By Kevin Koczwara
Zak Boggs hasn’t retired from professional soccer. No, the former New England Revolution midfielder has yet to finish playing soccer, even though he decided to leave the club in August to pursue another dream: a Fulbright Scholarship.
At the behest of an adviser at the University of South Florida, where he successfully earned a Master’s Degree in Marketing, Boggs applied for the Fulbright in October of 2011 while playing for the Revolution. He had 10 days to finish his application after the late notice from USF.
Easier said than done. Not only did he already have a full-time job to take care of, but also, when he wasn’t playing, he spent time in the research laboratory at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where his work earned him the 2011 M.L.S. Humanitarian of the Year Award.
This wasn’t the first time Boggs was pointed toward a prestigious scholarship. In his first year of grad school at USF, an adviser at the university suggested that Boggs apply for the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. So he buckled down and focused his best efforts to earn a scholarship.
“I had graduated from there in 2008 with a 4.0 [GPA] in Biomedical Sciences in three years, so that was pretty unusual to begin with,” says Boggs via a Skype interview from his dorm in Leicester. “I had redshirted one year so I had one more year of eligibility, and my soccer coach George Kiefer was like, ‘You can get a Master’s Degree, we’ll pay for it.’ Of course I’m going to do that. I set out and got my masters in marketing and out of nowhere the honors college at South Florida contacted me and said, ‘We think you’d be a great candidate for the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships.’”
Boggs eventually got word that he hadn’t been selected for either scholarship. So he took it upon himself to keep his dream of playing professional soccer alive. Boggs started by putting together a highlight reel of his best moments in college soccer and posting them on YouTube. Not long after that, the Revolution took notice and selected Boggs in the second round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft (31st overall).
Even though he realized his dream of becoming a pro soccer player, Boggs still felt like he had something else to prove. That “something else” happened to be another scholarship: the Fulbright one, to be exact.
“To be honest, I thought my academic career would be on hold for a while after I got my master’s degree, but then this opportunity came up and it was just one [with] the timing was right and I was ready for it as far as I was concerned,” said Boggs.
While most pro athletes are hesitant to their career on hiatus, Boggs examined his situation. He hadn’t cemented himself into the Revolution’s starting XI, and he was battling a series of injuries. There was nothing to lose. If he did get selected, then there would be a decision to make, but he wasn’t thinking about that in October of 2011.
Then came the interview in February for the scholarship. A month later, just before the MLS season was about to get into full-swing, Boggs learned that he had been accepted into the program.
“It would be a tremendous opportunity to go to England and study something I’m really interested in. It’s a prestigious thing; once in a lifetime, so I had to do it,” said Boggs.
Once the decision was made, he informed the front office, which offered him a standard MLS buyout package. It was time to pursue the scholarship and put his pro soccer career on hold.
But before he could book his cross-Atlantic flight, there was one more matter he had to attend to: telling his teammates.
“It was interesting telling some of the guys from the team (that) this is what I am going to be doing,” says Boggs. “Some of them didn’t understand it. Some of them were happy. Some of them were kind of like, ‘well are you going to keep playing soccer?’ They didn’t quite understand what I was doing.”
Some might not have understood because it didn’t seem possible for a pro athlete to simply hit the ‘pause’ button. It didn’t make sense that he was leaving behind one dream — a dream so many children have while kicking the ball in the backyard or on the practice field, a dream he worked so hard for — for another dream.
It also didn’t occur to many that Boggs could actually continue to play while studying. That this was a short hiatus was just new challenge and that the former South Florida Bull wanted to take.
As a teenager, Boggs constantly kept the soccer ball at his feet during the two-mile walk to school in the morning. The long walk to school was the regular trip to Parkersburg High School in Vienna, WV, but dribbling a ball en route was not. It made him the social outcast. At the time, football and wrestling were popular sports in Vienna, but Boggs — whose father played at Hamilton College in New York — never abandoned the sport he loved.
“I use to get made fun of, I wouldn’t say a lot but I got made fun of. What kid doesn’t going through junior high and high school?” say Boggs. “But I would juggle and dribble my ball to school in the morning and all the kids had to wait outside before they could go into the school and I’d be dribbling and everyone could see me and I’d be this sweaty kid in school. I got a lot of stick for that.”
The teasing didn’t deter him, though. Instead, Boggs searched out new teams and went so far as to join a program two hours away from home in Columbus, OH. Eventually, Boggs found himself at the IMG Academy in Florida with an offer to move there and train permanently. It was a life-changing event that few American soccer players get, and one Boggs couldn’t pass up.
