Editor’s note: Joey Tavernese has had a tumultuous year, from his injury-filled planned final season, and losing to the Baltimore Blast (again) in the playoffs, to a traumatic break-up with his long-time girlfriend and deciding to sign with the Florida Tropics and play for another season. Below he writes an introspective letter to the sport of soccer.
Since I can remember, it’s always been you. Laughs and cries, joy and sadness, ups and downs; it’s always been you. I fell in love with you the first day I took that field. You have given me so much in life, but also have taken so much away. You have given me so many memories, and caused me to miss out on even more. I became a boring person because I devoted my all to you. Practices with teams and on my own, eating healthy, not partying, ice baths, Epsom salt baths, massages, physical therapy, and going to the gym, to give my all to you. I am so fortunate for the ride you have given me, but at the same time I can’t help but be annoyed with what you have taken from me. I was never adventurous in my life. I never went skiing or ice skating, never participated in activities that I could injure myself because I wanted to stay true to you. You will always be my first love, but the truth is, you helped me meet the love of my life, and at the same time, helped me to lose her.
I’ve been on soccer fields for the last 20+ years, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No matter how much you love something, that is a grind that can wear you down. The outside people see the lifestyle, small-time fame, and all the perks, but they never see the sacrifices. You have consumed my life through playing and coaching, and never allowed me a life of my own. I was never able to open up to anyone or anything else because I was so comfortable and mesmerized by you. The lifestyle and brainwashing you glued to my brain caused me to lose the girl I wanted to spend forever with. Staying in to watch game film instead of taking her out to dinner, not going out with her after a game because we lost and I was in a bad mood, going out with the guys instead of her because we won. Choosing the gym over going for a walk with her, taking care of my body instead of going hiking with her, and the list could go on for days. I sacrificed so much for you, soccer. Birthdays missed, holidays spent alone, weddings and family functions skipped, no true vacations, and most of all relationships lost.
The choices we make are our own. No one forces us to make decisions or do certain things, however, you and everything that comes with you are seriously a drug. The lifestyle is one that can overtake our mind and body and force us to make those right or wrong decisions that affect everything in our world. Every action has a consequence, good or bad. You have given an average kid more than he could have ever imagined. Traveled the world, won national championships, won division championships, played for my country, met men and women from all walks of life. I will cherish everything you gave me, but I will also never forget what you helped me to lose.
I would sacrifice anything for you — anything for myself, anything for the people around me, too, but not if it conflicted with you. I have done a lot of good in this world for people, but I could have been a much better overall person. Sacrifice is an interesting word. I’ve always gone through life thinking, why does this person do this or that, but the truth is, we are only alive for a short period of time and we should all be doing what makes us happy. Now what that is may stay the same or may change over time, but whatever it is that makes you happy is what you should make sure you are involved with.
I used to question the guys who would miss games due to family events, birth of a child, death of a family member, and so on. I couldn’t believe they would desert their team like that. I’ve been married to you forever, but I have learned the hard way there is more to life than just the game. Doug Miller, my mentor, skipped the Rhinos final in 1998 because the game landed on his wedding day. People make decisions and choices each and every day, and as long as they are happy with them, that is all that matters.
Professional soccer has been a rollercoaster ride for me and indoor soccer has been at the highest point of that. It is a game I fell deeply in love with the first time I played it. The journey started in 2012 at the Syracuse Silver Knights Combine. This is where I would first meet the famous Tommy Tanner. He would go on to cut me and he didn’t sign William Vanzela when he had the chance, so not sure he was the best at judging talent (not that I’m anywhere near as good as Vanzela). I then would head to the MISL Combine in Kansas City. This is where I would meet Brian Harris, a true inspiration. He has become one of my good friends who I still keep in contact with. He was a great player and a great professional. I would also meet Soccer Sam Fantauzzo in Kansas City. He is one of my closest friends to this day. He invited me to the Rochester Lancers preseason which is where I would start my indoor career. It’s funny, I spoke to him the other day and he let me know that he told my story to this year’s Lancers combine players.
