In February the former Leeds winger revealed his sexuality, then walked away from the game. In his first interview since that decision, he explains his anger, and his hopes for the future
• Robbie Rogers gallery, by Tom Jenkins
Robbie Rogers needs to be brave again on another freezing morning in east London. Even walking down the stairs to open the big black door to his apartment takes courage – for this is how the next stage begins. Once the door swings open he will be back on an emotionally bruising ride into the open.
It helps that, last month, Rogers told the world the truth about himself in 408 crisp words which, on his website, confirmed that, "Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret."
Rogers, who has represented the United States in 18 international football matches, was signed by Leeds United in January 2012. His time at the club was blighted by injury but he played briefly for Leeds and this season, on loan, for Stevenage. He left Leeds "by mutual consent" three months ago.
Rogers then became only the second gay footballer in Britain to come out in public. Justin Fashanu, his solitary predecessor, hanged himself in 1998 in Shoreditch, just a short walk from where Rogers now lives.
"Secrets can cause so much internal damage," Rogers wrote. "People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay."
Rogers, from a close-knit conservative Christian family in America, has kept the world at a safe distance since coming out. He has been besieged with large offers of money for interviews and contracts, as well as moving emails from thousands of people who have thanked him or asked how they might uncover the truth about themselves. Rogers has turned down every money-man; but he has written to some ordinary people. Today marks a big step forward for himself and, as he says, "people like me."
On a day of fierce cold, beneath a heavy grey sky, Rogers is a long way from home. As a self-confessed Californian dude who grew up playing soccer, surfing and going to church in a sun-kissed place, he misses his family. But Rogers needs to be strong when talking for the first time in public about his sexuality and all it took to reach a point of honesty as pure as it is still raw.
Inside his rented flat, while Rogers makes coffee and introduces me to Jeffrey, his five-month-old dog and close pal, he is relaxed. It helps that we had met a week before, to discuss if and how we might talk, but Rogers admits his trepidation: "It felt scary when this day was coming close. First, it was a case of I'm never going to come out. Next, I'm going to come out to my friends and family. And then I'm going to come out to the world and do interviews? It's like: 'Oh, my gosh, what's next?' So last night I was nervous – but excited."
The backdrop for a professional sportsman is so harsh that coming out usually feels impossible. There have been notable exceptions – from the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas to the Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz. Yet even those hard and violent trades are more forgiving than the tribal world of football.
It is still loved by so many of us, and mythologised as "the beautiful game", but football has long been a place where bigotry, greed and ignorance thrive. Rogers will become a symbol and a spokesman but it's important to remember that, more than just a pioneering gay footballer, he is a 25-year-old man who stepped out of the shadows of his secret history.
"I had a very happy childhood," he says. "Very story-book. Conservative, Catholic family. Five kids. I'm the middle child so [Rogers laughs] I was destined to be gay. California is amazing and, all the while, I had a football at my feet. We had this giant driveway and I'd kick the ball up and down for hours. I loved it."
Rogers also fell in love, in a one-way long-distance relationship, with Arsenal. He sounds smitten when remembering the great Arsenal team of a decade ago, Arsene Wenger's side of steel and subtlety which went unbeaten through an entire Premier League season. "It's tough being an Arsenal fan right now, but I fell for the beauty and toughness of that team. They had such beautiful players. Patrick Vieira was so hard he could kill someone, and then he'd pop the ball on his chest and hit this dink of a pass with such artistry. When we were playing in the streets my team was always Arsenal."
Amid gorgeous days of sunshine and soccer, with Rogers being talented enough to make national youth squads from 14 onwards, conflicting emotions unfurled inside him.
"I started feeling very different and it was a case of, 'All right, I'm good at football and I get attention from girls. Why don't I want that? What's wrong with me?' I realised I was gay when I was 14 or 15. I was like, 'I want to play football. But there are no gay footballers. What am I going to do?'
