What Landon Donovan’s Father Told Him About Quitting, Depression, And Being As Cool As Gretzky

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You may know Landon Donovan as Major League Soccer’s all-time top scorer, the U.S. National Team’s best-ever player, or the sports legend with arguably the worst nickname in the history of bad nicknames. “Landycakes” refers to a perceived reluctance on Landon’s part to embrace the spotlight his talents earned him. But many of the instances that earned him the nickname — being unhappy playing on elite European teams, taking more than a year off in his prime — were at least partially the result of a lifelong struggle with depression.

A lot of people don’t understand depression, and that included Landon’s own father. But when Tim Donovan realized his son was hurting, he figured out how he could help, which was just one of countless times he led by example as a father. Now retired and a father himself, Landon reflects on what he learned from his old man, including how to keep perspective and how to be like Wayne Gretzky even when you’re nowhere near the ice.

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On Learning To Slide Tackle The Hard Way
“When I was 15 I got a call to try out for the national youth team. At that time in my life I felt invincible, especially after getting that call. My dad had kept telling me, ‘You’re not invincible, things can happen. You have to stay smart.’ I said, ‘I am smart about what I do, I won’t get hurt.’ The day before I was set to travel for the try out, I was playing in a game with my club team. I ran after the ball, and did a slide tackle — it was the first time I ever slide tackled someone. My foot got caught and I broke my leg. Later, I was in the hospital with a cast on, crying because I thought I lost my chance with the national team. I looked at my dad. He smiled and said, ‘You’re going to be fine, but learn from it.’ That moment in my life was a big reason why I never had a major injury in my career. He taught me to be smart about that.”

On How To Take A Soccer Sabbatical
“When I was burned out and wanted a break from soccer, my dad wanted to make sure I was positive about it. There are times in your life when you get fed up or emotional and you can make irrational decisions. He continually asked me, ‘Are you sure this is the right thing to do?’ I was very burned out, but it was important to see the big picture. Instead of making the decision quickly, I took time and thought it through, and realized what the consequences would be for myself, my teammates and my family. He always helped me stop and think before I reacted emotionally.”

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On Figuring Out What Your Kid Really Needs
“It’s difficult for people who haven’t experienced that to understand it. My dad grew up very poor. He didn’t have a lot, so looking at me and my success, his first reaction was probably, ‘You’ve got a great life, what’s there to be depressed about?’ It took time to explain what it feels like; not just to my dad but to a lot of people. At one point, after feeling like, ‘Gosh, he doesn’t get it,’ he said, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing tons of research. I had no idea what it was all about. Even though I haven’t gone through this myself I understand it now, and I’m here to help you.’ All he had to do was offer to talk about it or visit. Just hearing that was helpful. More than anything, people who struggle with mental illness or depression want people to understand, because it can feel isolating and lonely. That was so comforting.”

“More than anything, people who struggle with mental illness or depression want people to understand, because it can feel isolating and lonely.”

On Being Poised When You’re Pissed
“There were so many tough losses and disappointing moments along the way. And I’m a sensitive guy — maybe more emotional than most men — so I tend to react emotionally. My dad and I would always watch hockey growing up, and he preached to me about how he loved the way Wayne Gretzky carried himself off the ice. At times when I could have blown up or been pissed off, I kept that in mind. Gretzky was so humble and gracious. Whenever reporters would ask him about a goal he scored, his response would be, ‘This guy made a great pass,’ or ‘The defenders set up my play so well,’ or ‘They made it easy for me.’ He always made it about his teammates. My dad would point that out about Gretzky, and then I would see it in his responses. That was helpful so many times.”

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