In Rochester I would meet my mentor Dougie Miller. I took on board most of what he said. I wish I would have paid a bit more attention when he provided advice in the love department. He taught me all about the game and more importantly life. It’s easy to tune people out when you’re younger, but when life smacks you in the face at the age of 30, you think back to what all those wise people told you.
I would also meet one of my great friends Rey “Boom Boom” Martinez. Rey is definitely a special type of person with more stories than anyone else in the world, but Jake Schindler and I always said without Rey, we never would have truly learned the game.
Jim Hesch was the Head Coach of the Lancers my first year. He didn’t see me as a player, but I was determined to prove him wrong. Jimmy and I are great friends to this day. He taught me all about indoor soccer on and off the field. That season, not many know, but I slept on a couch and basically ate Lunchables every day. During the year I truly learned what indoor soccer was all about. My contract was not great that year, but I had great teammates like Stephen Basso, Evan McNeley, Schindler, and Martinez who would help me out.
I met players from around the league and gained the rep of being the life of the party. A lot of fans are so anxious for the schedule to come out, but the truth is, most of the players are more excited. I would always receive calls from people who were so mad that they weren’t playing my team, or guys ecstatic that they landed on my schedule, because they knew it was going to be a night out after the game to remember.
Josh Rife would become the next Head Coach of the Lancers for 2013-14. We struggled that season with injuries and rebuilding, but it was a year that I enjoyed learning the game in depth. Rife was a disciplined coach who taught me all of the nuances and technical skills needed to play indoor and eventually futsal. That season, I landed of the front page of the newspaper in Rochester and Soccer Sam told me I was making a difference in people’s lives. I never believed him back then, but as the years went on, I realized how the kids and families had memories from their times at the games and meeting the players.
I have gone through a series of growing up and life lessons throughout my career and that year would be one of them. High school taught me one, college taught me a few, and this would be my first as a pro. I made some poor decisions, got caught, was suspended for the final game of the season, and my future with the club was in doubt. Social media may be great for some aspects in life, but it can also lead you down the wrong path to make mistakes and ruin important aspects of your life, while hurting those close to you.
I’ve met so many great people in Upstate New York, and these people showed their true character when helping me out through a tough time and forgiving me. Rife has since forgiven me, and Sam accepted my apology and brought me back the following year (2014-15). Dougie would become Head Coach and turn me into a local celebrity, and Jake would house me as I was kicked out of my apartment. I learned another valuable lesson that year. Jimmy Hesch would always tell us, what you do on your own time, is your own business, and keep it that way, but when it comes to your job, you better show up and do it to the best of your ability. I think since that time, I’ve pretty much followed that saying.
With Dougie I would become somewhat of an indoor name. Now, I’ll never be an Adauto Neto, Machel Millwood, Byron Alvarez, Mike Lookingland, Ian Bennett, Max Ferdinand, or Kraig Chiles to name a few, but I’ve made a small name for myself in the game. I would have a career year, while becoming known for my goal celebrations like the ‘NSYNC Bye Bye Bye dance with Gary Boughton, salutes to the fans, back flips, and my white boy version of the salsa dance. Blue Cross Arena and the Rochester fans were amazing. Soccer Sam is easily the greatest, and my favorite owner of any team I have played for. That season we would play a memorable game against Baltimore. We lost 25-23 in a 2- and 3-point shootout. We played in front of over 10,000 fans and I had a good game. I hate losing more than I love winning, but some moments are so special you can never forget them. The atmosphere in that arena was electric. Rochester will always have a special place in my heart. The city gave me a name and made me a small-time celebrity. We would go on to lose on a power play goal to Baltimore in the playoffs that season, which would become a recurring theme.