"You feel such an outcast. I just couldn't tell anyone because high school in the States is brutal. You're going through puberty and kids can be vicious. I was lucky my older sisters were cool people and I was the football guy. All these things made it easier to mask myself. But it was also difficult. You have girls coming on to you and you're like, 'Shit, it would be a lot easier if they weren't interested and I could just play football.' I kept saying: 'I can't go out because I have training today or a match tomorrow.'"
Did Rogers force himself to go out with girls as a way of appearing 'normal'? "Of course. Yeah. I tried to change myself. I would date beautiful, intelligent, amazing girls – if I was straight maybe I would have been going nuts. Some of them are still my friends."
After a year at the Dutch club Heerenveen, Rogers excelled on his return to America where, at Columbus Crew, he helped his team win the MLS Cup in 2008. "We won that trophy in LA, in front of my family, with this amazing team. Afterwards we went to a bar and I was like, 'I should be so happy now…' But I left after a few drinks and sat on my own in my room, thinking, 'OK. I'm gay. But I can't come out because I love football so much. What am I going to do?' The more successful you become the harder it is to step away."
In England, Rogers became acutely aware of the impossibility of being a publicly-out gay footballer. He was an established international and his most recent caps had been won under Jürgen Klinsmann – whose first game in charge ended in a draw, against Mexico, after an equaliser from Rogers.
But he understood the bitter truth: "In football it's obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It's crazy and sad. I thought: 'Why don't I step away and deal with this and my family and be happy?' Imagine going to training every day and being in that spotlight? It's been a bit of a circus anyway – but that would have been crazy. And you wouldn't have much control because clubs are pushing you in different directions.
"I was just fearful. I was very fearful how my team-mates were going to react. Was it going to change them? Even though I'd still be the same person would it change the way they acted towards me – when we were in the dressing room or the bus?"
In all professional sport, dressing room "banter", in that euphemistic phrase, can be callous. "Especially football," Rogers stresses. How did he react when homophobic quips were made – even though his team-mates were oblivious to his sexuality? "There were different emotions. Sometimes I would feel bad for them. Sometimes I would laugh because it was kinda funny. And, sometimes, it got malicious.
"That was when I would get this awful feeling in my stomach. I would turn my head and try to chat about other things. They often don't mean what they say. It's that pack mentality – they're trying to get a laugh, they're trying to be the top guy. But it's brutal. It's like high school again – on steroids."
Rogers speaks warmly of individual footballers. "They're amazing people, really. Professional footballers are very interesting and from all walks of life. They have great stories when you get them away from the banter and the pack. They can really open up. To become a professional footballer there is something special about you. You need this drive, this hunger."
Yet there is also something diseased at the heart of professional football – epitomised by its attitude towards homosexuality. "Football is an amazing sport," Rogers says. "But it is also a brutal sport that picks people up and slams them on their heads. Adding the gay aspect doesn't make a great cocktail."
What would have happened if Rogers had still been playing for Leeds when he came out? "That would have been interesting," he says wryly. "I don't think I would have been able to go training the next day. That would be so scary. The guys might have said, 'That's great, Robbie.' Maybe. But because no-one's done it and because of the things I've heard in the dressing room I just thought: 'I need to get away from this – make my announcement, find peace, go from there.' So I can never imagine announcing that at Leeds."
Could he have come out while playing for Columbus in the US? "No. Not at any club – anywhere."
And, back in this country, if he was playing for Leeds and they were away to Millwall today? "Woah!" Rogers exclaims. "I can't even think about that."
We end up laughing, helplessly, which shows how much football has to change. "Definitely. Maybe a lot of fans aren't homophobic. But, in a stadium, sometimes they want to destroy you. In the past I would have said: 'They don't know I'm gay so it doesn't mean anything.' But, now they know it, am I going to jump in the stands and fight them?"
