Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s book Meditations found Clint Irwin at a perfect time.
Irwin was playing soccer in the Canadian minor leagues when he started reading Meditations—living with six roommates, sharing a single shower, and driving the same car…his car. Needless to say, he never expected his life to look like this when he decided to pursue professional soccer after graduating in 2011.
His dream of playing Major League Soccer (MLS) seemed way off in the distance, unobtainable by most people’s opinions.
Faced with ample down time while playing in Canada, reading and writing became a couple of Irwin’s outlets off the pitch. He specifically identified with Aurelius’s Meditations, recommended by his high school philosophy teacher.
Aurelius, a Roman emperor from 161-180 A.D., was known for being the philosophy king of his day, praised for his abilities “to write down what was in his heart just as it was.” Apparently, whatever was in the heart of an old, Roman emperor was exactly what Irwin needed to hear, at a time when he was experiencing a complete loss of control in his soccer career.
“It’s sort of his diary,” Irwin says. “He (Aurelius) is old. He knows he is going to die. And He is just reflecting back, and grappling with what was to come…I’m thankful that book came across my radar. It reset me back to foundational principles. This is what I can control: living an upright life, and loving my neighbor as myself. It kind of cleared things up for me. Soccer was causing so much unneeded stress, it was better to let it go. There are other things you can focus on.”
What Irwin ultimately took away from Meditations is that there are some things you can control and other things that you can’t in regard to your future.
As Aurelius says, “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
Irwin, a goalkeeper out of Elon University in North Carolina, was on the MLS radar after his junior year. But that was before he faced an injury that forced him to miss much of his senior year in 2011, the most important season if he wanted to play in the professional ranks.
“It was a tremendous loss that season for the team and also for Clint,” says Darren Powell, former Elon University head coach and current coach in the Orlando City Academy. “At that time, he was on the MLS watch list, he was getting lots of accolades, but unfortunately, being injured kind of took him off everyone’s radar at that point.”
Still, Irwin figured that if he didn’t get drafted, he could try out and make an MLS team; and if he didn’t make an MLS team, then he could at least play in a lower United Soccer League (USL) Division, considering he spent two seasons playing for the USL Premier Development League’s Carolina Dynamo (fourth tier of American soccer) while he was in college.
“In high school, I was getting called into ODP (Olympic Development Program) camps, so from a young age, I felt like that was the level I could play at,” Irwin says. “As I progressed through college, you are playing against players that are getting drafted during the summer. All the signals I was getting from that was: if you continue to work hard, this dream you have, you can achieve it.”
Irwin went undrafted, as he might have expected, and had his first tryout with the New England Revolution. The Revolution cut him, as did seven other MLS and USL teams. For the first time in his soccer career, he was experiencing an overflow of negative reactions to his performance in the net.
“All the positive signals you were getting previously—now it’s all negative feedback,” Irwin says. “That was hard to get at the time…I’m typically the person who thinks that, if I can control what I can control, that will result in what I want.
“I quickly found out that it really had nothing to do with me or my performance or anything like that. I could go and play well, but the team might already have a goalkeeper signed or might not even be looking for a goalkeeper.”
Irwin might have called himself a “professional soccer player,” but, as he writes in his February 20, 2011, blog post, “I find it difficult even calling myself a professional soccer player at this stage because a) I’m technically not a professional, I don’t get paid for what I’m doing right now, and b) my parents are still supporting my endeavors financially. I guess what I’ve settled on is ‘unemployed professional,’ which is a title that would fit many in this downtrodden economy.’”
If nothing in the States was working out, where would he play? What would he do? Were his professional soccer dreams coming to an end, just like that?
Says Clint’s mother, Nancy Irwin: “During that time, I prayed for God to form him and shape him to handle the difficulties of rejection—to learn how to be diligent and faithful and keep trying even when he was getting kicked in the teeth.”
On April 1, 2011—his birthday—Irwin finally signed his first professional contract with the Canadian Soccer League’s Capital City FC…for $500 a month.
One of the central themes of Meditations is Aurelius’s ongoing struggle to understand both himself and the universe.
As Irwin delved into Meditations while playing for Capital City FC, perhaps it resonated so deeply with him because he was ultimately trying to understand the same things: himself and the world in which he lived.
The world, he found, wasn’t the fairest place, as he and his teammates encountered a situation where someone above them was pocketing their per diems. Their contracts weren’t worth much anyway, but they weren’t even receiving what they had been promised.
“The guys were starving,” Nancy says. “I think the players basically said, ‘We are going on strike,’ and they elected Clint to be their spokesman. I was so proud of him. He met with management to fight for his teammates.”
As Irwin stepped into the unknown—his once-promising career seemingly imploding—he, like Aurelius, spent much of his time and energy “grappling with what was to come.”
“I went to Canada, and that was probably the last place I actually wanted to go,” Irwin says. “But at the same time, it might not be right there in front of you in terms of vision, but I think, with God’s plan, His vision is so much longer than what we might see right in front of us.”
Says Powell: “We talked fairly regular, and I would tell him, ‘You have to look at this way: it’s just a chapter in your book. You still have plenty of the story to write. This is just one chapter.”
Along with Meditations, Irwin also read through the book of Job in Canada. Both were highly personal books that wrestled with some of life’s most difficult questions.