The next year (2015-16) Rochester would fold due to workers comp issues. I signed for Hartford City FC. It was a short stint as they would fold two months into a long preseason before ever playing a game. The owners ended up in prison for some shady business transactions. The Ontario Fury then signed me and I went out to California. I would be reunited with Stephen Basso and become best friends with a guy I battled with for many years in Nelson Santana. That season I was injured early on in a game in Mexico, and I would have Nelson be my travel guide all over California which is a beautiful place. Cory Elenio unfortunately tore his ACL in Syracuse and Tommy Tanner traded for me to come to the Silver Knights. It was a great fit as it really revived my career. I was fortunate enough to play with the likes of Kenardo Forbes (should be MLS or higher), Slavisa Ubiparipovic (one of the best technical players I’ve ever come across, and the player who has given me the most tap-ins in my career), Darren Toby and Jake Schindler two of the best defenders in the league. I am the most average player ever, but surrounded by great players, I look like a top player. We would go on to lose to Baltimore in the playoffs in triple overtime that season. It was always a Pat Healey pass to Tony Donatelli that would beat us. This was also the year Keith Tozer would call me into the Futsal National Team. Greatest memories of my soccer career, representing the Red, White, and Blue.
The 2016-17 season was a tough one. Tommy Tanner stepped down as coach and Bryan O’Quinn became the new Head Coach. It was a tough transition that season with some internal issues as we had a disappointing 8-12 season. One thing I will always say about the Syracuse crew is that they are a tight knit group. They all give each other grief and talk smack, but they are the closest group I have come across. It was not an easy group to work my way into, and I made a few decisions that I would definitely do differently today, but we eventually became a family and they have become some of my closest friends to this day.
We would again be eliminated by Baltimore after scoring a buzzer beater in regulation, only to lose in overtime. This was the year I met my first and only girlfriend. I’ll never forget the day, January 29, 2017, we put a beating on Chicago, I scored typical 1-yard goals, and we went out that night. Tommy had actually been her youth coach and was my wingman on the night. For whatever reason she liked me and we were attached from the first night on. She basically moved in after that first night, seems crazy but it felt right. Syracuse will always be my favorite city because of her and the boys.
Ryan Hall would take over as head coach for 2017-18. That year was something special. I had my differences with the ownership group because we were underfunded and treated poorly. I wanted to do all I could to get the boys what we deserved. We would use that as motivation all year and it led to us becoming the closest team indoor soccer has ever seen.
During that season I had the most fun I ever had playing; a beautiful girlfriend, a dog that would become my best friend, and a group of guys that were family. As a team we literally did everything together. Group texts for hours, ate every meal together, and went out together. We had some pretty daunting road trips that season, with Tommy scheduling our trips, but as miserable as they were, they brought us closer. I had love on the field, love off the field, and a group of guys that made every day enjoyable. That season I could shoot the ball the opposite way of the goal and it would still somehow end up in the goal.
I will always have love for you and all the joy you brought me.
As much as I have been married to you, some people are just a different breed. I ate, slept, and lived soccer for 30 years. Guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal are just completely different people. They are the definition of what it is to be a winner. Soccer was always my first choice, but those guys would literally disown anyone or anything when it came to their profession. The truth is, to be successful in sports, or anything for that matter, you need to be selfish. Some of us lose that love at some point, others never lose it, like those guys. When you’re happy off the field, your performance on the field will thrive. The real reason I was so successful that season and had a career year was because of my girlfriend, Ashley. I was so happy on and off the field and I felt like I couldn’t fail. It’s funny, I played in a game the other day and this kid’s girlfriend was there. He is a solid player, but I’ve never seen him play so well before. We can all relate, that when our significant other is watching, we are so desperate to impress them, that we always end up playing our best. Unfortunately, that year we would again lose to, you guessed it, Baltimore. It’s tough being the Knicks during the Jordan era of the Bulls.
This past year, 2018-19, was the biggest roller coaster for me. The Silver Knights moved to Utica. The plan was for it to be my last season followed by a move to Long Island with my now Ex to start a life. Yes, if you know me, I’ve said it many times before, but I was actually ready to be done this time. Because of you, soccer, I made some poor decisions that led to my break up, but you really make it hard on our relationships. I wish I put half as much time into my relationship as I did for you. Utica brought me a lot of highs and lows. Playing at the Adirondack Bank Center is something special. Every road team says it and it’s true. The atmosphere is incredible. Playing there really makes you feel like you’re playing at the highest of levels. I will miss it dearly.
