The Inspiring, Tragic Journey of The Soccer Man

June 10, 2013

When Richard Swanson told his friends and family back in April that he planned to dribble a soccer ball 10,000 miles from Seattle to Rio de Janeiro, they weren't particularly surprised. Many of them had shared beers with him after rec league soccer games or sat up with him late at night on backpacking trips, listening to him dream out loud. "Someday I want to ..." Swanson often began, finishing with "run from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic," or "have a huge party where all the friends I've ever had get to meet each other," or some other idea as big and broad as his smile.

A soccer fanatic who was always organizing get-togethers at watering holes to watch English Premier League games, Swanson planned to dribble into Brazil in June 2014, just in time for the World Cup, an event he had always wanted to attend. He would rely mostly on the kindness of strangers for lodging along the way, and he found a good cause to promote—the One World Futbol Project, which provides extra-durable balls for children in underdeveloped countries. "Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I'm just going to take off out the door and start hoofing it." Why not? As a single, 42-year-old, unemployed graphic designer with two grown sons, he had nothing to hold him back. "If it had been anybody else with the plan, I would have thought, It'll never happen," Swanson's rec league teammate Jed Kittell says. "But it just seemed to fit Richard so well, the idea of dribbling that ball and couch-surfing all the way to Brazil."

Swanson kicked off his trip at the Space Needle on May 1, with one of One World's distinctive blue soccer balls at his feet and a pack strapped to his back. Within a few days it was obvious that he had found the perfect journey, one that encompassed his sense of adventure, his passion for soccer and, most of all, his ability to connect with people. His videos and pictures on YouTube and a Facebook site, Breakaway Brazil, showed he was making new friends with every mile. Mostly through social media, people stepped forward to offer him not just a place in their homes, but also their hearts.

There were the Elkinses in McMinnville, Ore., who took him to a youth soccer game and barbecue; and his stop in Portland, where he became fast friends with Mary and her pet goat, Ducky; and Susan in Lincoln City, Ore., who treated him like a son and made sure he was full of bacon, eggs and hash browns before he left in the morning. Drivers spotted him along the road and yelled "Go, Soccer Man!" from their windows. Some doubled back to bring him a bottle of water or a sandwich. "After a while it ceased to be just about soccer and more about the generosity of people," Swanson's friend Patrick Allen says. "I had never seen Richard happier."

He was having the time of his life until the moment it ended. At around 10 a.m. on May 14, 250 miles into his trip, Swanson was walking along the shoulder of Highway 101 in Lincoln City when he was struck and killed by a truck. Police said there were no indications that he was dribbling the ball at the time of the accident. No charges have been filed against the driver. Some of his friends, new and old, were in disbelief when they heard the news. But once they were told a blue soccer ball was found at the scene, they knew.

When the people who loved him talk about Swanson now, it's hard to tell whether they are about to dissolve into tears or break into laughter. They are delicately balanced between grief and joy, understanding that life—and death—can be cruel yet still poetic. "There was a void in Richard's life that only people could fill," says his friend Kristi Schwesinger. "And those last two weeks he had so many people in his life. It's unbearably sad, but it's fitting, you know?"

The goal now of those close to Swanson is to find a way to finish his undertaking. They have considered raising money to send his sons, Devin and Raven, to Rio for the World Cup. There have been offers of lodging from people as far away as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to anyone who wants to pick up where Swanson left off. Through the One World Project website, oneworldfutbol.com, people can donate balls to needy children in Swanson's name.

But maybe there doesn't need to be any grand gesture. Swanson's loved ones—some who had known him for years and some who had sheltered him for just a day—recently gathered at his favorite Seattle bar, Die Bierstube, to share their memories. It wasn't every friend he'd ever had getting to meet one another, but it was close. The people drawn to him are establishing new connections and reviving old ones, and somewhere in the world a child is dribbling a blue ball because of the dream Swanson followed. You get the feeling that would have been enough, at journey's end, for the Soccer Man.

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Richard Swanson's plan to dribble from Seattle to Rio perfectly encompassed his sense of adventure and his ability to connect with people.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TAYLOR) PHOTOBILL WAGNER/THE DAILY NEWS/AP (SWANSON)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)