"Soccer saved my life."
For Johnny Lopez, a lifelong love of soccer carries a greater significance than 90 minutes on the field.
“You talk to people from Europe, you talk to people from South America, [soccer] that is church, that's a religion,” he explained.
Lopez is a U.S. Marine who began boot camp in October 2001. He undertook seven deployments during his military career, three of them combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the Marine Corps, he served in many units such as, 1/1, F.A.S.T. (Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team), and 3/2.
“It was really the way they treated each other in the recruiting office that kind of got me hooked,” he said. “These guys worked in very stressful environments, but they kept their calm.”
Lopez speaks of those days serving his country with tremendous pride. And yet, he is the first to acknowledge that when his time in the military concluded, it brought with it a complex and challenging set of obstacles that he was ill-equipped to handle.
“It just came like an avalanche all at once,” he explained. “My body gave out. My mental state gave out. I was angry because I had to get medically retired from the military; I didn't want to leave yet.” He said he still had a lot of fight left in him.
As this new chapter in his life began to unfold, Lopez struggled. Wrestling with his thoughts now became a significant challenge.
“I wanted to end my life. I wanted to just be done with it,” he said.
Lopez had a sense of duty to those he served alongside, and while in his words ‘I’ll always be a Marine’ he struggled with no longer being in active service. A cascade of negative and challenging emotions followed, and at times it became overwhelming.
That was when Lopez made himself a promise; just one more game. Lopez, of Colombian descent, is a boyhood fan of Atletico Nacional – also known as the King of Cups. Throughout this challenging time in his life, his love of soccer and watching his team play provided enough distraction to keep him going, and to help him push through those tough days.
“They got on a winning streak,” he said.
As he recounts that period of his life, he describes the feeling as a string of last-minute goals woven together, and in his words, ‘filling you up with warmth and love again.’
While soccer played a role in helping Lopez, it didn’t stand alone.
“Soccer was energizing me, and then I finally just connected with the right people medically,” he said. “We worked through it, talked through it, and they made me see there's so much more that life wants to give you. So, I always joke around; I'm like ‘soccer saved my life – it literally saved my life.’”
In addition to his family, Lopez credits, Wounded Warrior Battalion East and the University of Health & Performance for helping him to regain a sense of control and purpose: Wounded Warrior Battalion East, where wounded Marines and Sailors go for rehabilitation, and University of Health & Performance, where active duty and veterans have a new space to regain purpose through physical fitness.
With life turning in a positive direction, fate would give him a further blessing. The Marines had taken Lopez across the globe, but home was always White Plains, New York. By 2014 he was back in his native New York with his wife Caitlin, to be closer to family. That was when New York City gained a soccer team and offered him a chance to embrace his love of the game up close.
Lopez became a Founding Member and now had an avenue for his passion. Fast forward to 2023, and he has also established a gameday routine that begins long before a ball is kicked but requires the same amount of effort and dedication as 90 minutes on the field.
“It's a little checklist,” he said proudly. “I'm a personal trainer, but before I became a personal trainer I always said if the team is going out there to give 100% then I need to give 100%, before I even make it to the stadium. I'll put myself through a grueling workout the day before the game or the day of the game. I put on a jersey and sweat it out. I make sure that I at least give them that energy.”
Then there is a morning call to his childhood friend Robinson Galeano that begins with the phrase “Hoy juegan el celestes” (today the Blues play). The pair then undertake what Lopez estimates is a dozen or so phone calls to discuss the logistics of their game day pilgrimage and what they can expect from the upcoming match.
Lopez has only one request for his friend, “Make sure I’m in my seat for the national anthem. I don’t want to be late,” he said.
The pair enjoy a halftime ice cream while Lopez dedicates his focus in-game to the NYCFC goalkeeper.
“When I played, I was a defender, and I always had great communication with the goalie,” he said. “That's why I really respect the goalkeepers because they must be the most focused player on the field. Every player on the field can make mistakes, but one mistake on their part could cost you the game.”
It's one of the many reasons the team's 2021 MLS Cup meant so much to him. Unable to attend due to a family emergency, he filled his living room with every scarf and jersey he could as he cheered the team to victory. Near or far, his passion does not diminish.
“When that whistle blew, and we won the cup, it was just an emotional breakdown,” he said. “You’re trying not to cry in front of your mom and kids.”
On Saturday, Lopez will once again be near the team he loves. NYCFC will host Philadelphia Union on Memorial Day Weekend as part of Military Heroes Night, with Lopez’s two loves dovetailing for a moment in time.
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