Bigger Than the Whole World

Rachel Woolf for The Players' Tribune
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I gotta start this thing by telling you a little bit about my mom, Stephanie.

She’s an amazing woman.

(OK, I know everyone says that about their mom, but it’s true. Keep reading. This is on a different level. You'll see what I mean.)

Her dad died in her arms from a heart attack when she was 12 years old. They were playing basketball, having fun and then it happened, all of a sudden. Just like that. She learned from a young age to just kind of push stuff down and stay strong and keep moving forward. You're good even when you're not good. Anyone asks, you just say ‘I’m good.’

Later, she met my biological father and that was another experience that took a huge toll on her. My dad had his own issues and a difficult upbringing, but he didn’t know how to be a father, or a partner. He and my mom never married. They had me, then my two sisters in quick succession. But my dad … he was in and out of the picture. Inconsistent. That left Mom to raise three kids on her own in eastern Pennsylvania. 

We had struggles with money, and Mom … she was a white woman raising three little Black kids, so there were lots of people back then who weren’t exactly sad to see us struggling. That’s just how it was. 

And listen, I’m fortunate that, in my life, I’ve never really faced any serious prejudice, but I know she did. I saw it firsthand to some extent, but I always knew that it was much worse than us kids realized. To this day, she hasn’t really talked explicitly about the things people would say to her when she was out in public with me and my sisters. I know she came up against a lot, but she never showed it. She just focused on giving us all of her love. And because of the lack of a father figure in our lives, she always threw extra love in. Her first thought was always to protect us and keep spreading joy and kindness wherever she could, even when times were hard.

Zach Steffen high-fiving a fan
Rachel Woolf for The Players' Tribune

Considering all that stuff, things could’ve gone very, very badly for us. But fortunately, because of my mom’s ability to make the best of whatever we were up against, I can tell you that my family’s story has a really happy ending. When I was about six, my mom met my now stepdad, Derek, and everything changed. Not only did Derek provide financial security for our family, but he gave us the love and support that every kid should have growing up. (No-one gives better hugs than Derek Steffen, btw.)

For him to come in and love and bond with three kids – three Black kids, as a white man back in the year 2000 – was an incredible thing to do. He adopted us and we took his last name. He and my mom had two more kids.

After that, my childhood became one of opportunity. I still had lots I had to deal with emotionally because of what happened with my biological father, of course. There were challenges to work through over time, because of the void that existed. But my parents helped me channel my energy into sports. 

My stepdad was actually the person who got me into soccer, driving me to all those practices and games. When I was on the soccer field, I was so focussed that it allowed me to just forget about whatever else in life might have been making me sad or upset or whatever it may be. I just kept going forward, and the sport kept taking me to new teams, new states, new countries, and eventually I was like: “OK, wow, I might be able to make a living from this.”

Looking back on it now, I realize that I owe my success to Stephanie and Derek Steffen. I owe my entire career to their support and encouragement. 

They are my inspiration and my role models in the way they manage to spread peace, love and kindness in everything they do – not easy, while raising five kids.

Growing up, if you have just one person that believes in you and wants you to succeed, and you have the right environment, that can make all the difference. I was so fortunate to have two people who believed in me and would do whatever they could to help me succeed. I am so grateful for that. I was lucky. Everyone needs that in their life. But not everyone gets it. I think about that a lot.

A few years back, during Christmas vacation, my mom and I were talking about how I could potentially use my platform to give back and have an impact on issues that are important to me. We were already talking about setting up a charity, and I wanted to honor the example my mom had set for me. But I didn’t know how, or where to direct the effort. There are so many worthy causes, right?

Then, a few months later, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered.

I was playing out in Düsseldorf, when it happened, and everyone was in Covid lockdown. I can’t remember the circumstances of how I first saw the video, honestly. Maybe somebody sent it to me, maybe it was on social media. What I do remember is that I couldn’t make it past 45 seconds. I just couldn't watch. It was too painful. 

I went through so many emotions in less than a minute: sadness, anger, confusion, disbelief. I was with my sister at the time, and I remember her and I just sitting there in silence. We were 4,000 miles from home, literally in isolation. I wasn’t even seeing my teammates at the time. We were just doing one-on-one training because of all the restrictions. We felt so alone, so powerless. We had no idea what we should do right then.  

But we knew we had to do something.

We joined the protests out on the streets in Germany and, man, it was eye-opening. I couldn’t believe how many people came out for those gatherings. Thousands and thousands of people, of all backgrounds, marching in solidarity with the Black community in America. 

It gives me chills thinking back. 

Zach Steffen in front of goal
Rachel Woolf for The Players' Tribune

Remember, this is half a world away from Minneapolis, during the early stages of a pandemic when people still really didn’t even know what happened if you got Covid. People were scared. A lot of people were dying. And Germany … that place is strict. It’s a place with lots of rules, and where, culturally, people tend to follow those rules to the letter. Everyone was supposed to be quarantining, you know? And yet … here they all were. Mostly people of my generation, out on the streets, taking that risk to come together and say: “Enough is enough.” 

