Walker Zimmerman's USMNT journey: How faith and fortitude helped him become America's best center-back

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The rainfall is biblical, a discordant symphony against car hoods and pavement. Beyond the trembling Geodis Park overhangs, lightning spiderwebs an onyx sky. Shirtless teenagers puddle-jump down Bransford Avenue, their soaked tees helicoptering above their heads in improvisational defiance.

Huddling in the Nashville SC locker room, 2020 and 2021 MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, 29, waits like a bottled firefly. He's 6-foot-3 and ropy, with the shaggy facial hair and hazel-flecked blues of a lost Hemsworth. A three-hour weather delay -- against rival Atlanta United and for a sellout crowd of 31,109, no less -- belies his unrelenting motion.

His parents, David and Becky, flew in from Athens, Georgia. Walker was bound for USMNT camp in a week, so they drove north with friends and their two boys, who had designs on Walker signing their Zimmerman jerseys. Becky's sisters were inbound, too, excited for the pyrotechnics and Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" preceding the national anthem and their family's quasi-reunion.

Zimmerman and his wife, Sally, offered to host brunch the following morning, but nature is obstinate. Journalists count lightning strikes and stream the NBA playoffs in the press box. A speedy pitch-invader gets blindsided by a steward around 9 p.m. local time, but in the bowels of the stadium, Zimmerman waits, the rare center-back who's bruising and patient in equal measure.

To date, Zimmerman has played his entire professional career in the United States. When drafted by FC Dallas in 2013, he beamed about going where he was wanted most. He had overseas offers after his All-American freshman season at Furman University, but the timing felt off. He'd just met Sally and that felt substantial, so he stayed and starred at Dallas and LAFC before becoming Nashville SC's linchpin and the rare defending MLS designated player.

Now, with less than six months before a pivotal World Cup for the U.S. Men's National Team, Zimmerman looks increasingly like a starting center back in Qatar.

His renown won't be limited to Major League Soccer for much longer. In Nashville, there's a sense of joy and unease that the 2022 World Cup could be Zimmerman's long-awaited turn on the biggest stage. From there, he might become the cornerstone of another team's defense -- and significantly further from home, too.

David -- a longtime minister who now trains minsters entering the faith -- and Becky knew that when Walker first watched "Chariots of Fire," at 6 years old, the youngest of their three sons had a touch of destiny. When he heard the line God made me for a purpose [and] when I run, I feel His pleasure, Zimmerman jumped off the couch and exclaimed, "I'm going to play pro sports." He didn't even know which sport, but he was resolute.

Before a guitar riff performer who kicks off every match can shred a note, David says that soccer is the vehicle for Walker's God-ordained purpose, whether it's in Nashville, Dallas, Los Angeles or even Europe one day.

"As we've always done," Becky says, "let's see how life unfolds."

So Zimmerman waits.

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Off Hillsboro Road in Brentwood, encircled by lush landscape and horse stables, sits the tony, 83-acre Currey Ingram Academy, a $70,000-per-year boarding school that doubles as Nashville SC's practice facility and academy headquarters. Two days after a decisive 2-1 victory over Montreal, surrounded by unceasing columns of Adidas cleats and team swag, Zimmerman leans forward in an office chair like a coiled spring.

"You hear about pastor's kids going one or two ways," he smirks. "There was a lot of pressure, but I grew into it and made my faith my own. I feel a sense of purpose to use my platform to glorify God, to reflect that back on Him."

In April, when Zimmerman inked the designated player contract that made him one of the wealthiest defenders in MLS history -- each team is allowed up to three players, commonly considered the league's best, who don't count against the salary cap -- Nashville's general manager Mike Jacobs called him "our Tom Brady." Despite getting $10 million over four years and extending through the 2025 season, there wasn't an ounce of solipsism in sight.

"[Whether it's] the contract or an increase in pay, one of the first things we do is say, 'How can we give this money?' 'How can we bless people?'" Zimmerman says. "That's one of the biggest joys of this job and what I get to do: the capacity to bless others."