“You read through Job and you realize that Job had it so bad and that your situation pales in comparison to that,” Irwin says. “Half way through the season, I realized: this is a test to see what your response to the situation will be. I’m happy I was tested that way. It’s changed me.”
But the test didn’t stop there.
After leaving Canada following the 2011 season (only allowing one goal in 22 appearances on Capital City FC), Irwin returned home to Charlotte, NC, to play for the third-division USL Pro League’s Charlotte Eagles in 2012—that is, as a backup.
Irwin moved back in with his parents and started working at an Internet start-up soccer company (Kyck.com, owned by successful entrepreneur Mac Lackey) while playing for the Eagles—er, sitting the bench for the Eagles.
The bitter reality began to sink in: he was entering his second year as a “professional” and his career had hardly progressed.
“I didn’t feel like I was living how I would picture myself living as someone who was 23 or 24,” Irwin says.
Irwin finally got in goal during the 2012 U.S. Open Cup, when Charlotte upset FC Dallas (MLS) and San Antonio (second-division NASL) before falling to Chivas USA (MLS) in their improbable run to the quarterfinals.
“In the window of opportunity that he had, wherever he went, he made the most of it,” Nancy says.
At the conclusion of the season, Irwin was offered a full-time position at Kyck.com.
Irwin’s career was at a crossroads.
Should he keep pursuing his soccer dreams, though his two years as a professional had been virtually fruitless? Or was it time for him to get a “grown man’s job” and start a different career?
His decision would forever change his life.
Irwin turned down the job, a decision that probably looked irrational to most people.
“I was just really on the fence about it, but I didn’t want to look back and say that I hadn’t done everything that I possibly could to achieve what I wanted to achieve and what I had with my gifts,” Irwin says. “I was given this gift of playing soccer and playing it well or having the ability to play it well, but at the same time, it was up to me to cultivate that. I felt like, because I had this gift, it was my responsibility to pursue it as much as I could.”
Sometimes, perhaps, faithfulness to your calling is more important than fruitfulness from that calling. This was certainly the case with Irwin.
“I told him, ‘If you can keep going right now, it might be worth one more cycle,’” Powell says. “It would be very hard to go back years later and get in the game.”
The offseason heading into the 2013 MLS season, Irwin quit working at the Internet company altogether. He stopped coaching. He did what most advisors would tell you not to do—placing all his eggs in one basket—and made sure he was solely devoted to the goal.
“I went all out like I had never done before,” Irwin says.
This meant, not only working out on his own, but also calling teams on his own and even calling agents on his own.
“I was calling agents to see if they would take me on, but I was also getting rejected by those agents because they had never heard of me,” Irwin laughs.
Irwin went to his first tryout with the Charleston Battery in January, and it went much like his tryouts had gone in the past. Charleston said they might bring him in for an extended trial, but it wasn’t too hopeful or encouraging.
That’s when Irwin received a call from Chris Sharpe, the goalkeeping coach from the MLS’s Colorado Rapids, inviting him to Denver to compete for Colorado’s third-string keeper role.
“I had been in that situation so many times that I wasn’t nervous or anxious,” Irwin says. “I think that was part of God’s plan as well. Because you’ve been in that situation so many times, when you are put into it again when more is on the line and it’s an actual opportunity, I just felt calm. I had an attitude that this was it, and there was nothing that was going to stop me from winning that third spot.”
Irwin beat out two MLS draft picks and signed a minimum-level entry contract with Colorado. He had secured an MLS contract.
But it didn’t stop there.
In Week 3, starting goalkeeper Matt Pickens broke his arm, and, because backup goalkeeper Steward Ceus made a crucial mistake in giving up a game-winning goal against FC Dallas in Week 1, the Rapids chose to start Irwin.
Suddenly, after struggling to merely make a tryout for two straight years and not even starting for a third-division USL team the previous season, Irwin was the starting keeper for an MLS team.
“It’s very random how you find a way in to the MLS,” Nancy says. “The MLS is not quite organized to funnel the talent and let the cream rise to the top…Talent almost goes by the wayside and into the ditch because the process is so random…It’s a numbers game. Sending out 500 résumés might only get you five responses, but, by golly, you better get to the 500 so you can get the 5.”
Says Powell: “I think it shows you how much of a fine line it is. Clint is a very talented player. Very bright student. But sometimes that separation is just perseverance, the ability to continue to work hard every day. What makes it a great story is that he sees the reward in doing that.”
In 2013, Irwin started in 31 of the Rapids’ contests and ranked fifth in the MLS in shutouts (10) and ninth in saves (91). Irwin has started every game of the Rapids’ 2014 campaign and, as of Aug. 13, led the MLS in shutouts with seven. Many writers and soccer enthusiasts have even started to mention Irwin’s name as a potential goalkeeper for the United States national team under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“Perseverance—I guess it’s one thing that is key in sports and one thing that is also key in faith,” Irwin reflects. “Would I do things differently (if I could)? I don’t really know, but what I can say is that I am thankful for the situations I was in because they led me to where I am now. I think they are now a core part of who I am and how I experience life and how I carry myself. I don’t want to do them again, but I’m thankful for the lessons we provided.”
As Aurelius says, Irwin has met his future.
And maybe the Colorado Rapids have met theirs.