Vahe Gregorian

Sporting KC's Graham Zusi is in rarefied air

In the spirit of the season, Sporting KC defender and Kansas City native Matt Besler thought back Thursday to last Halloween, when he wanted to show off local haunted houses to Sporting and U.S. national team teammate Graham Zusi.

At one of the stops with their dates, they advanced through a few unsettling scenes.

“Then in the third or fourth room, this guy with a chainsaw comes running at us, and he’s dressed up in some werewolf costume,” Besler said. “And he takes off his mask, and he goes, ‘Are you Graham Zusi?’”

After Zusi politely acknowledged he was, the would-be werewolf said, “Oh, man, I’m a huge fan.”

Then he put his mask back on and went right back into character, albeit less menacingly with the present company.

That’s just a sampling of the recognition coming from about every cranny now as Zusi has ascended into one of the top players in the United States. The dynamic perhaps is intensified by the obvious larger-than-life nickname of “Zeus,” his flowing hair and what Sporting coach Peter Vermes calls “a special look to him.”

“He gets noticed a lot. Probably because he’s one of the best players in the league; I think the hair has a lot to do with it, too,” said Besler, one of Zusi’s closest friends. “Almost every other kid that comes up to Graham will say something about wanting to grow his hair out like Graham. And parents will be, like, ‘We let him not cut his hair because he wanted to be like you.’”

Suddenly, he’s even an icon in archrival Mexico after his late tying goal in a World Cup-qualifier against Panama inadvertently helped keep Mexico’s qualifying hopes alive.

“It’s strange, kind of surreal,” Zusi said, laughing. “I’m sure that as soon as we step on the field (against Mexico) again that will be forgotten pretty quickly.”

As for now, though, one Spanish-speaking reporter asked Zusi his thoughts about a statue honoring the goal being erected in front of Azteca Stadium. And he was tentatively presented a framed photo of himself as “San Zusi” (Saint Zusi), though he’ll only get a copy to keep if Mexico makes the World Cup field.

“He’s been a god forever, and now he’s a saint, too?” teased his father, David, who reminds that the nickname tends to come with the surname for the entire family.

You could probably forgive Zusi, 27, if all of this commotion permeated him and spoiled him some. You might even want to resent him for seeming to have it all.

Except none of it has, which is what really makes him a treasure to emulate.

Yes, Zusi has learned how to manage the spotlight now. With grace, for that matter. But just because he has to, not because he craved it.

That wish to remain under the radar helps explain why one day Zusi might put his degree in criminology from the University of Maryland to use in a far less public way with the CIA or FBI.

By all accounts, he remains the gentle and fair-minded young man who has a heart of his own but also was brought up to consider others first and see the best in people by what Besler called Zusi’s “very wholesome” family.

That showed up as a child when he would pass to anybody on his team, regardless of how good they were, said David Zusi, an environmental engineer who deflected credit for how his four children were raised to his wife, Shirley.

And that generous mind-set still is showing up now as Zusi prepares to lead Sporting into the MLS playoffs Saturday with no sense of being any better than anyone else.

“I think that’s his best quality, that he continues to stay very hungry, very ambitious and stay really humble,” Vermes said, adding, “it’s easy to build a team around a guy like that.”

One reason Vermes is sure that Zusi won’t stray from that is that he believes that that part of Zusi’s temperament is embedded, so much so that it actually held him back some in the past.

“The question was early on, was he ever going to come out of that humbleness to actually take the reins and be the guy?” Vermes said. “I don’t know if I’m necessarily right in what I’m saying, but we had a lot of older players at the time. And it was almost like he didn’t want to take their spot. But what’s transpired is he’s finally realized he’s a lot better than everybody else.”

Well, maybe.

“I’m pretty sure he realizes that,” said Besler, framing it more as a question.

No way you’d know that from asking Zusi, who says only that he knew he had been on the cusp and just was trying to be ready when opportunity came.

“It’s really what you do with it that kind of defines you,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy how much confidence you can gain from just a few games of playing well, and that’s what I think I was able to do.”

So it was that after two seasons of playing sparingly, Zusi became the MLS “breakout player of the year” in 2011.

“Once he got a taste of it, there was no stopping him,” Vermes said, adding that Zusi never relents. “I actually have to go up to him (sometimes at practice) and tell him, ‘Just take it easy, save yourself for the game.’”

Zusi’s emergence has dovetailed nicely with Sporting’s rebrand and move to Sporting Park as the franchise virtually started over.

“My first couple years, honestly, we were the laughingstock of the league,” he said. “There’s no other way to put it. We were playing in a minor-league baseball stadium on a field that was too small in front of a handful of people.

“Everything took a complete 180 turn. It’s special.”

Now, Sporting seems entrenched.

“It’s crazy to think that Kansas City is now a soccer city,” said Zusi, who lives in the River Market area. “It’s something I feel a sense of pride in, to be a part of that kind of change.”

But only a part, he’s careful to note. Because it’s a privilege to be part of something bigger than yourself, he says, and it’s always about the name on the front of the jersey, not the back.

By extension from a player of his stature, though, that honors the name on the back all the more.

“He puts his family and his good friends before himself,” Besler said. “It’s contagious, and I admire that about him.”

No matter how recognizable he’s become.

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