The Reynas’ Behavior: Indefensible, but Understandable

I know I lost some of you with the title of this post. I get it.

Maybe this disclaimer will save some of you some time: I’m biased. Ever since the USMNT triumphed over Mexico in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, I’ve been a Claudio Reyna fan. He’s always been my “Captain America.” Also, my point of view on this whole situation will be informed by my battle with cancer in 2007, surviving Delta COVID in 2021, and my work with people in my professional life.

In case, you’ve been frozen in a military experiment gone wrong for the last 6 months, here’s the TLDR:

Claudio Reyna, Austin FC’s former Sporting Director (GM for the non-soccer crowd), and his wife Danielle Reyna took umbrage over the lack of playing time given to their son, Giovanni Reyna, during the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It started as belligerent, frustrated messages over the outcome of the World Cup matches and Gio’s minimal role on the field.

After the USMNT was eliminated from the Cup, everyone went their separate ways.  

Gregg Berhalter, who limited Gio to 52 minutes on the pitch, went to a leadership conference and gave his account of what went down in the locker room (which leaked to the media). He essentially made Gio look like a spoiled brat who was almost sent home from the tournament.

The Reyna’s then crossed the line when they retaliated; they told Berhalter’s boss at the USSF about the worst moment from his past.  It was from when he was 18 and drunk.  He got slapped by his then-girlfriend (now wife), pushed Rosalind down, and kicked her twice. Seven months later they reconciled and later married; they’ve been married ever since.  Berhalter has never had another incident like this since that day.

Once this incident, which never rose to the level of a police report and therefore was never disclosed publicly, was mentioned to USSF Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, his hands were tied.

Stewart was then legally obligated to open up an investigation to shield US Soccer from liability for malpractice when hiring Berhalter in the first place.  This led to the bombshell Alston & Bird Report being released (which is how I know what I’ve written so far).

Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. What follows is just my own point of view.

One Man’s Opinion

At first glance, how the Reyna’s attacked the leaders of the USMNT for treatment of their son seems ridiculous and incomprehensible: how could a man who’s achieved so much in the sport of soccer act so unprofessionally and recklessly?  It didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.  How could a grown man act this way?  How could American Soccer’s power couple stoop to the level of such petty helicopter parenting?

But these questions didn’t give me any insight, and they were ultimately unsatisfying.  Then my brain began to access the dozens of articles I’ve read about the Reynas over the years, and the video interviews, too.  I began to develop a theory, which was finally confirmed when I read the Reyna’s official response to yesterday’s report.  Their response was somewhat predictable, but it included one detail that was really odd.

They mentioned the death of their son Jack, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 13.  When I read those words I instantly remembered Grant Wahl’s (may he rest in peace) signature Sports Illustrated article on the Reyna family, written largely to give us a backstory for Gio’s ascendant stardom back in 2018.  It’s a long, expertly-written narrative that is one of the only articles that give us a peek behind the curtain.  It’s unforgettable in that it really reveals a very private and painful journey through the loss of their firstborn son.

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When remembering the SI story, a question finally popped into my head that made sense of what I read in the report, and it was way more helpful than all the hot takes I’ve been seeing on Twitter. It was this:

“How would I parent my remaining children, if I lost one of them to cancer?”

This question gave me a little window of empathy into the seemingly ruthless parenting tactics they deployed during and after the World Cup.

Here you have two parents who were elite athletes in their time, they knew how to push themselves to the limit to achieve their maximum potential.  Claudio was so good that he was singled out to be a leader of men on the world stage for his nation; which led to the US’s best-ever result in the World Cup.  Over the course of that journey, they had four beautiful children.

Their two oldest boys, Jack and Gio, played their parents’ sport throughout their childhood, and like iron sharpening iron, they made each other better and better at soccer, until one day…

The music stopped.

As the C-word always does, in an instant the tumor in Jack’s brain pulled the rug out from under their entire existence; but like the power couple that they always were, they fought back.

And they fought hard.

They gave Jack the best doctors and medicine that was humanly possible.  And after 9 months of doctors, needles, pain and waiting rooms, and unanswered questions, they tasted glory: Jack’s MRI’s were clear.  This gave them 8 months of normalcy and hope for their family’s future with Jack.  But the worst of their battle was yet to come.

New tumors appeared on the scans, and the doctors knew a cure wasn’t in their power to give.

After 7 months of torturous pain and morphine, and emotional agony, they were forced to reckon with a reality that many families who go through cancer have to face: this battle is beyond our ability to control.

And so…they came to resign themselves to the nauseating reality that their beloved son would be better off if he were no longer suffering. So they did the only thing left for them to do, they surrounded Jack with love until his body could no longer hold on, even though the loss of his presence in their lives was unimaginable and excruciating.

And now the Danielle and Claudio Reyna have lived with the curse wondering about their son’s “unfinished life.”  And in some ways that burden has been carried by Gio, too.  He is never asked about Jack in interviews, and in the rare moment he chooses to mention his lost brother, he seems to be too emotional for words.  But I don’t think it’s too big of a stretch to imagine that Gio is doing his best to achieve that which Jack had been robbed of by cancer.

Here’s My “Hot Take”

The Reyna’s fought for Gio, and attacked those who they felt were a threat to their son.  They did so inappropriately, and seemingly irrationally, because it was a compulsion.  They were compelled to fight for Gio, in part because their fight for Jack ended in the most unsatisfying of ways, and they hate how Jack’s story ended.  

Most of us, even the survivors, hate cancer.  It doesn’t get talked about all that much, the seething anger of cancer victims and their loved ones, but it’s real.  It’s inevitable.  Cancer steals that which we hold most dear- the people we cherish AND our sense of control.  The anger is often the most accessible defense mechanism for the terror that results from the loss of control.

Every parent has the intuitive instinct – the biological pre-wired urge – to protect their children.  Thus, the Reyna’s frustration about Berhalter’s treatment of their son during the World Cup was to be expected.  But the reckless lashing out can only be attributed to one thing in my non-professional opinion:

Unhealed trauma.

Amidst the detailed retelling of Jack Reyna’s tragedy by Wahl, you really get a sense of just how traumatic those two years were in the life of their family.  You can really feel that in many ways, even in 2018, the pain of the loss of Jack was still raw and tender.

In our cancel culture, everyone was rushing to judgment in the hours after the report dropped.  In all those “takes” I did not see anyone expressing an understanding of the healing journey; and just how messy and convoluted it can be.  Grieving is like a Texas 2 Step (two steps forward, one step back).

The Reyna family is a remarkable, extraordinary family who will grow from this dark chapter in their story (all families have dark chapters), and their healing journey will continue. They are not unredeemable, and their best days are still to come – I’m quite sure of that.  

As they heal, the mistakes they made will become clearer to them.  And when they’re ready to tell their story again, as bravely as they did in 2018, the world will be richer for the wisdom that they will be able to offer the world.

My opinion might be too big of a stretch, but I hope I’m right.

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