had to know where you would like to go and have ideas of what you wanted to be when you grow up,” she added. “Do you want to be a scientist? Do you want to be an engineer? What do you want to be? You had to have definite ideas from the time you were 7 or 8, and talk about those things.”

A highly touted soccer prospect since his mid-teens, Reggie was offered a Homegrown contract by FCD while he was still in high school. His parents, however, weren’t ready for academics to exit the picture quite so quickly.

“I asked him to go for one semester just so he would never in his mind wonder what college was like,” explained Reggie’s mom. “We certainly have a lot of our family members have gone to Ivy League schools and good institutions, so I asked him to choose a school that he felt that had [both] soccer standards and academic standards. That’s why he chose UCLA.”

Cannon quickly flashed his prodigious potential with the Bruins and decided he was ready to go pro after just one semester at Westwood. His family, however, were skeptical, starting with Dr. Washington.

“That was a hard one, because all his kids have gone to college, all of Reggie’s cousins have gone to college and are doing great things,” said Cannon’s mom of her father’s reservations. 

“He was a little concerned at first, and that’s why it was such a hard decision, I think, for Reggie to not finish. For our family that’s certainly not tradition.”

“I thought it was a bad idea at first,” Dr. Washington told MLSsoccer.com. “But then when I found out a little bit more, he can still go to college after his soccer career, if he wants to. I think I see a number of athletes doing this sort of thing in basketball and baseball and so forth. So he must have the skills to do fairly well as a professional.”

Three generations of Reggie Cannon's family | Courtesy of Dr. Tracy Cannon-Smith

Recalled Cannon with a laugh: “It definitely took some convincing, but I’m proud they finally broke down.”

From a soccer perspective, it’s hard to argue with Reggie’s decision. He’s made huge strides this year and showed well in his USMNT debut earlier this month, showing why he’s widely seen as the program’s right back of the future. And his mom is quick to note that he had to earn his way to this point.

“A lot of people think Reggie grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth,” she said. “I understand why people think that, but I also think that when your mom is a surgeon there’s certain skills you have to develop, perhaps because your mom isn’t around. Reggie had to learn [that] if I couldn’t get him to practice – he’d call and I’d say, ‘I’m not going to be home in time’ – so it was upon him to find someone who could get him to practice.

“I told him, if you want to do this soccer thing, you’re going to have to make it happen for yourself, because Mom can’t always be there. So I think at a young age he had to determine that if this is something you want, you’ve got to fight for it. So he definitely did that more so on his own than me helping him.”

After his initial doubts, Dr. Washington has come around. And on Sunday, he will make the short trip out to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to watch his grandson play professional soccer in person for the first time, as Dallas meet the Colorado Rapids on Decision Day presented by AT&T (4:30 pm ET | TV & Streaming Info).

“All of the grandkids have gone to college – and Reggie is the first who really went into athletics. He’s turned out to be a fine grandson,” he said. “We’re very proud of him, and hopefully we’ll get a few minutes to spend with him on Sunday.”

One of the core principles Dr. Washington passed on to his descendants was that their choice of field was less important than their full commitment to it – “it wasn’t that we necessarily achieve the highest things, we just had to be good at whatever we chose to do. That was the expectation,” Dr. Cannon-Smith explained – and it seems safe to say that at age 20, Reggie is fulfilling his end of that bargain.

“I think as long as he’s excellent and doing well and happy with it, I’m very supportive,” said his grandfather. “And I think his parents and the family as a whole are very proud of him.”

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