That capacity to bless is a Zimmerman calling card. When he was fresh out of Furman in Dallas, he got involved in a new church and took up youth outreach. At the end of one season, he invited his family out and youth from the church over. He gathered his FC Dallas gear -- personalized cleats, warm-ups, jerseys -- and gave everything away, a piece at a time. At LAFC -- where he doubled as a volunteer assistant coach with UCLA men's soccer -- as Christmas inched closer, he would mete out checks for those who worked in craft services.

His trade to Nashville was announced February 2020; weeks later, tornadoes killed at least 25 and caused more than $1 billion in damage. Zimmerman has barely unpacked his bags, but he got to work helping the city rebuild.

Zimmerman isn't comfortable with those stories being out there. Altruism isn't about attribution.

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Even before Nashville made him a DP, Zimmerman and Sally created the Walker and Sally Tucker Zimmerman Endowed Scholarship for Men's Soccer at Furman. "[Furman head coach] Doug Allison has built something special. It's a small school that has remained competitive amid all the changes across the NCAA: recruiting, the [inability] to stack scholarships anymore," Zimmerman says. "It was important to me that the program stays competitive and again, just to give back [to Furman] and say, 'Hey, thank you for what you did for me and my wife.'"

In 2011, Walker and Sally moved to the 2,700-student campus in Greenville, South Carolina beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. Walker was on the under-18 men's national team and the centerpiece of the fifth-best recruiting class in the nation. Sally (nee Tucker), from Maryland, was the daughter of Dr. Andrew Tucker, the Baltimore Ravens' head physician since the team's inception, bound for bachelor's and master's degrees in education. At an orientation picnic, Zimmerman, with a team bonding-induced shaved head, noticed Sally and asked teammates about the girl in the pink polka dot dress. It wasn't until November that they met -- "You wear the headbands, right?" Sally asked -- and became inseparable.

Zimmerman had just driven Furman to a Southern Conference semifinal -- a 1-0 loss to Elon, in which he played against Daniel Lovitz, now his teammate at Nashville SC -- and the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons. Europe was calling, but Walker was hesitant to commit. He had hopes for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which featured repeated odes to his beloved "Chariots of Fire," but he wasn't selected and the U.S. men failed to qualify anyway.

"Sally asked, 'How can this be?'" Zimmerman says. "'How can I meet someone who I really want to spend time with and they're just going to leave?' A big part of our story is staying for that spring, then the next fall, then growing enough to where we were committed to each other."

"Things happen when they're supposed to," his mother, Becky, says. "That's been a big part of our faith journey with soccer."

By the time Zimmerman signed a Generation Adidas contract after his sophomore season -- a second-team All-American showing this time -- Sally and Walker had started making decisions together. "She truly has been there every step of the way," Zimmerman says. They dated long-distance for four years while Walker was coming up with FC Dallas and Sally finished her education. In 2016, he proposed at Furman Lake and, later that year, they were married at Grace Church Downtown, 8 miles southeast of campus.

Between the 2015 and 2016 MLS seasons, Zimmerman was one of only 12 defenders with 4,000 minutes played, 200 aerials won and 50 clearances. No one in that group won a higher percentage of aerial duels than Zimmerman's 73.2%. He was in bloom, ranked 11th on MLS' 24 Under 24 list in 2016.

But internationally at least, Zimmerman remained overlooked. He was left off the U20 2013 FIFA World Cup roster that saw the United States drawn with eventual champion France, anchored by Paul Pogba, and allow the second-most goals at the tournament. "I always have a chip on my shoulder any time I'm not selected for a roster," Zimmerman says. "I want to be on the field, playing every minute. I was frustrated, but it fuels me to continue to prove whoever wrong."

The senior U.S. national team didn't call him up until early 2017 after Jurgen Klinsmann, who all but demanded top American talent play overseas, was fired. That fateful night in Couva, when the USMNT were stunned by Trinidad & Tobago and missed out on the 2018 World Cup, Zimmerman wasn't rostered.