Police brutality, racism, social injustice – my sister and I, and the Black community across America, I mean … we always knew how ingrained those things had become in our culture. But that moment, out on the streets in Germany, made me realize that a lot of other people knew too. Or at least that they wanted to know more, and to help.  

It was like, this thing … it’s actually somehow bigger than the whole f***ing world shutting down.

The wonderful thing about the youth is … they don’t just accept that things are the way they are, that certain problems just exist, and that’s probably how it’s always gonna be. They want to make things better than they are. 

Zack Steffen

After that, I got together with Alex Crognale, my old Columbus Crew teammate, to set up VOYCENOW. During that crazy time when everyone was still stuck inside, our plan was to bring together a community of athletes dedicated to speaking up on injustice and inequality. And I am so proud to tell you that it was not hard at all to find other athletes who were keen on becoming advocates for positive change.

I remember with the U.S. Men’s National Team, we were dispersed all over the world, but we would get together to talk on Zoom and in group chats, figuring stuff out, discussing what we could do as individuals and as a group to use our voices.

Our coach, Gregg Berhalter, was amazing, too. He was particularly supportive of his Black players in the setup. During a time when it felt like a lot of people hated us, he was there for us, letting us know that we were loved and supported. He would check in to see how we were doing, and he really wanted to engage with us. He’d listen to us and learn our personal stories and provide support for whatever we felt was right to do. 

Over time, following those discussions with teammates and other athletes, I started to think hard about how VOYCENOW could do even more. What could we do that would have the most impactful legacy? 

I thought about the young people on the streets in Germany, and my own upbringing, and realized that it’s all about the next generation.

The wonderful thing about the youth is … they don’t just accept that things are the way they are, that certain problems just exist, and that’s probably how it’s always gonna be. They want to make things better than they are. 

Kids want peace and freedom and equality, and a fair shot at success. They just want to be loved and valued, and to have some hope for the future.   

That’s definitely not too much to ask. And I want to do everything I can to help bring that future into focus.  

Zach Steffen with Fans
Rachel Woolf for The Players' Tribune

I know how lucky I was, believe me. Not every kid gets the breaks I got. Not everyone’s story gets an amazing ending like mine.

The margins between privilege and disadvantage are so small. And knowing that firsthand is basically what drew me to partner with the Boys & Girls Club of America.

If you don’t already know, it’s a truly amazing organization that provides a safe space and extra support for kids in need all across the country.

These are mostly minority kids, who lack the support they need for whatever reason.

I’ve been able to go into the clubs in Philly, Columbus, Birmingham, and now Denver. I’ve met countless beautiful, thoughtful, creative kids, who never fail to put a smile on my face.

I’ve spent time playing a little soccer with the children and talking with them about our core pillars at VOYCENOW: exercise, education, healthy habits and mental health. 

It’s also about just giving them the attention they deserve, while hopefully trying to empower them with the belief that with hard work and the right tools, they can be the best versions of themselves.

For these kids, it can be a powerful thing to meet a Black athlete who can talk to them about success. It’s all about being what you can see, right?

But it’s not just time and attention that they need. They also desperately need resources — school supplies, food, books, computers … you name it — and that stuff gets expensive.  

We’ve been doing this for a while now, fundraising for the clubs in all kinds of different ways, and to be honest with you, at this point … I’m tired of asking the same people for money. At this point, we need to find new and meaningful funding sources. 

The world has been through a lot in the past four years. I feel like people woke up after George Floyd and what came next, but Covid and the years since have hit people hard. Everything is so expensive now. Most people care more, but simply have less to give. And at the same time, more kids than ever are in need.

That’s why the $40,000 from a major MLS sponsor like Audi’s Goals Drive Progress fund is so crucial. It’s incredible, honestly. It’s the most we’ve ever received at VOYCENOW and will be put to good use across the Boys & Girls Clubs in my new home of Denver.

I’ve quickly fallen in love with Denver and its people since joining the Rapids in January. It’s such a beautiful place and the people here are just so kind, man. I couldn’t be happier about being able to give back in this way. 

Zach Steffen signing a cleat
Rachel Woolf for The Players' Tribune

I’ve been away from home for a long time, so coming back to the States and reconnecting with family and the people of this country has been amazing. I want to keep giving as much of myself to the community in any way I can. 

I’m also a father now myself. My hope for the next four years is that I can pass on the love and support to my daughter that my parents gave me, and that she gets to grow up with the chance of being the best version of herself in a society that loves and accepts her no matter her race, gender, background or anything else.

There will always be more challenges to come, but it’s on all of us to keep spreading love and peace, no matter what.

I learned that from my mom and stepdad.

It’s a simple message, but it’s bigger than the whole f***ing world.

Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative supports MLS athletes making an impact off the pitch through financial contributions to nonprofit organizations that create sustainable communities, foster equity and inclusion, and enrich the lives of those in need. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund, Audi will be contributing $40,000 to VOYCENOW in celebration of the work that both the organization and Zack do for their community. If you'd like to donate to VOYCENOW to help support their work with groups like the Boys & Girls Club and more, please visit here to see how you can make an impact. For more stories on Audi’s commitment to supporting MLS athletes and their community initiatives, please check out additional content from the “Celebrating Impact” series.