There are some players in the NWSL that are just mesmerizing to watch when they are playing like the best version of themselves. Players that you can’t take your eyes off of because they are doing something you haven’t seen before, or they are showing mastery of a set of skills you hold in high regards, or for whatever reason, the way they play soccer is like a direct hit to your soccer-loving brain.
Each team has a share of players that just draw you in with their style. It might be Tobin Heath in Portland for you, or Jess Fishlock for the Reign FC. You might watch Sam Kerr in awe when she suits up for Chicago, or you may cheer as Sam Mewis does 10 things right in a single possession for North Carolina.
When you’ve covered the NWSL for any real amount of time, you start looking past the names everyone knows and start to try to find the names that everyone should know, players who have something about them that call out to your soccer-loving brain in a special way.
Mandy Laddish is a player like that, a player that if you watch what she can do with the ball, you can see there is something about her that is just impressive. Forget going almost two years between stepping off the pitch in a game and returning. Forget managing to stick it out injured when healthy players have faded. Just watch her with the ball, and it’s enough to draw you in.
And on June 26, 2019, she came out.
She didn’t use to word “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” She didn’t have to label herself to set herself free. She just wrote about her struggle to accept who she was, and what she felt. She didn’t write a long love letter to her partner. She thanked her, and that was enough.
And sitting in the parking lot of a pizza place, I read the words she wrote, and I cried because I connected with the words she wrote and because I have lived them for years of my life. In some ways, I still do live them.
There was never a moment in which someone told me I had to look or act a certain way, it was more of a multitude of comments and statements made by people around me and things I heard at church or saw on TV that influenced my way of thinking.
Malicious slander was surely never the goal with their remarks, but it’s proof that someone’s psyche can be completely altered and depleted unintentionally.
The human part of my brain connected with the words she wrote like the soccer part of my brain connected with the way she plays. Something so subtle and yet undeniably skillful waving through the words and actions. Someone earnest and charming and sure of their footing.
Things like this matter because it’s 2019, and while we’ve come so far, we still have so far to go. Maybe they matter more in 2019 because of the political climate that is so different from four years ago or even eight years ago. They matter when it feels like the progress made is being pulled back as if they are being sucked down a storm drain by a killer clown.
Pride month can feel corporate sometimes. Brands that don’t care about human rights or LGBT+ lives put their logo over rainbow-colored marking gimmicks can seem to be what June has become all about. Even in the NWSL with a rather large segment of the fanbase being an L, B, G, T or plus pool, it can feel as though they do it because they feel like they should.
But the feeling that Laddish wrote about is all too raw for some of those who will read her words.
Looking back I was so scared that if the people in my life found out the truth about me they would be disappointed, or worse, it would be revealed that I loved them more than they loved me. It’s amazing just how wrong I was and it’s on me that I never trusted them with my secrets.
But I was rooted in fear, because somewhere along the way that little girl heard a statement or a comment that made me think that I was less than worthy, that who I was would never be good enough.
Now that I know just how far from the truth I was I want to tell every other girl, just like me, how freeing it can be when you finally allow yourself to be proud of every part of what makes you, you.
Laddish being ready to let her story be told in her own words is powerful, doing so with the support of her club behind her, and that is something unstoppable. It matters for the little LGBT+ kids out there who can see someone who is respected, talented, and just all around good share her story, knowing it’s okay to be who they are. It matters because you can look at a league you follow and see someone who is like you tell you that you might be able to get there one day, too.
There are times when Pride month can be real and heartwarming and heart-wrenching all at once. There are times when the connection and the feeling of “yeah, maybe it really can get better” smack you right in the face. And just like when Laddish strikes the ball just so, this shot was right on target.