A lot went wrong for me last season from injuries, one being a severe hematoma (which Nate Bourdeau points out is a fancy name for a bruise), to car accidents, to sickness. Through all of this I missed only two games and tried to play in one, doing everything possible to be there for the team, but I unfortunately had an average year. I can honestly say I gave my all every game out on the field but for the Utica faithful, but I know it wasn’t enough. I hope my celebrations and hardworking play left an impact on you all.
If I’m being honest, the real reason my play was average was because of my life off the field. I was afraid of change. I was scared of losing the game and the lifestyle and I let my off-the-field issues affect my on-the-field play. I became afraid of settling down and leaving the only life I had ever known behind. Professional sports, regardless of what level, has a different lifestyle than other occupations. It is one that brings parties, small-time fame, women, handouts, and memories that will last a lifetime. This is all a part of the game and right or wrong, it can definitely lead to poor decisions. I made poor decisions in my relationship and that is the reason I am single now.
The one positive I can say that came out of this situation is that for the first time, at 30 years old, I have finally grown up. Peter Pan is a man of the past, and I now like to think of myself as Robin Williams in Hook. We all can’t stay Peter Pan forever, and my only regret in my 30 years of life is that I didn’t grow up six months sooner. It’s only progress if you make the change, and over these last few months, I most certainly have made those changes.
And here we arrive at the present. Initially, I was hoping for a trade to Baltimore to chase my Ex. I think it would have been interesting to play for a team that is such a rival like the Yankees and the Red Sox, but as you know I signed with the Florida Tropics in late May.
Utica was a great place to play. Those players and coaches are family to me, the fans are incredible, and the staff are some of the coolest people I have met. The business of sports is a tough one. The organization decided to go in a different direction, and I respect that decision and wish them nothing but the best. I will be rooting for them to win all their games until the playoffs.
Truth be told, the Florida roster is extremely stacked and I hope they still have use for me. Through all the bad and negative times over this past year, I am so excited for what the future holds with this new organization. I can’t thank the Tropics enough for helping me through this process and understanding my situation, both on and off the field. They took a chance signing me, not knowing if I would play or not, and they have done everything possible to accommodate me in my situation.
I may have a love/hate relationship with you at the moment, but the truth is, where I am in my life, you are the only thing that makes me happy at the moment. I can’t wait to get out there and show the league what this team is capable of and repay the Tropics on the field for all they have done for me off of it. I can’t deny that I’m a bit lost in life at the age of 30, but what I can tell you is that this year I will continue to give my blood, sweat, and tears to help this group win the Ronnie.
I’m not sure what the future holds or where my life is headed, but you have brought me happiness and sadness, and no matter what, you have always been there for me, through the good and bad. I love you, but I hope eventually the future holds some time to enjoy the fruits of life outside of you. I don’t know when the ride will end, but I know when it does, I will miss the lights, the heat, the crowds, and the locker room. My heart longs for something else, but when you can’t have what you want, it’s nice to know your first love is still there for you until you’re ready to move on. I am excited to visit Rochester again, I look forward to seeing Utica in the playoffs and like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, “I’ll be leaving a ticket for someone special” when we visit Baltimore on Saturday, January 4 that I hope gets used. But for all the guys looking for the party, unfortunately, that man has left the building, so I’ll be there to watch over you all now.
I want to thank all of the special people I have met over the years on and off the field, and my family and friends for sticking by me through this long and difficult journey. You have made each year and season so special and I can’t thank you enough. Thank you to Ashley for sticking by my side for so many years through all of the ups and downs.
Whatever you do in life, be happy and proud to show it off to others. Don’t worry about your image or what others think, be proud to show your love and passion for your career and your loved ones; there is nothing wrong with it. Don’t be afraid to be the real you, the important people in your life will respect it and accept it.
Peter Pan officially signing out. Let’s get Tropical!