On Saturday night, the Seattle Sounders wrap up their final USL First Division regular season against Vancouver. It will be an emotion filled day for fan favorite Craig Tomlinson, a.k.a. CT, who has been with the club since 2000. We sit down with the Sounder legend to discuss his past, present and future.
It’s been eight years with the team. How did you first get on board?
I have to give thanks to a guy who gave me the first opportunity to be a part of this family in the year 2000: Brad Kimura, the general manager; Neil Megson, the coach; and the ownership group, Adrian Hanauer and Neil Farnsworth, the CEO. Those guys gave me my first shot to try to work to achieve the goal of winning championships, and help me develop as a player and person. That’s where it all started. Adrian’s involvement throughout the years has been a significant part to supporting me being here.
What are some of your favorite moments on the field?
Our championship run last year, topping it off with scoring the final goal of the season in the championship game in front of your home supporters. That was certainly a very thrilling moment in my career, especially with the difficulties I’ve faced with injuries. I’ve battled back from a lot of injuries over the years, so to be able to share the moment with the guys, playing on the field and scoring a goal was truly a highlight. Going into the ’05 season there was a lot of expectation to win the league. We didn’t do well in the postseason and ’05 was supposed to be the year. Going into preseason, guys are working hard, trying to get on the team, make the squad and the unfortunate happened. In a preseason game against Portland I got into a situation and came out on the unfortunate side. I tore my ACL, tore my knee pretty much. Fifteen years ago, it’s a career-ending injury. It was a disappointment to me because we had such a great run, and to watch from the sideline and see the guys competing everyday at practice and games was tough. It was the first time in my career, in my whole life, that I was unable physically to do anything to compete. It was a difficult situation and we won the whole thing and I jumped with the guys and ran around with the flags, but I had doubts that I could make it back where I wanted to be. And then I scored the final goal in ’07.
What does it take to come back from a career-threatening knee injury?
Faith, beliefs, support from teammates, coaching staff, friends, fans. People sent e-mails. I truly believe everything happens for a purpose. A week after the surgery, I felt like I couldn’t come back and be the explosive player I once was. I started to read the Bible a lot more, and it gave me inspiration, motivation, inner strength. This was two weeks after surgery, and I began to work hard, five days a week. I was supposed to do physical therapy three days. I went five days. Every week I saw progress. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It kept me motivated, but I also stayed disciplined and did not overdo things. That ’05 year was like a mountain to climb. And then to watch the guys win a championship. I told myself it’s great to win a championship and be a part of this team, but I’m not satisfied. I said, ‘I’m going to come back in ‘06 with the ball from preseason and look to win a championship.’ I’m on the field, working with the guys, and competing and out there to be a leader and do whatever it’s going to take. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it done in ’06. So in ’07, I was happy to come back and be a part of the Sounders family, and to be a part of that game. And knowing what I had to overcome to get to that point of scoring a goal with the fans and the excitement is really the highlight of my career on the field.
What’s the career highlight off the field?
After we won the ’05 championship, we went to Tanzania, Africa. Adrian (Hanauer) supported a trip for the guys to travel, and it was really, truly a blessed experience. It was the best experience of my life. To be able to see a different part of the world, and the culture. I come from Jamaica and to come here is different. But to go to Africa, knowing that my ancestors come from Africa and there’s a lot of history, it was a thrill. We had a few exhibition games in the first few days. The big part was helping the kids in the community. We put on a few clinics for the kids, and gave away some things: soccer balls, jerseys, shoes. The thing that was great was the spirit. Not so much what we were able to offer to those kids in terms of material things, but just to be able to share a bond, and you see the kids smile. How they show their appreciation. They love to play soccer. I know that from Jamaica, kids don’t have to have that much, but we find ways to have fun and enjoy life. They don’t even have a good soccer ball. It’s a ball made from stuff like a wrap, a box, paper or a roll of tape. We were excited to share our knowledge and enthusiasm with them, and they were able to show their enthusiasm for having us there. It was hot, but the kids don’t even want to stop playing for a water break. That was a big, big moment in my life, to be able to have that experience.
You seem to always be having fun, whether it’s on the practice field, in the game or off the field. How do you manage to stay so upbeat?