It would be incredibly powerful if a gay footballer could face down that hate and abuse – just as black sportsmen like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali stood up to racism in America.
"Sure," Rogers says. "I've thought about that. I might be strong enough but I don't know if that's really what I want. I'd just want to be a footballer. I wouldn't want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you're gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: 'So you're taking showers with guys – how's that?'
"If you're playing well it will be reported as: 'The gay footballer is playing well.' And if you have a bad game it'll be: 'Aw, that gay dude … he's struggling because he's gay.' Fuck it. I don't want to mess with that."
Yet the response to his coming out seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. "It's been very warm, very accepting. Guys I played with have sent messages saying, 'You know I was joking when I said that?' I say, 'Bro, don't worry about it. You were hilarious. Don't worry.'"
He becomes thoughtful when asked if he knows any gay footballers. "No. Even now, one of my best friends said: 'Do we know anyone else in football who could possibly be gay?' And we couldn't think of anyone. We're such great actors because we're afraid to let people know who we are. We've been trained by our agents how to do interviews, how to present ourselves. No footballer has since said to me, 'Robbie, thank you, I'm gay too…' I don't know if anyone will."
Many gay men, surely, are playing professional football? "Of course. Tons. I mean footballers dress really well [he laughs]."
Could he imagine a young gay footballer knocking on his manager's door to ask for advice? "It would be so tough. Would I have had the same opportunities when I was younger if I'd come out? I don't think so. There would have been that mentality: 'Oh he's gay … how will that affect the team?'"
The way in which Fashanu was treated has been a bleak warning to any gay footballer. He might have been a million pound player but Brian Clough, one of the greatest managers this country has produced, demeaned him at Nottingham Forest as "a bloody poof." Fashanu's tragic end should never be forgotten.
"I read a little about him," Rogers says. "It's such a sad story because my coming out was so positive. I wish everyone could have that same support. If people say bad things about you, you can give your parents a call. But hearing comments Justin's family made – oh my gosh."
As we consider the way in which Clough treated Fashanu at Forest, Rogers says: 'I've heard it recently from coaches. Obviously they're not homophobic but they'll say: 'Don't pass the ball like a fag.' That's when you look at them and think, 'Fuck you. What are you talking about? Does it make a difference, if you're gay or straight, as to how you pass the ball? Are you on drugs?' I guess they say it because they think it's funny. There's the stereotype of a gay man being soft and flamboyant."
Rogers sounds like a necessary force for change. He shrugs. "About a month ago I would've thought: 'I don't want to be a spokesman for gay footballers.' I have so many different things I'm interested in. But after thousands of emails, I'm thinking, OK, how can I help others? How can I make some positive change? How am I going to reach young Robbie and tell him to be himself? He might not fit the gay or the football stereotype. That's one thing I definitely want to do – break some barriers and kill some stereotypes."
The footballer smiles at Jeffrey. "I'm saying all this with a gay dog sitting on my lap. It's ridiculous. But I'm ready to share my story and help people any way I can – but on my terms."
Last December Rogers wrote the 408 words which changed his life. "I was sitting on my bed, lights off, on my laptop, in a good place. Pure emotion poured out of me and the words came easy. I didn't even proof-read it."
A week earlier I'd told Rogers how, when I showed his blog to my teenage daughter, she described it as a beautiful piece of writing. "I told my mom that," Rogers says. "When I wrote it I thought I'd maybe never post it because I was still a footballer at Stevenage then."
On 15 February, Rogers "didn't even know I was posting it that day. I was talking to a friend and he said, 'Dude, send it out or don't. It's getting annoying.' My laptop was sitting there. So I thought, 'Let me post it. What can happen?' I posted my blog and went to Shoreditch House. I had a bunch of drinks and pizza. I got a little drunk. It was a case of, 'All right, I did it!'"
Did he harbour any doubts? "No! My friend was checking his Twitter. He told me: 'It's going nuts.' I said: 'It doesn't matter. My phone's off. No one can reach me. I'm totally free.'"
