The ball sails over the middle of the field and Michael Bumpus tracks it with his eyes as it sails over the heads of players and toward him. He knows contact is about to come and braces himself as he leaps in hot pursuit of the incoming ball.
His first instinct is to reach up and snatch it out of the air with his hands, but this is a different Michael Bumpus than the one that lead the Washington State Cougars receivers from 2004-2007, setting a school record with 195 catches in his career for 2,022 yards and eight touchdowns.
Things are different on this day, though as Bumpus is sporting an orange penny and playing central defender for the Tacoma Tide in a tryout at Curtis High School in Tacoma, and he outleaps an oncoming striker and heads the ball clear before reorganizing the defense around him.
It’s not a new dream for the former Seahawks receiver, but Bumpus is now taking the opportunity to pursue his true love – soccer.
After four years at WSU, Bumpus played for the Seahawks in 2008, catching a touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck in a win over the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field. He came back to Seattle for the 2009 season, but was cut and finished the season with the BC Lions in the Canadian Football League. He went on to play in 2010 for the BC and in the Arena Football League with the Spokane Shock, but an injury cut his season short.
While rehabbing, he went with his brother-in-law, Elmer Rodriguez, for tryouts with the Kitsap Pumas and Seattle Seawolves. After seeing the level of competition there, and watching Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco try out for Sporting Kansas City at the MLS level, Bumpus decided to take a shot at playing in the Premier Development League and signed up to try out for the Tide.
“Just for giggles I came out to Tacoma, not really expecting anything, and I got the call back, so I’m putting my all into it and see what happens,” said Bumpus, 25. “You only live once. Why not?”
Bumpus is not just a football player trying to find an organized way to stay in shape for another training camp or a player seeking attention by doing something out of the ordinary though.
He started playing club soccer at age 13 with Santa Monica United and played his high school soccer at Culver City High School, where he was one of the better defenders in the region and was heavily recruited. He even went to Europe with his club team, where the soccer bug had him fully enraptured. However, when it came time to decide on his future in his senior year of high school, the scholarships he was being offered to play football outweighed a scenario that would have him playing soccer and paying his own way through college.
“It was a tough decision. I could have played small-school soccer, but I was getting full-ride offers everywhere for football,” he recalled.
That didn’t stop him from keeping his foot-skills up with intramural games while he was setting receiving records for the Cougars though. Teammates even started playing with him, seeking to improve their footwork on the gridiron by learning from Bumpus on the pitch.
He kept a slight distance from the sport while playing football professionally, but still kept his eye on Major League Soccer, particularly the rampant success of the Sounders FC in Seattle.
A new father, Bumpus decided he would take a break from the rigors of playing football in two leagues and was looking at his options for 2011 when he followed Rodriguez to his tryouts. A short conversation with his agent later, he was on the field at Curtis High School, trying to regain the form that made him a formidable defender as a youth.
Tacoma head coach Gerry Gray, is more than willing to give the speedy Bumpus a chance to prove himself on the field.
“He just loves soccer and wants to be a soccer player. He’s a great athlete – it’s just a matter of if he can learn quickly enough and have a positive impact on our team,” said Gray, comparing Bumpus’ style to that of Colorado Rapids defender Marvell Wynne. “If he makes mistakes, he has the speed to recover. Can he do it at the next level? Time will tell.”
A former Canadian National Team midfielder who played in the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Gray will further assess Bumpus and his chances of making the squad in upcoming preseason matches against St. Martin’s, Gonzaga and the University of Washington.
There, he will show his skills, some of which came from his experience in football, though he admits that his football game benefitted more from his soccer background than his soccer game did from football.
“The footwork is big. You learn how to move guys and how to use your feet. Soccer transfers so easily,” he said. “As a defender I feel like I have to be aggressive and football is an aggressive sport. As a defender you need to be strong and disciplined and that’s how I play.”
Bumpus has seen Ochocinco trying out for an MLS side and knows the error in thinking that he could step right onto the field with top level US professionals after seven or eight years away from the game. He feels that working his way up from the PDL level is much more likely path to that goal.
“I’m not setting myself up for failure. I want a chance to play at the lower levels and hopefully just keep climbing up,” he said. “Whatever I do, I’m going to give it 100% and I’m going to strive to be at the top level. Right now, I’m not ready for MLS, but in a few weeks or a few months, maybe I can compete there. You can’t walk off the streets and go to MLS. You’ve got to work your way up, just like all these other guys are doing.”
If soccer doesn’t work out, he already has options waiting for him in the Canadian Football League. However, he’s not too quick to jump at those at the expense of pursuing his love.
“If this works out, I’d rather do this than football,” Bumpus said. “I just love the sport so much.”
If he has his way, the next time he hears a rousing ovation at Qwest Field, it will be for scoring a goal or stonewalling an opposing attack for the Sounders FC.
For now, he’d just be happy to sport the yellow kits of the Tacoma Tide.