Ex-Terps men's soccer standout Taylor Twellman is once again a rising star
By By Ryan Bacic and The Baltimore Sun
Jun 15, 2014 at 5:34 PM
Turning away from a sold-out crowd in Santa Clara, Calif., Taylor Twellman put down the mic and picked up the phone.
"I appreciate the opportunity," he told ESPN's producers that day in July 2010. "I apologize for that being one of the worst games ever called."
The former Maryland striker had thought he knew the media well. For nine seasons, before a severe concussion ended his professional soccer career in 2008, he had been a star for Major League Soccer's New England Revolution — and when you score a lot of goals, you get a lot of interviews.
As Twellman found out, though, calling a game was new territory. So when the final whistle blew on his first game as a color commentator, a scoreless draw between Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur and the San Jose Earthquakes, he called to thank ESPN for giving him a chance he felt he didn't deserve.
Twellman, now 34, has turned into one of the fastest-rising talents in American sports media—and, according to ESPN's lead World Cup announcer Ian Darke, "very much the flavor of the month."
ABC drew a national World Cup record 14.9 million viewers for the United States' loss to Ghana in 2010. On Monday, when the two teams meet again in their group-stage opener, ESPN will put the mic — and a large part of its success — in Twellman's hands.
"We are aiming very specifically to do better at every aspect of our coverage than we did in 2010, no matter how well we did then," said Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer in charge of the World Cup. "I think bringing Taylor, among many others, to our presentation will help us do that."
How did it all happen? "Like a blind squirrel finding a nut," Twellman said. "If you would've [told] me five, six years ago that I would've been doing this, I would've said you're out of your mind."
The measuring stick for any professional soccer player — for both himself and his legacy — is a World Cup. Twellman knows that all too well: He came up just short.
The 2006 World Cup in Germany represented his best chance. At 26, Twellman was coming off a Most Valuable Player season, the best of his MLS career, in which he scored a league-high 17 goals. Then, as that summer approached, Twellman began lighting up the international game, too, bagging a hat trick against Norway in January.
Yet when the final cuts were made, and the list of 30 players was trimmed to 23, Twellman found himself an alternate.
"He had such terrible luck in his first profession, as a player, and he should've gone to the 2006 World Cup," Darke said. "And Bruce Arena, who was the coach then, admitted as much to him since that tournament. He was in the squad and scoring goals and kind of mysteriously got left out."
Twellman would be back on the U.S. squad the following summer, but he never got another chance at the sport's biggest stage: On Aug. 28, 2008, less than two years before South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup, he beat LA Galaxy goalie Steve Cronin to a cross, heading it into the net as he took a fist to the jaw in an attempted clearance. Twellman got up and ran to the sidelines to celebrate.
Moments later, he fell to his knees.
Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski called Twellman "one of the most courageous players I've ever seen," and in the end, that fearlessness had come back to haunt him. It was Twellman's seventh lifetime concussion, and it would be the last of his career. He played just two games over the next two years before retiring in 2010 at age 30.
Before Twellman even had announced his retirement, though, ESPN contacted him. Twellman had no media aspirations when he was a player, but when ESPN reached out, the striker — true to form — gave it a shot.
"I had absolutely no foundation, no idea what to do," he said of the Tottenham-San Jose game. But the producers on the other end of the line that day saw promise in him.
After a few more cameo appearances for ESPN in 2010, Twellman was hired by Comcast SportsNet to join veteran play-by-play man JP Dellacamera on all home broadcasts for the Philadelphia Union.
When Twellman's name first came up for the job, there were a few factors working against him. The first was that he had been a rival player, with New England. The second, as Dellacamera put it, was: "God, we could lose him."
"He was a sponge for information, whether it was speaking to people or reading things on the Internet, or talking to various contact people in the industry," Dellacamera said.
The two went on walks together on the day of every game, ate breakfast together, "did everything together." All the while, Twellman said, he spent time studying commentators he liked — above all, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.
"Instead of saying, 'Woe is me,' and, 'I've lost at least five years of my professional career,' his attitude was, 'Let me start my broadcasting career,'" said Dellacamera, who's in Brazil calling his eighth straight World Cup. "'Let me be as good of a broadcaster as I was as a player.'"
By the time Comcast SportsNet did lose Twellman, to ESPN at the end of the season, his on-air presence had sharpened dramatically. In 2012, he called the European Championships, and then went on to pair with Darke on all of the U.S. men's team's home World Cup qualifiers.
"There are many great attributes about Taylor, and they're all developing rapidly," Drake, the executive producer, said.
Co-workers are especially quick to point out Twellman's affable nature and dedication to research. On May 22, he broke the news of the final U.S. World Cup roster — notable for its omission of Landon Donovan — before the team did.
Breaking that story was a definite win for Twellman, who doesn't consider himself a reporter, but after 2006, Donovan's plight is also one that he fully understands. Eight years after Twellman missed out on the World Cup, U.S. backup goalie Nick Rimando, at 34, is his same age; starter Tim Howard, 35, is even older.
Twellman already has begun his World Cup work, doing in-studio work and calling Colombia-Greece on Saturday, but his first U.S. assignment comes Monday. With it, he knows, will come the what-ifs.
"I'm not here thinking, you know, about 2006," Twellman said. "However … I know, U.S.-Ghana, I'm in the stadium an hour before the game, there will be a part of me that wonders: 'Why did I not wear that U.S. jersey in a World Cup?'"
He paused. "But I'll completely forget about it, and call the game."
In 10 to 15 years, Twellman said, he believes he'll likely be remembered only for his broadcasting and contributions to concussion awareness. His MLS and national-team stardom has long since burned out.
He's OK with that. After his retirement, Twellman started the ThinkTaylor Foundation to improve awareness of and education about traumatic brain injuries. On May 29, those efforts led to an invitation from President Barack Obama to speak at the White House.
Twellman's own headaches, as with the pain of 2006, have faded somewhat. While the post-concussion symptoms sometimes affected him in the booth toward the beginning of his broadcasting career, he said his health has improved more over the past eight or nine months than it did in the previous six years. This fall, after the World Cup has been settled, he's been talking about going back to College Park to finish his degree.
So maybe Taylor Twellman can be surprised after all. His second career — unlike anything he'd anticipated when he began in Santa Clara — has "rejuvenated me," he said.
"I will tell you, it's been one of the greatest things that's ever happened," Twellman added. "I don't know how to explain it."