I still remember the day my parents told us kids we were moving from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Houston, Texas. The two of them gathered the whole family around the dinner table and my mom said, “Hey, we’re going to go on a family vacation to Disney World this summer!”
I was the oldest, and I was only 11. Along with my little brother and sister, I started celebrating. Florida, sunshine, Disney, the roller coasters! I couldn’t wait!
But my parents weren’t quite finished. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had just secured a new job in the oil industry. And that meant that we were going to America for more than just a summer vacation.
“After that,” she said, “we’re going to Texas to look at houses in Houston … because we’re moving!”
We spent the next hour poring over a map with our parents, looking at the place we would soon call home. My dad told me that you could fit the U.K. into Texas almost three times, and I remember just being taken aback that a single state could be that big.
When I stepped off the plane in Houston for the first time, however, it wasn’t the size of the place that hit me. It was the heat. The humidity hit my pasty face instantly, and I couldn’t understand how people lived in this climate, let alone how I was supposed to play soccer in it.
I joined a club team right away, on a trial basis. The coach told me that if I played well enough he’d sign me up for the team. The first time I played for the team was during a tournament in Beaumont, a city about 90 miles east of Houston. It was about 110°F. Here I was, this scrawny, pale Scottish kid with a weird accent, covered in sunscreen, just running around thinking, How do people do this in the heat every single day?
As if the heat and humidity weren’t bad enough, the playing conditions weren’t always the best, either. The pitch in Beaumont was more like a cow patch, uneven and bumpy, with long thick grass that slowed the ball significantly. Another one of our games that day was delayed for 20 or 30 minutes due to a thunderstorm, and by the time we returned to the field the ball had absorbed so much water that it felt like we were kicking a medicine ball.
During a break in between one of our matches, some teammates and I ventured out to get something to eat. If I didn’t know already, I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t in Aberdeen anymore. We ordered McDonald’s and ate it sitting in someone’s air-conditioned RV. I was used to a meat pie or a chip butty, and now I was getting burgers and fries and applying another layer of sunscreen.
I remember we played four games that day, and I managed to score in the last one. That was when the coach pulled me to the side of the field and told me that he wanted to sign me to the team. I was so excited! Not just because I had a new team in a foreign city, but also because I felt like I had made instant friends. And as the years went on, and Houston became home, the soccer community there not only embraced me, but also introduced me to some of the most important people in my life.
People have asked me how far I think I would have gone in soccer if I’d remained in Aberdeen. Truthfully, it’s an impossible question to answer. But I can certainly pinpoint the influence Houston had on me as a player, and I’m certainly better off for living there.
Without Houston, there is no Stu Holden as I am today. The city’s cultural diversity and Hispanic influence opened me up to so many new experiences that helped me grow as a person and a player. In the U.K., you may be pushed down the pecking order in soccer for being a little bit smaller, but in Houston, they embraced my size and never saw it as a weakness. They helped hone the technical aspects of my game, and it forced me to not only be better with my feet, but also to think quickly on the ball.
I left for my first spell in Europe with Sunderland in 2005. Unfortunately, my time on Wearside didn’t go quite as planned. After a difficult year, I needed someplace to go. Houston was there for me.
The Houston Dynamo joined Major League Soccer in December 2005, a few months after I had left for Sunderland. By the time my contract with the Black Cats ended in the summer of 2006, the Dynamo were up and running, and the chance to come back home and play for them was one I simply could not turn down.
My career had been up in the air prior to signing with the Dynamo, but during my three years with the team I not only regained momentum, but also improved as a player. I won two MLS Cups in Houston, and the growth and experience I gained there was integral to my return to England in January 2010, when I signed with Bolton Wanderers.
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The connection with Houston that I forged during my childhood and my career in MLS with the Dynamo carried me through the tough periods of my career in Europe and with the USMNT. The city is my home. That’s what made it so difficult to witness the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey three months ago. The moment it really hit me was when I saw places that I knew so well that had been impacted by the storm.
Whether it was watching the news or scrolling through social media, I saw parts of my hometown completely underwater. Places like Bear Creek Pioneers Park, where I had so many battles with Arturo Álvarez and Bear Creek United as a kid, or the spot I used to go get lunch with the guys, and even parts of the 59 freeway. The devastation felt so personal and made it difficult to be so far from home.
Those feelings eventually turned to frustration because I had the urge to do more than just make a donation to local charities. I remember I was lying in bed one night scrolling through Facebook and seeing the impact Harvey had had on my friends in Houston, and it compelled me to send a tweet out saying I wanted to put together an event or do something positive for the city.
Almost immediately, someone tweeted back at me suggesting a charity match in Houston. I loved the idea, and tweeted my desire to make it happen. Before long my phone was buzzing like crazy with calls and texts from friends and former teammates pledging their support in one form or another. People like Steve Nash, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Mia Hamm, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan all quickly volunteered to help.
Their support, so vocal and enthusiastic, wasn’t just overwhelming, it was also very humbling. I’ve made some great relationships in the sports and entertainment world, but it’s not until moments like this that you truly know how big somebody’s heart is – and how much you mean to people.
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In the wake of Harvey, I saw that same spirit among Houstonians. I remember watching a video of a guy being interviewed on TV who was asked why he was taking his boat out into the water when it was still so dangerous.
“I’ve got to save lives,” he said.
The reporter asked him why.
He said, “Because that’s what you do for each other.”
That moment gave me goose bumps, and I teared up. Those people are the real heroes, and they represent the city I love. Houston is a very hard-working and diverse city. The people there are proud of who they are and what they are. They represent the motto Houston Strong so well, and they fill me with so much pride.
Our world is burdened with so many terrible tragedies right now, but such moments provide us with opportunities to come together as one and do something positive and truly extraordinary.
In the most dire circumstances, Houstonians used whatever resources they had to help each other, and now it’s my turn. I have an amazing platform today thanks to this city, and I care about Houston because Houston cared about me when I moved here — a small, pasty (seriously, like a bottle of milk) Scottish kid with a weird accident and a pair of Adidas Sambas that he wore to class religiously.
This city not only prepared me to play in MLS, but also with the U.S. Men’s National Team and in the Premier League against famous teams like Manchester United and Liverpool. It also gave me a home and so many amazing memories along the way. With our Kick In For Houston game on Saturday, it’s time to make another memory, this one worthy of the history books!
The Kick In For Houston benefit game will be held on Dec. 16 at BBVA Compass Stadium and televised on FS1 on Dec. 17. at 6:30 p.m. EST. If you’d like to contribute you can make a donation or buy tickets here: kickinforhouston.com