When Carolina RailHawks midfielder Jon Orlando talks about his hometown of Washington, D.C., there’s an appreciative tone to his voice. It’s where he rose to fame, only to throw it away, and where he rediscovered his path to soccer and a meaning beyond it.
He and D.C. have seen it all.
“It’s so deep,” said Orlando, 28. “If I took you to D.C. and we walked the streets, people would just call out my name. I’m not proud of a lot of the stuff from my past, but at the same time, it made me who I am today.”
Orlando was a D.C. youth star who, alongside the likes of future U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley, dominated club soccer. He stayed in his hometown and became the hero of the University of the District of Columbia men’s soccer team as a freshman in the 2005-06 season, leading the Firebirds in six different statistical categories – points, shots, goals, game-winning goals, shots on goal and assists. He scored 14 goals that season.
But Orlando, whose father played as a pro and with the Ghanaian national team, had had a ball at his feet long enough.
He was fed up with it. He dropped out of school in 2005, and his life took a dark turn.
“I wanted to live a street life, the thug life, that type of thing,” he said. “I dropped out and started running the streets. ... I was done with soccer, and to be honest with you, I just didn’t really want to play … and I was OK with that.”
‘Running the streets’
For five years, Orlando worked odd jobs and only touched a ball in pickup play. He was overweight and would drink before games.
In 2010, the lifestyle caught up to him, and Orlando hit his breaking point.
“I was crying myself to sleep, not eating, not drinking,” he said. “It was one of those ‘Why am I living?’ kind of things, a ‘Do I want to live?’ kind of thing. It was bad.”
I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve seen a lot in my life, and to be even where I am now, I’m just humbled, man.
Orlando went to his supervisor where he worked at a car dealership. He also was a minister at a local church and introduced Christianity to Orlando’s life.
“I’m 23, and I’m crying like a kid, just trying to find someone to help me,” Orlando said. “I just threw out all the partying and all the smoking and the craziness that was happening in my life.”
Orlando found an organization where he was accepted and devoted the next two years of his life studying the Bible.
Finding Jesus, soccer and himself
Outside of the church, he began to find refuge in the game that he once abandoned. He began coaching and training youth players, and soon soccer was a daily part of his life again.
Orlando started playing in the metro leagues around D.C. It didn’t take long for his deft touch to return. He was the top scorer in every league he played in, and the idea of making a living playing soccer no longer seemed far-fetched.
Off the field, Orlando found a way to give back to the community where he was raised.
Already having name recognition from his participation in a go-go band, a funk genre inspired from street percussion in D.C., Orlando knew he could make a difference.
“Having such a powerful voice in the area, I feel like God put me in a position to help the youth and help young adults,” Orlando said. “I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve seen a lot in my life, and to be even where I am now, I’m just humbled, man. It’s important to give back and use what I have to pour into others.”
He founded a youth ministry called AMP’D, that brings together youth and young adults from the Washington area for Bible studies, get-togethers and initiatives to serve the homeless. Washington has one of the highest homeless populations in the country.
As his life and involvement in the community grew, so did his play on the soccer pitch.
He earned a spot on the RVA FC squad based in Richmond, Va., in the amateur National Premier Soccer League. The pursuit of playing professionally was becoming more real.
“I was scoring left and right and I thought, ‘All right, maybe I still have a shot,’ ” Orlando said. “My coaches were telling me, ‘Man, you’re 27 but you can do it, you can do it.’ ”
Orlando contacted his former coach Dewan Bader, a RailHawks’ assistant coach who coached Orlando in U14 to U17 leagues. Bader told him he could try for the team, but Orlando said he seemed skeptical. At the time, with the interruptions in his career, Orlando was an unknown to him, and scheduling a visit didn’t come together.
“I was a little arrogant,” Orlando recalled. “I was like, ‘You don’t know who I am. This is what I do, I score goals, I’m a player, and you need me.’ ”
After a year dedicated to getting match-fit, Orlando tried again.
“I humbled myself this year. I was like, ‘This is my last chance, I’m getting older,’ so I dropped everything I was doing back home,” he said. “I left my house that I had a lease on, left everything.”
Orlando was one of 25 trialists who trained and played friendlies with the RailHawks during the preseason, and his age set him apart. At 28 years old, he wasn’t the typical demographic of someone looking to sign his first professional contract.
“Those guys are 22 or 21, and I’m coming out of here like I’m a dinosaur, basically,” Orlando said.
But he was the only one who signed a contract with the team at the end of preseason. So far, he’s had three league appearances, two U.S. Open Cup appearances (playing 88 minutes between the two matches) and a goal and assist.
On May 22, Orlando made his debut against FC Edmonton.
On June 1, he played serious minutes for the first time in Carolina’s U.S. Open Cup opener against the Charlotte Independence. Deadlocked 0-0 when he came on in the 85th minute, Orlando immediately provided a spark.
“He’s worked very hard since the start of the year to get fit and into shape, and I think you saw tonight that any time he got the ball, the crowd sat in the front of their seats,” RailHawks Coach Colin Clarke said after the match.
In the 92nd minute, he assisted Billy Schuler to give the RailHawks a 1-0 advantage.
In the 109th, Orlando scored the first goal of his professional career, weaving his way past the Charlotte back line and slotting a finessed ball under the keeper.
“Once I was on the field, I just felt like, ‘All right, I’m going to give it everything I can to score for the team,’” Orlando said. “When I had my opportunity, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to take it,’ and thank God it happened.”