Joe Greenspan: Beneath the Surface
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Of course, you could probably guess that. After all, I’m lucky enough to play professional soccer for a living. What you may not know, though, is that I’m also still serving as a reservist in the Navy. I train with Riverhounds SC every day, and a couple times a month I visit the Navy Operational Support Center in Pittsburgh where I go to drill. There, I’m a Public Affairs Officer. At Highmark Stadium, though, I’m a central defender.
Two parts of one life.
My New Jersey roots brought me here, and one day in particular.
It’s an easy memory to pick out--September 11, 2001.
My ninth birthday was the day after, so I go to school and come home, looking forward to presents, a party… all that stuff. But I remember I got home and there was my dad—that was weird. Home early on a weekday? An early present to me! I wanted to go outside and kick the ball around, but I could tell something happened… I could see it on his face. Except he was almost expressionless, just sitting in front of the TV, watching the news.
No soccer today.
I didn’t understand the magnitude of the events on that day at that time, but it burned an image in my head; a lesson on how fragile life is and how little we are. When you’re a kid, you kind of think the world revolves around you a bit. You have to learn quickly that that’s not the case.
Kicking around a soccer ball is fun, but there were more important things going on in the world. Sometimes soccer needs to take a back seat.
Years later, that lesson is still as important to me as ever.
Playing soccer professionally is great. It’s a blessing. It’s an experience I would never and will never take for granted. But, even when the possibility became reality, I knew I had to pursue something where—after my playing career was done, after I “hung up my boots,” so to say—I could still pursue something bigger than myself.
Enter the United States Naval Academy.
I wanted to use soccer as a tool where I could go play and have an excellent experience at a Division I school while earning the best education I could to set me up for the future. In reality, I knew the education part was most important and how big of an impact that would have as I progressed beyond school and soccer.
So, when the United States Naval Academy reached out, I was ready to listen.
Joe's first salute with his older brother, Alex - a tradition at commissioning
The Greenspan family
I owe a lot to Dave Brandt—my coach at Navy. Dave gave me an opportunity to be myself as a person, as an athlete, and ultimately, as an officer in the United States Navy. I learned so much from getting to know him, the program, and the school that I couldn’t say no to the opportunity.
Still, it was a lot to take on as a 17-, 18-year-old. I wouldn’t say I was scared of the chance, but definitely nervous. I knew I was giving up a lot of my freedom. Professionally, of course, but on the social side, you see college as this place where you’re going to make friends and go out and party, do the whole college thing… it was a real, conscious decision I’d be making to forego the normal experience most people get to have.
Thankfully, I didn’t make it alone.
I’ve always had incredible support from my family. Family is everything to me. My parents have been a guiding light, and my three siblings and I are extremely close. That’s actually where the tattoos began.
Oh, I guess I should mention that… I have a few tattoos.
I got my first one when I was 22, using money I got from my parents as a graduation present. On my shoulder, I put everyone’s initials and a rope encircling a compass to show how spread out we are, with an anchor in the middle and my parents’ initials in it to show my parents that they are our anchor, also a nod to the Navy.
A few months later, I got four different flowers from my mom’s garden back home, a hummingbird, and butterfly tattooed on my other shoulder. That’s for my mom. She was really important to my development with how she raised me. Like I said, family is everything.
My third tattoo has a little more to it. I have a dog on the outside of my right leg kind of looking up at the moon with a mountain in the backdrop. The dog because my family has always had dogs but the outdoors because I spend a lot of my free time pursuing outdoor activities (as does the rest of my family) and as a nod to represent the Colorado Rapids, the team that drafted me, where I got my first chance to be a professional.
My most recent tattoo is of the Twin Towers alongside the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, all on my leg. That was my backyard growing up. My dad has worked in the city most of his life and, having spent a lot of time there, it helped me develop as a kid and was always important to our family. I mentioned September 11, 2001. My dad was in the city that day. My town… we lost eight people in the attacks. The Statue of Liberty is our foremost symbol of freedom, liberty, and justice. That’s what we fight for. That’s what I fight for. That’s important enough to have on my skin forever.
I can tie a lot back to that day. I didn’t recognize it at the time but looking back at it now, subconsciously, it certainly had a huge impact on my decision-making process as I went along.
Left to right: Joe, younger sister Caroline, older brother Alex (also in Navy), youngest sibling Nicholas
What the Navy has provided me through service and opportunity and what soccer has done for me personally and professionally over the last five years is nothing short of amazing. I’ve learned a lot, even in the past couple of years.
As important as anything, though, is that the currency I exchange for my paycheck is effort. As an athlete, you’re paid for your effort and your decision making, as well as taking risks because you’re putting your body on the line, day in and day out. Same goes for serving your country. And once I’m done playing, I don’t plan on looking back with regret, wishing I had given more.
My challenge to myself every day is to keep my eyes open and enjoy every minute of the process. Enjoy the good times, but enjoy the tough times even more, and to make sure when a challenge presents itself, to face it head on with everything I have to offer. No career, or life for that matter, is without hardship or failure. That is where you grow and learn, which is what leads you to becoming a better version of yourself. After all, you don’t get the grand view at the beginning of your climb, you get it after you’ve pushed yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and gained the summit of whatever mountain it is that you’re climbing.
And most importantly, count your blessings because there are many. I have carved some of mine into my skin to carry for the rest of my life, but there are countless blessings every way I look each and every day.
Like I said, I’m a pretty lucky guy.