He had already taken his first steps towards freedom when he told his eldest sister. "Alicia is a strong character, opinionated, but very cool and lovely. I said, 'I'm sending you an email now as I need to get all my feelings down. Read it and then call me.' It was a long letter but she seemed to read it in 10 seconds. She Skyped me back and I was like 'OK, here we go.' We talked forever. She was so loving.
"She kept saying 'Robbie, it doesn't matter. I'm just so happy you're at peace.' My sister is very religious. I was afraid to tell her but it was great. She said: 'OK, how are you going to tell mom, what are you doing next, are you dating anyone?' It was a huge interview. I was so happy. It was like: 'Whew, that weight's gone…'"
His mother was equally supportive. "When I told her, she made me cry. She was so loving and positive. I was expecting her to be apprehensive but she just said: 'I love you so much.' There's that line I wrote – 'Honesty is a bitch but it makes life so clear and simple.' My mom said it's great you can be honest about everything. People might disagree but at least you tell them the truth. People will see you're authentic.'"
Besides that authenticity, Rogers is also smart. He has today all mapped out. Before he talks later, via Google, to the New York Times, we do another interview at lunchtime. This time we're filmed for a Google+ Hangout in central London. We feel awkward, especially me, rehashing an interview which had felt so spontaneous during an old-fashioned one-to-one at his apartment. But Rogers doesn't mind. The aim of working with Google is to produce segments of him talking which can be viewed discreetly. A secretly gay person might feel unable to sit with their family and watch him on a television chat show – but they can choose to hear his story in private on their laptops or phones.
The future, for Rogers, appears intriguingly open-ended. He flies to New York this weekend and will meet people at Ralph Lauren so they can decide whether he is suited to their new campaign. He has also won himself a place at the London School of Fashion and could begin a three-year course in September. But he might just have enough talent, contacts and nous to concentrate on Halsey – the menswear brand he co-owns in LA. And then, of course, there is football.
"Most days I wake up and I go to my computer and look at my emails and then go onto the football sites. Football will always be part of me. I don't know if I'm done playing yet. I might ask [the coach] Bruce Arena if I can train with LA Galaxy – we'll see. I miss it and think about it a lot. But I'm so happy now I don't want to mess with that. Football was my life and maybe I'll need to go back … or maybe I'll just be a fan. But it's an industry where there are lots of problems – from sketchy agents to homophobic culture."
Throughout the day, and never forgetting that Justin Fashanu was black, we've discussed the way in which certain prejudices have shifted. In the 1980s, some white men in English football voiced their belief that black players "disappeared" when winter began to bite. Black footballers were dismissed as psychologically weak and tactically inept. Bananas were thrown at great players like John Barnes. There is still racism now, but life has improved.
Does Rogers believe that, eventually, similar progress can be made in overcoming football's last taboo?
"Yes. I know things will change. There will be gay footballers. I just don't know when and how long it will take. The next step is how do you create an atmosphere where men and women feel it's OK to come out and continue to play? It's a great question. Football has so much history. It's a great sport with so much culture and tradition. But I'm positive there will be changes."
It's sobering to consider how far this old game needs to move before it includes gay players. Yet the battle will be fought more intently now; and Rogers will play his groundbreaking role with intelligence, resilience and wit.
His own struggle has already been won and he laughs when he sees all the hip young things at Google crooning over Jeffrey. "You'll have to get that dog an agent," I suggest. "Oh," Rogers says, rolling his eyes, "I'm his agent. I'm happy for him to take my shine." He smiles, scooping up Jeffrey, and says, "Hey, we're done."
The latest day of revelation is over, and the secrets and shadows of his past retreat still further. Robbie Rogers appears much more than just a lone gay footballer now. He looks 25 again, with the rest of his life stretched out before him, studded with promise and opportunity and, most of all, happiness and hope.