When the implication was made decades ago that boxer Leon Spinks lacked intelligence, comedian Richard Pryor quickly came to the former heavyweight champion’s defense, stating the toothless pugilist owed no explanation while succinctly imploring him to tell his detractors, “I knock bleepity bleeps out.''
In a similar vein, former Revolution striker Taylor Twellman hardly owed a response. Described at times as inelegant, heavy on the touch and lacking in the game’s finer aspects, Twellman merely had to point to the stat sheet. Very few North American-born soccer players could ever approximate what he did best on a soccer field and that was “put the ball in the back of the net.’’
Twellman, 30, the quickest player in MLS history to reach the century mark as he scored 101 league goals in 174 games, announced his retirement yesterday more than two years after suffering a concussion and neck injuries that led to his untimely departure from the game.
With a fearlessness and unparalleled drive in the penalty area that bordered on ferocious, Twellman set a standard when he tallied 23 goals in his first year in MLS in 28 games after signing with the league in 2002 from Germany, where he playing with 1860 Munich.
His absence from the Revolution during the last two-plus seasons has been a big reason for the team's declining fortunes since the early and mid-2000’s when the team appeared in four MLS Cup finals.
Currently building a career as a sports commentator and television personality, the multi-talented athlete who was offered a contract by the Kansas City Royals as a shortstop out of high school, was an all-league basketball player and was at one time said to be a scratch golfer. Twellman on Wednesday was forced to publicly face the reality that he could no longer play the sport that brought him and the people who watched him so much joy, doing so before a well-attended reception at Gillette Stadium that included his parents, team owners Jonathan and Robert Kraft and several of his former teammates.
“The hardest part about this injury is that I can do zero about it and that is the most humbling thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,’’ he said. “For those that know me very well, and I see a lot of friends here today that were also my teammates, anyone who knows me if you told me I couldn’t do it, guess what, I’m doing it. If you told me I couldn’t fix it, guess what, I’m fixing it. For two years I’ve done everything from acupuncture for 12 hours, to waking up at 6:30 a.m., to sitting in a dark room for six months, and I can honestly sit here and say I’ve done it all, I’ve tried it all. I’m sick and I’m injured.’’
While filled with mixed emotions, Twellman remained remarkably poised when revealing he would never play competitive soccer again.
“To do something you love and to do something you were born to do ... I did something that I love and that I was born to do and I got paid to do it and I had fun,’’ he said. “Honestly, wrap your heads around that. All I can say is, Are you kidding me? It’s the greatest gift God ever gave me and that’s the ability to do something that I was born to do.’’
While Twellman had missed games during his career due to injury, it was the blow to the head from a collision with Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin on Aug. 30, 2008, that finally ended his career. Twellman raced Cronin for a cross from the left side and managed to head the ball into the goal, but he collided with Cronin.
Twellman, who, like Spinks, is a native of St. Louis, came from an athletic family. His father, Tim, and uncle were both professional soccer players, there were professional golfers on his mother’s side, and his maternal grandfather, Jim Delsing, played 10 years of Major League Baseball. That pedigree enabled him to make big plays when the team needed it most.
“It’s important to note he scored big goals in big games,’’ said Revolution play-by-play announcer Brad Feldman. “He wasn’t just padding his statistics. He scored in three finals (two MLS cups and one US Open Cup). He always made his penalty shots. Another thing to marvel at is just how much punishment he took without ever exploding or retaliating. He took a beating from defenders but he took it as part of the job. You never saw him lose it with referees and he only got confrontational once with a player in the eight seasons he played here.’’
Twellman scored 28 game-winning goals, took 557 shots in his career and suffered 359 fouls. He led the Revolution in scoring in five of his eight seasons and was the league’s MVP in 2005. He also scored 29 goals in 58 games with the 1860 Munich’s second team between 1999 and 2002.
But not everything went his way. While his domestic career blossomed, Twellman found it difficult to make his mark with the U.S. national team. His biggest snub had to come in the 2006 World Cup played in Germany, where he began his professional career. Coach Bruce Arena, who was pushing for team chemistry, left the uninhibited and outspoken Twellman off the team, instead settling on Brian Ching as the fourth forward in the group.
Ching’s candidacy was said to be aided by his relationship to Landon Donovan, as they had been teammates formerly in San Jose. Donovan and Twellman, who today are believed to share a mutual respect and friendship, back then had a chillier liaison. While it was hard to overlook Twellman’s goal scoring, Arena, unconvinced beforehand, later admitted the Revolution’s sniper would have offered a compelling option as a late-game substitution for a team chasing a goal.
The injuries ended his chance of making the team that played last summer in South Africa. But it would have been difficult to imagine a healthy 30-year-old Twellman, improved in other aspects of the game, not being on that team. Part of that improvement came with the addition of assistant coach Paul Mariner, a former English international, who helped Twellman improve in the areas of receiving the ball with his back to the goal and giving midfielders time to catch up to the play.
“The best thing [coach] Steve Nicol ever did for me was in 2004,’’ said Twellman. “He pulled me over and he says, ‘I think I’m hiring a great assistant for you.’ I said, 'Oh really, that’s cool, who is it?' He said, 'Paul Mariner.’ The only thing I knew about Paul was he played for England and Arsenal and he scored a goal in the World Cup. So I was sold. So I’m thinking I’m the leading goal scorer for the Revs and I’m feeling pretty good about myself and Paul’s going to come in and put his arm around my shoulder and say, 'Look, you’re my man, let’s do this and let’s get better.' ''
Twellman said that while Mariner spent the better part of the first two months just observing him, when they finally got to the tutorials Mariner didn’t try to change anything. He just smoothed out some rough edges, said Twellman.
“One practice I was trying to be like Clint Dempsey and, as Steve Nicol would tell you, any back heel I tried he was pounding the boards on the side of the field,’’ said Twellman. “Then I was trying to play like Pat Noonan and, let’s be honest, I don’t have a cut like that. And then I’m going through the list and finally I’m like, 'Paul, I’m lost. What do I have to do to get better?' You would have thought I just gave him the best gift in the world. He put his arm around me, smiled and said, ‘You are about two months too late and now let’s get to work.' Any player’s dream is to find one coach that believes in his ability. I found two. They let me be me.’’
Twellman, who during his playing days had several European teams come in to try and buy him, was the subject of a $2.5 million offer by England’s Preston North End in the winter of 2008. But that attempt was rejected by the club.
“The greatest compliment I ever got from Steve Nicol, and this comes with a little reflecting because at the time I didn’t take it as a compliment, but was when Preston North End came in and made an offer to the Revs and when Steve Nicol called me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that it was a very difficult phone call because he was a player,’’ said Twellman. “He knew it was a dream and it was, but he said, ‘I could not see myself coaching without you on my team. And I am not letting you go.’ Did I agree with him? No. Did I have some choice words? Yes. But when you sit back and reflect on what was a short and fun career, that’s a player’s dream to find a coach who believes in you and finally says 'You’re my man.' "