"[MLS] has developed tremendously over the last five or six years," says Nashville's head coach Gary Smith, a former Arsenal scout who coached Colorado to a 2010 MLS Cup title. "Walker takes a lot of pride in playing for his country, in his country, and being one of the top -- if not the best -- central defenders in this league."

Smith also notes that Zimmerman is somewhat of a unicorn among defenders: Few can start attacks and break lines, execute quality distribution over a variety of ranges, defend one-on-one and in the air and be an offensive weapon on set pieces -- the very situation in which Zimmerman scored Nashville's first goal as an MLS franchise in 2020.

"You don't see guys like Walker a lot," Smith says. "He's good enough to be playing in the Premier League right now."

Jack Maher, 22, was Nashville's second overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. Like Zimmerman, Maher was an All-American who signed a Generation Adidas contract and was bounds for MLS before turning 21, but his introduction was derailed by a once-in-a-century global event. Zimmerman, whom Maher likens to a big brother, took it upon himself to rectify that.

"Walker and Sally wanted to make that day special for me," remembers Maher, who turned 21 that October. "They had a small get-together -- some guys on the team, their wives and girlfriends -- for a Jack Travels the World Day with different-themed drinks and games."

A focal piece was cornhole or, as the Illinois-born Maher calls it, "bags" -- "I'm from the Midwest," he says with a grin. "I've played bags quite a few times, fancy myself in it."

Zimmerman took it as a challenge, asking Maher if the distance between boards was 26 or 27 feet. (It's 27, according to the American Cornhole Organization.) Zimmerman frantically searched for a tape measure. "If someone asks for the tape measure," Maher says, "you're about to get your butt kicked; he absolutely skunked -- I mean destroys -- me."

Whether it's Monopoly, fantasy football, golf or even buying a new meat smoker for get-togethers, Zimmerman simply doesn't have an off switch. "He's singularly focused," Lovitz says. "He knows everyone's moves and he does everything full throttle. He competes in a way where he knows he's talented ... but he doesn't take anything for granted. That balance is really hard to find."

Dax McCarty, who will soon become one of only six MLS players all-time with 36,000 minutes played, calls Zimmerman "a true competitor at the highest level."

"He's a gamer. He's always ready to lead and to play in whatever role is asked of him," McCarty says. "[USMNT head coach] Gregg Berhalter and Gary Smith are asking different things of him, but he's been able to seamlessly transition [and adapt] ... his versatility, willingness to adapt, his competitive will to win, all of that is at the highest level that you can possibly imagine."

"He's always looking to be as positive and as creative as can be," Smith adds. "More so, I'm keeping the reins on him because we have a slightly different style than the national team."

David and Becky smile when I mention Walker's renowned competitive streak around the team. "Walker is the kind of boy, growing up," David says, "[who] always thinks he can deliver the win for the team. Never bet against him: I've seen it happen over and over." Becky agrees: "He always thinks he's going to win." On family drives, a preteen Zimmerman was so ruthlessly competitive that he would study the digital clock on the dashboard and make everyone guess when they'd arrive home. Pit stops for gas? What will it cost to fill up? A basketball court nearby? Trick shot extravaganza.

"We had dice in the house to roll for chores," Becky remembers. "We wanted to teach the boys to sweep and clean the kitchen. You roll: If you lose, you do your brother's chores." High risk, high reward. "But he'd win," Becky says. "A lot. His brothers would say, 'God, Walker, you're so lucky!'"

"Over and over and over," David says.

Zimmerman hasn't always been lucky, though, and sometimes desire is no match for circumstance. Last summer, he was headed to July's Gold Cup with Sally due to give birth in August. They'd just gotten a puppy, Bear, in February, too. "I entered into chaos," Zimmerman says. Sally went into labor seven weeks early. Their son, Tucker, spent nine days in the NICU; Walker thanked God on Instagram for Tucker getting Sally as a mom.

"We'd gotten him home for two days before I left," Zimmerman says. "That was tough."

