His Kick Start
From his early days in Boca Raton to his current days in Europe, soccer star Jozy Altidore gets a kick out of life.
This story begins with a bunch of socks.
Some old, white socks. Lumped together and haphazardly bound by strategically placed tape, they form some type of quasi-concentric shape. A soccer ball, if you will.
For American soccer star Jozy Altidore, this ball of socks represents an ingenious loophole he and his three siblings contrived, a loophole to their father’s ban on kicking a real ball inside their Boca Raton home.
After a ceiling fan was broken, a wall bashed in, a window smashed, some vases shattered, Pops had enough.
Don’t kick the soccer ball in the house anymore, Joseph specifically warned his youngest son. After fixing every wall, every chandelier and every home accessory in the house over and over again, Joseph was done.
I won’t, Altidore complied.
As the saying goes, you can take the soccer away from the boy, but you can’t take the boy away from the soccer. So Altidore ended up rigging the best worst excuse for a soccer ball this side of Palm Beach County.
It seems like things paid off. He’s come off one of his best seasons as a professional, where Altidore led his Dutch club team, AZ Alkmaar, in goals with 22. He’s been on the cover of FIFA by EA Sports, already scored a hat trick with AZ Alkmaar in the fifth game of the new season, inspired the nation with the cult goal celebration, the Stanky Legg, and now with an adidas endorsement in tow, he has enough socks to strew dozens of makeshift sock balls.
And he’s not done yet.
Six years ago, when he was thrust into the then-microscopic American soccer spotlight as a 16-year-old and 17th overall MLS draft pick, Altidore and compatriots Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey began carrying the heavy weight and low expectations of American soccer on their shoulders. Adding elite goalkeeper Tim Howard into the mix, the four have become the base legs to a rising soccer table.
As of late, the United States Men’s National Team is the personification of the word underdog. It is the Cinderella story that has this Cinderella coming up just short when midnight hits. Out of its nine most recent World Cup appearances, it has only reached the round of 16 twice. Last World Cup, the team won its group – ahead of favored England – only to lose 2-1 to a competitive Ghanaian team out of group play.
Upon meeting Altidore, two things are immediately apparent: 1. He has the upper body strength of Bruce Banner gone mad, one reason why it’s so difficult to take him down in the box, and 2. He’s the soccer star America has dreamed of. Powerful, quick and with a supernatural fire in his belly to score. A man with a plan.
The United States could have done a lot worse than find a superstar in Altidore. A well-spoken young man with a smile that could melt any girl’s heart and a hearty laugh that you could pick out of a crowd, Altidore makes money off his physical skills, but has won fans with his charisma and character.
Twenty-three years ago, Josmer Volmy Altidore was born to Joseph and Gisele, in New Jersey, where Joseph worked as an electrical engineer and Gisele a nurse. He was the fourth of four children, the runt of the tight-knit Haitian-American family. The family eventually moved to Boca Raton, where Altidore played under the tough tutelage of Coach Josef Schulz, who went on to create one of the most elite private soccer programs in the state. It didn’t take long to realize Altidore was not just any gifted club player. Nor did he want to be.
“I would practice every day,” he says as he sits back in the wooden chair at a local French bakery. “Even when there wasn’t practice, I’d practice.”
“He just wanted to play,” his sister, Lindsey, says from across the table. “Everyone used to tell us how good he was, how amazing he was.”
She pauses. Then it hits her. “It was like he was born to play.”
After a few seasons with Schulz, Altidore moved to Bradenton to play at the IMG Academy, a sports factory that churns out professional athlete after professional athlete, where the days began with “you waking up and playing soccer,” Altidore says. “There, you would play MLS teams at 14, 15 years old.”
It was at IMG that “Jozy” was born. Literally. “His teammates and coaches from IMG had a hard time pronouncing ‘Josmer,’ so they just went with ‘Jozy,’” Lindsey explains.
At 16 years old, he was drafted by the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls), a professional athlete barely old enough to drive. What the striker lacked in experience, he made up for in sheer athleticism and brute strength, scoring 15 goals in two years with his foot, head and any other body part he could legally use.
His talents didn’t go unnoticed. In 2008 Villarreal, a club in Spain’s famed La Liga, signed him to a deal worth $10 million, the largest ever for an MLS player. That was the good news; the bad news was Altidore’s impact on the team was minimal at best. He spent three terribly disappointing years with Villarreal, thrice being loaned out, and constantly having to answer questions about his intensity level and work ethic.
Now with AZ Alkmaar since 2011, Altidore has found a major resurgence in his play. Though he may have other loves in his life, it’s doubtful they produce the same feeling as when that ball hits the back of the net.
“Even to this day it’s so surreal,” Altidore says of scoring a goal. “It’s like being a kid again. Living this life
is so surreal.”
Today Altidore has a moment to rest while on break and at home in Boca Raton, where he recently bought Mom the dream house he long promised her. Away from the hooliganed world of European soccer, Altidore can now breathe. He’s where he wants to be. And for him, it can’t get much better.
Sitting in this Boca Raton bakery on a Tuesday afternoon in jeans, sneakers and a white printed T-shirt, Altidore is completely incognito. A rock star without his groupies, Manny Pacquiao without his jogging entourage, Rory McIlroy without his gallery. To the throngs of customers, he’s just another 20-something-year-old uninterested in drinking the coffee served today. No doubt today is a welcomed change to Europe’s soccer-crazed life (“If you lose a game in Europe, you can’t even go out to the grocery store for fear of your life,” Altidore hyperbolizes) and an opportunity to pause and realize there’s more to life than soccer.
And that’s not without encouragement.
Raised on the idea that education will get you anywhere, Altidore was forced to hit the books as hard as the soccer ball. When he wasn’t on the pitch, he was studying. Mom’s rules, he says.
“My mom was a brainiac,” Altidore explains. “Education came first in our family.”
Even today Altidore takes online courses to hopefully fulfill his other professional goal: to become an electrical engineer, just like Pops.
“Seeing what I’ve seen, soccer is just a game,” he underlines. “Soccer will be over soon, and I need to think about having another career.”
Perhaps it can be said his vision on the soccer field pales in comparison to his vision of his future life. He owes much of his humility to his family, who, between brother Janak, sisters Lindsey and Sadia, and his parents, keep him grounded. The Haitian-American clan is as close as a family living on separate continents can be, with their youngest son acknowledging to talking or Skyping with his family at least once a day, even while in Europe.
Sister Lindsey has even taken a leadership role in Altidore’s personal foundation, the Jozy Altidore Foundation, which has a goal of helping children in the United States, Haiti and any other part of the world through education, awareness and leadership. A nurse living in Los Angeles with daughter Aaliyah, Lindsey has been entrusted to lead her brother’s charity, something she doesn’t take lightly.
Recently the non-profit organization, with Lindsey at the helm, paired with My Generosity Water to provide clean drinking water to those living in Haiti. The Altidores, who last visited Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, have made it a priority to invest time and effort to their parents’ homeland.
“This foundation is very important to my brother and my family,” Lindsey says. “I’m thankful that he trusts me with the decisions.”
“I just felt that there’s a lot more to show people, that people of my platform can influence and be an example,” Altidore says.
As he reaches the peak of his career, it seems Altidore has become that role model, both on and off the pitch, that he has worked toward. Not too bad for a kid who used to kick around a bunch of socks.