People sometimes say we Jamaicans are show-boaters. You see (Usain) Bolt in the Olympics. Before the race he’s having fun. After the race he’s having fun. During the race he’s having fun. That’s really just our personality and our culture. I couldn’t be any more grateful for the support I receive from the fans here in the community. The fans are a big part of my support group. Also our chapel leader helped a lot. It’s hard being away from family and friends. Out here you’re having fun, doing something you love, and earning a paycheck is great, it’s awesome. But it’s also important to have a relationship. The relationships I have with the front office, coaching staff, the ownership group, the community is huge. It’s all-encompassing. We Jamaicans love to give the fans what they show up to see, and to share that experience as players on the field. I naturally feel I can make a difference in peoples; lives by what I do on the field playing, and what I do off the field.
And what you do off the field is noticed. What is it about community involvement that gets your juices flowing?
It’s natural. It just happens. In my first year, the summer camp programs, I like interacting with the kids and making a difference in their lives by sharing my enthusiasm and knowledge with them. To see how they receive it, laugh and have fun. They make you put life in perspective that this is what it really is all about. It’s about sharing that experience with young people. That’s what I received when I was a kid. My high school coach and other people were mentors in my life, who shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with me to help me be who I am today. They were a big part of that. Through soccer I can make that difference in young peoples’ lives and the community as a whole. It’s my life everyday.
Is there a specific organization you’ve worked with you hold close to your heart?
I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work in the inner-city community in White Center. We had a program called White Center Sounders for under-privileged kids from low-income homes and neighborhoods. We worked with Boys and Girls Club and the King County Sheriff’s office. The Sounders started this program in ’01, and it went on for four years. To go over there a couple days and hang out with the kids, it was appreciated. They don’t have a lot to go home to, but they look forward to come out after school and to hang out with the Sounders players. It was an opportunity to work with those kids and bring them to soccer games. Giving back has been a big part of my life. To see people grow and enjoy their life and have a smile on their face is what really makes me live. Today, I continue to have the opportunity to do that, and I’m grateful.
You’ve been on the field with the Sounders longer than any current players. As the season finale nears, what’s the focus?
The focus is to defend our championship. That’s really the main focus. If I get a chance to be a part of it playing on the field, great. If not, it’s still great. I’ll be supportive of my teammates, work hard at practice, and push the guys at practice so they can be better players. And I can be a better player. For me, everyday it’s important that I continue getting better and push them to get better. It will make us a quality team. Either way, I’m still helping to defend our championship. I’m happy. That’s what I wake up and look forward to do everyday.
What are your dreams, your goals for after this season and beyond?
By the end of this year, Seattle is closing the chapter on one era : the USL-1. A brand new page is going to be opened. There’s tons of excitement, enthusiasm. Everywhere I go, the malls, soccer fields, a grocery store, people keep asking me, ‘What are you going to do? We want to see you still be a part of the new era of Sounders FC’. It’s great to get that support. But at the end of this season, I’ll sit down with Brian Schmetzer and other leaders back here. I’ll ask myself some questions about where I want to go. My faith is really a big part of my life, and I feel wherever my calling is, I’m going to be happy doing that. If it’s to continue on in this soccer community, outside of Seattle, to make an impact in young peoples’ lives by being a part of the (Sounders) FC organization, great. That would be something I’d gladly welcome. But at the same time, with a little smile on my face, I believe in my heart that physically I can still perform at a high level. If the opportunity is there, I would also welcome that. I’ve overcome a lot of injuries over the year. But for some reason my faith has given me the courage and strength to keep doing the things I need to do. And whether that next step is making a difference on the field or the community, I’m happy to do it.
Where do you see the future of soccer in Seattle?
You do math and you draw the graph. It’s exponential. The kids are full of enthusiasm about playing the game of soccer. Since I’ve been here in the city, I’ve seen more and more kids–regardless of their ability or level–getting involved. Parents and guardians are getting more educated about soccer. That relationship is getting stronger and stronger every day, every month and every year. It’s out of the park. And with Sounders FC coming in ’09, like I said, everywhere I go there are so many kids and families that say, ‘We’re so excited about next year. We’ve already purchased our membership. We’re thrilled to see that first game’. From the standpoint of the players, they’re getting better. They’re getting better coaches and overall exposure to a higher level of play and skill development is improving. And it’s only better for the game, here and abroad.