His grandmother died while he was on Gold Cup duty and then, 15 minutes into the USMNT's final Group A match against Canada, Zimmerman (who'd taken up the captain mantle) came off injured with a strained hamstring. It didn't seem like it at the time, but as the Zimmermans often say, things happen when they're supposed to.

"I felt that sense of abandonment leaving my family," Zimmerman says. "To get back earlier was ... a nice surprise. I'm able to go to my grandmother's funeral, I get to spend more time with Tucker and Sally."

Surely cosmic -- perhaps even divine -- intervention must have slowed Zimmerman down, right? Becky and David chuckle. They watched their son go down, the grimace that flushed his face, and knew it'd kill him to not help his team, his country, at the Gold Cup. "When that happened," Becky says, "his mind was already going: what stage the strain was, counting the days he'd have to get back."

David straightens up. He considers the adversities that have structured his son's life and career -- the injuries, the slights, even the trades he was blindsided by -- imperturbably. "I don't think any of that adversity is wasted," he says. "We have a saying in the ministry... 'Sometimes our core wounding shapes our core calling.'"

"Walker knows 'This is my time. This is my time to make an impact in my world.'"

At 10:06 p.m. local time, Atlanta and Nashville finally resume play. It's Zimmerman's 200th MLS game. After the lengthy break, Nashville scores twice in seven minutes, but squanders the three points on a stoppage-time equalizer from Dom Dwyer.

Walking off the pitch, Zimmerman and Lovitz are apoplectic. They're mum on talking points, but their passionate hand motions rival an Easter supper on Arthur Avenue. As they near the player tunnel underneath section 133, whatever conversation fades into thin air.

"I've always done a good job at being able to shift quickly," Zimmerman says. "In the moment, I'm a competitor and an absolute S.O.B. on the field. In the moment, you want to figure it out -- What went well? What didn't? Were you there on that play? Could I have played you instead? -- when it's fresh. Then you come home and flip the switch, whether it's dad or husband. Compartmentalization."

At midfield, some of Zimmerman's teammates jersey swap with Atlanta players. Zimmerman, however, heads for the touchline where a bevy of soaked and spent supporters -- a roiling sea of gold and black -- wait. He says hello to his parents and signs the shirts of his family friend's children. "They grew up together, so Walker wants to honor [his] kids," David says. "He always wants the experience to be remarkable for others."

He shakes and high-fives the hands held out toward him. He stops for perhaps half a dozen photos from a variety of angles without a syllable of dissent. Just before he enters the tunnel, Zimmerman gives the very shirt off his back to a young fan, who white-knuckles the precious materials.

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With Qatar 2022 on the horizon, Zimmerman is giddy. "I'm looking forward to the World Cup as the next step I need to take as a player," he said. "Let's see how you do against the best of the best, you know? Let's do it against England and Iran and whoever else we play."

"Can it hurry up already?" Zimmerman says, grinning.

"Most players want to test themselves at the highest level, and there's no better platform to do that than the World Cup," Smith says. "I couldn't personally see a world where [Walker's] not at Nashville: he's a foundational piece of this team, and I hope he stays here the rest of his career.

"Worst-case scenario, what would I do if he [went to Europe]? That's a tough, tough question. England will always be our spiritual home, but Nashville is our second and we'd love to be here an awful lot longer," Smith says. "Walker might have something to say on that; he'll be a key factor in whether I am or not."

David and Becky see a World Cup as the ultimate challenge. "His whole life, Walker has dedicated himself to getting better and proving to himself that he's among the best of the best," David says. "However that can happen -- Qatar is as much of a challenge as he'll ever need -- that's what moves Walker."

The Zimmermans will leave it up to Him. Life unfolds as it will.

As Zimmerman enters the tunnel, his black player tracking vest and yellow Nashville shorts are swallowed by shadow. He's both flush amid a legacy and at the precipice of something wholly new. Come November, if all goes according to plan, his name will be on the lips of roughly half the planet's citizens. But not yet.

First, he'll grab sleep, if only just a wink. After all, he promised to make brunch.