Viva il Papa! FC Tucson counts on longtime player's experience
Phoenix-based player grateful to be given playing opportunity
Some players earn nicknames like el Pibe or Gazza. Some, like FC Tucson’s Dom Papa, don’t require one.
“Everybody calls him ‘Papa’,” said coach Rick Schantz. “It’s kinda funny because the older he gets, Papa has a couple of significant meanings.”
At 27, Papa isn’t exactly entering dotage, even by soccer standards. But FC Tucson plays in a league that puts limits on players over the age of 23, and counts mostly on players who are on break from college. Despite his name, Papa isn’t a father figure for the team, but Schantz counts on his experience. He's the only player to figure in every season for the Tucson soccer side.
“The most important thing that Dom has always brought to FC Tucson is leadership. He’s an extremely hard worker, very knowledgeable about the game. It’s like having another coach on the field,” said Schantz. “He’s very positive. He’s not hard on the team. He’s hard on himself. He’s always encouraging. He’s the type of player that every team needs to have.”
Papa didn’t pick up on soccer right away, playing several sports before becoming dedicated to the game.
“My parents believed that I should be in every sport just so I could get a taste of it,” he said. “I just naturally gravitated to soccer. I didn’t start playing competitive soccer until I was 10, so I got a late start compared to a lot of people in competitive soccer. I was kind of a late bloomer, but I think that playing all of the other sports helped me because it made me a well-rounded athlete.”
Papa earned himself a spot on the team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before moving to Phoenix to attend ASU and becoming a coach.
“I thought I’d come back to college, go to ASU to get my bachelor’s. I was coaching ODP and ran into [FC Tucson’s Jon] Pearlman,” he said. “He asked if I was still playing, and I said ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.’”
That “shot” was playing in the first Desert Cup. FC Tucson played two matches in that tournament; one was against the New York Red Bulls. Papa’s performance earned him some time in their training camp. Papa could then see the possibility of soccer as a career.
“I got to practice with Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez. It kind of blossomed from there,” said Papa.
Although the Red Bulls didn’t pan out, other possibilities opened up for him.
“San Antonio came to town for open try outs. I ended up making a good impression on [coach] Tim Hankinson,” said Papa. “I was a little raw. I never played at that level. I was a little bit nervous; a little bit timid with my play. I wasn’t at my best. It ended up being a short stint for San Antonio.”
“I think I’m in a much better position now with my knowledge of the game and my knowledge of how professional teams conduct themselves and how professional players are expected to conduct themselves both on and off the field,” said Papa. “I feel like I’m more primed to make a run at it now if I’m so inclined.”
He may not be inclined to make that run, but it doesn’t stop him from being an intimidating presence on the field for FC Tucson. In their Desert Diamond Cup match against Real Salt Lake, Papa was yellow carded for a hard tackle on national team player Kyle Beckerman, and, more importantly, slotted a goal past U.S. national team keeper Nick Rimando.
“It was absolutely huge. Just to be on the same field with these guys is a treat,” he said. “But to be able to actually perform and score at this level was a great experience. Also, I can tell my kids that I scored against the back up national team goalie. It’s incredible.”
Papa is from Indiana and has lived in California and Phoenix, but he still maintains a great affection for FC Tucson and the city it plays in.
“Pure love,” said Papa. “I came down to Tucson to play here and the fans have welcomed me with open arms. They have become die-hard loyalists to me and my career no matter where it takes me. You just can’t teach that kind of loyalty any more, and when I see it I respect it.”
The dedication to Tucson is surprising given his day job (Papa works as an aide for Phoenix councilmember Bill Gates), but he’s grateful to FC Tucson and in particular its staff for giving him a second chance to play the game he loves.
“Every other coach had written me off but Rick and Jon saw something in me,” he said. “I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for these two. They gave me the opportunity. They believed in me and supported me the entire time.”
“That goal on Saturday night was for them,” he added.