“I went down there for three weeks and [former Director Tom Durkin] said to me, ‘I have the scholarship money, I want you to play for me here.’ That would require me to move down to Florida and I told my mom about this and she said, ‘I better come down.’ My mom flew down the last couple days of camp and she met him and the three of us talked and the consensus at the end of the meeting was I was already set — I was doing it,” said Boggs. “My mom kind of looked at me and started crying because she knew I wanted to do it and she didn’t want me to leave home. It was tough leaving home at 15 or 16, whatever I was then. That was tough. It was just one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Bridging the Gap and Continuing to Play
There is more to Boggs than the soccer ball.
In the locker room Boggs is a quiet introvert type. He doesn’t seem, from the outside, to be a boisterous professional athlete in complete control of his talents. He goes about his business on the field and doesn’t make much of a show of it. He has a strange gait to the way he runs. He looks like a square peg on the field at times because he doesn’t have the same grace displayed by many of his peers. But there is no doubting his touch, his work ethic, or his love of the game.
Boggs is a rare breed of athlete: he’s a skilled professional who also happens to live in the world of the libraries and science. Boggs crosses the divide between brainiac and ballplayer. He’s a professional athlete who’s just as comfortable in a laboratory studying RNA splicing. It goes back to his upbringing in West Virginia where his parents drove him two hours each way to play soccer and help him form good studying habits at an early age.
“I really couldn’t do anything without my parents because they were always making sure I was doing things to the point where it formed habits and they would take an active interest and want to see it, so I would show them what I did,” said Boggs. “They took an active interest in it and at first it became my mom is going to be proud of me if I do this, and then it slowly became, ‘Hey I want to do this.’ It became my own type of initiative and determination, certainly hard work played a big role in it.”
The workload of school has never deterred his love of soccer, though. The Fulbright hasn’t stopped Boggs from playing soccer daily, even if it means walking three miles to get to practice. Despite Visa issues, Boggs is currently playing for non-league side Barrow Town while training and trialing with Nuneaton Town FC of the Conference National League in England.
“I always want to play soccer, that’s always been a goal. There’s been no waver from that. I’ve played every day I’ve been here,” says Boggs.
The only problem he’s having is getting on a side full-time. His visa through the Fulbright doesn’t allow him to play professional soccer.
“Fulbright visas have limited working scope just as student visas in the USA often do not allow students to work, except in certain jobs,” says Boggs’s agent Patrick McCabe in an email.
“The Fulbright program is not designed to allow students to play professional football and it would circumvent the work permit guidelines for footballers,” he continues.
Boggs has been filling in and playing wherever he can. It’s situation that’s far from ideal, but it’s given him time to work on different parts of his game and seek out new ways to practice.
“You miss the structure of playing [soccer] and training and having that competition every day,” says Boggs “Where as here I have to go out and make my own competition regardless of who I’m playing with I have to set different goals for what I want to do in that competition because I don’t know who I’m going to be playing against on any given day.”
While the former pro isn’t exactly new to the game, he’s quick to admit that English football – even at the lower divisions – bears little resemblance to American soccer.
“The difference is the speed really,” says Boggs. “How fast the game is. Not how fast the players are, but how fast the speed of play [is]. It’s noticeably faster. In the lower leagues it’s faster with not as much control.
“It’s providing (me) a different experience, a unique experience that a lot of Americans don’t get to have,” says Boggs. “There’s no one telling me instructions, it’s just you figure it out for yourself, you read the game a little different. It’s different you have to figure out how it’s different and adjust to it.”
Boggs hopes that experience will carry over in his career when he finishes his year of schooling, which he expects to complete by June 2013. But Boggs wants to try and finish his work early so he can return to training full-time and, perhaps, push for another professional contract.
“It’s not like I want to choose one over the other because to be honest I love soccer so I would never not choose that,” Boggs continued. “I’m just gifted in so many different things. I don’t want to neglect one because there are so many opportunities that I have and that I’ve made [for] myself.”
Boggs will leave England with a second Master’s Degree and plenty of memories. He has two paths to pursue, but he hopes he can go back to being a professional soccer player. If that doesn’t work out, though, he has a pretty good foundation to work with for his next career.
Editor’s Note: The Revolution currently own Boggs’s rights if he wishes to return MLS. However, according to General Manager Mike Burns, Boggs is free to pursue opportunities abroad. Boggs said he would join New England if the opportunity presented itself.