How a Nobel Prize winner led Reggie Cannon to breakout success in Dallas

In the Gold Cup final against Mexico last month, United States right-back Reggie Cannon put in a standout performance. In a family that includes two Ivy League graduates and an acclaimed climatologist, however, it takes a lot to stand out.

Getting to that final at Soldier Field in Chicago was not a path his family was initially on board with, especially as it involved him leaving UCLA after his freshman year. It helped his case, though, that Cannon's grandfather was supportive of the player skipping his final three years of college to make the move to MLS with FC Dallas -- who take on Montreal on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

First, there was the matter of convincing his parents and stepfather that this was the right move.

"My parents were very diligent. They cracked down on academics. ... They were very diligent and wanted me to do the best I can do," Cannon told ESPN FC. "They could always tell when I wasn't giving it everything I had. I think it was important for my parents to be strong and push me academically. It gave me a chance to go to UCLA."

To say that Cannon's family is accomplished is an understatement. This is a family driven first by their faith. After that comes academics.

His parents both went to Brown, his mother is a urologist, and his father is a radiologist. Then there is his stepfather, who played college football at Dartmouth. One of Cannon's sisters is an attorney, and one of his brothers is a pilot. Then there is his grandfather, the man who helped convince him to accept the contract offer from Dallas.

His grandfather, coincidentally, is Nobel Prize winner Dr. Warren Washington. A senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Washington has published more than 150 articles during his professional career and in 2010 was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama. It was an unusual situation for Cannon, who was guided and pushed academically his whole life. Here he was, seeking advice from his Ivy League-educated parents as well as his grandfather, who is one of the most accomplished scientists and minds in the world.

"In his situation, he had an opportunity, and he had to take advantage of that opportunity to do well and be a soccer player. You can't always think a certain way about a young person, that they must follow a certain path," Washington told ESPN FC.

"Clearly I don't try to over-influence my kids to wait for me to make a decision ... or my grandkids. I made a decision to stay in college and graduate and eventually get my PhD. Some kids, they have a line on a professional activity."

Cannon joined the FC Dallas academy in high school, a decision that required travel and sometimes weeks away from home playing in tournaments. His family understood the commitment in terms of time as well as the toll it would take on him physically. But slacking off from his school work was not an option, even as he played a high level of soccer for one of the best academies in North America.

Academics remained a priority for Cannon, even as he spent hours and days without his parents. The Christian school he attended used a curriculum he was able to access online. Although not in a physical structure, education was never far away for him as he played for the MLS club's academy. He'd stay in his room or find a quiet spot in the hotel to do his classwork. He admits that it wasn't as much fun as his teammates were having, playing FIFA on their video game consoles or clowning around in the hotel's swimming pool.

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"I was definitely doing something academically when it was quiet," Cannon said. "I'd definitely rather be playing video games with the guys, but I'd probably be doing something academically."

Cannon was offered a homegrown contract by FC Dallas out of high school, but his parents wanted him to go to college. It was a decision most parents would advocate for: choosing the certainty of a prestigious college such as UCLA over the tumultuous path of being a professional athlete. But Dallas persisted and followed up the next year. With his grandfather's advice to pursue his dreams, Cannon signed with the club. His first year in MLS was far from what he envisioned, with a single minute of league action.

His grandfather advised him during his rookie year not to hang his head. He talked about perseverance, about sticking through it and being faithful.

"Do your best," the Nobel Prize winner said, "and someday you too can achieve your success."

Those rookie struggles are now a thing of the past, and Cannon's future on the field looks bright. A replacement player on the U.S.'s Gold Cup squad after Tyler Adams was removed due to injury, he forced his way onto the field and was one of the few Americans to shine in the final defeat against Mexico.

For a player who took a non-traditional path to his success, it isn't a shock that Cannon took an unusual route in grabbing the right-back slot.

"I've always took the odd path, the unique path. My selection with the Gold Cup, I was the third choice for that position," Cannon said. "When Tyler took that knock, I was ready for that opportunity. It ended up working out. You always have to be ready."

Based on his play in MLS and with the national team, a transfer to Europe is conceivable in the not too distant future. Although Cannon might be playing for a major club in a top European league someday, he hasn't given up on his academic ambitions.

He plans to enroll at Southern New Hampshire University, an online college that is also a league partner. His mother asks him regularly when he is going to start college classes again, and Cannon promises it will be soon. He hopes to get a degree in computer science.

But before a move to Europe or even getting his college degree, he is focused on his club play. Cannon is a regular in the starting lineup and one of the best outside backs in the league.

This year might be the year that FC Dallas and its young lineup break through and make a run in the playoffs. Should the club win MLS Cup, it would mean a trip to be honored by the president. Just like his grandfather, Cannon could be honored at the White House.

"Wouldn't that be something?" Washington said. "I'd love to see that."