By Mark Nagi
From time to time, we get the opportunity to catch up with a personality from the world of sports. Recently I had the chance to speak with Roger Bennett, co-host of the popular Men in Blazers show on NBCSN and author of Reborn in the USA, which debuted at Number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. We talked about his journey to become an American citizen, the growth of soccer in his adopted country, and the beauty of sports in our lives.
Mark Nagi: First question is the easiest one… why did you decide to write this book?
Roger Bennett: I wrote the book when COVID hit New York City in early March 2020. The city that I grew up dreaming about as a kid went into lockdown and sports ground to a halt. Without sports and with chaos and uncertainty, I reverted to the past. It was almost like retracing breadcrumbs through an enchanted forest. It was like a fever dream to be honest. Writing a book about the America that I dreamt of as a kid, this incredible idea that I had in my heart. I decided to write a love letter to the United States, which I hope the book really is.
MN: In the book, you were very open about your childhood. How important was being completely honest to the writing process?
RB: I was in Manhattan with my four kids and my wife and started to pummel away and the writing itself poured out of me. In this reality we are in, I think it is important to talk about how you are, what you feel, what you believe in. It was my journey, my American story, and I wanted to write it honestly in every detail. America didn’t just shape my life, it helped me survive. I grew up in Liverpool. A magnificent city, but in the 1980s it fell on incredibly hard times. What I did have was American movies, books, television, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl win, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Tracy Chapman… they gave me a sense that life could be lived with courage, with confidence, with hope, and purpose in technicolor. In England, I lived in black and white. America gave me a sense of an alternative possibility in terms of how life could be lived.
MN: You visited the states for the first time at the age of 15. How did that summer in Chicago confirm your desire to become an American?
RB: When I came to the north Chicago suburbs, it looked like a John Hughes movie. Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink… I hadn’t been there before, but it felt like I had because it was in such detail in my mind. The house felt like a remake of Weird Science. It all felt so familiar. I devoured all of Chicago. I inhaled the city. I met the Bears. Walter Payton, William the Refrigerator Perry, whose poster I had on my wall. It made me believe like they told me to move to Chicago. America had been a dream about a land I never stepped foot in. Once I did, it lived up to its promise and more.
MN: You became an American citizen in June 2018. What was that feeling like for you?
RB: The dream of being somewhere else is very common. What I did was act on it. I moved here and organized my life around the American idea, and that was really a point an emotion, and a thing of wonder driven home by the naturalization ceremony. It is moving to stand with 162 individuals from 42 different nations. Swapping stories with fellow oath givers, many who survived conflict to journey here. The idea of America is one we share. It gave us hope when we needed it. I think when you witness that and hear the story, the pride, the honor, that joy it feels to become an American. It was the greatest day of my life. I think it is refreshing for many people in our day and time to experience.
MN: Moving on to soccer, has the US Men’s National Team finally turned a corner?
RB: Their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was darkness on the edge of town but out of darkness comes light! In reaction to that failure, a wave of young, courageous, tenacious, skilled players en mass started to move to play in Europe while still in their teens, testing themselves against the best. They are redefining the stigma that surrounded has surrounded U.S. players in Europe forever. We are living in a time of abundance. Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, Weston McKennie at Juventus… we used to be excited when a player just got on the field. It is an unprecedented reality. I feel an incredible wave of optimism. The 2026 World Cup (hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the USA) can’t come quickly enough.
MN: What do you think about the growth of the sport in this country? One of my fondest memories as a sports fan is watching the 1994 World Cup in Foxboro and obviously the sport has come a long way since then…
RB: To see its growth in places like Nashville and Atlanta, it is a thing of wonder. The joy, the size of the crowds, the passion. The USA has finally become a normal football nation. That was always the goal, to normalize it like it is in any other country.
MN: I already have a trip planned to see Tottenham play in London when my kids are out of high school…
RB: That’s what sports are all about. The experience while watching and the sense of connectivity to family and friends. It is a global connectivity and the memory you make all along the way and global in particular… those memories are what I try to make. Last weekend I went to Chicago with my son. To have been a kid starting my journey and to return to the place I dreamt of with my son who will soon start his journey. It’s all a reminder of the conveyer belt of life and how fast things move… how you should never take anything for granted and make memories while you can.