Gio Reyna is terrified. It is June 13. His team, Borussia Dortmund, beat Dusseldorf earlier in the day. On the bus after the game, everyone is ecstatic. But Gio didn’t feel right. His throat is raw and he is tired.
Only now, he can’t sleep. It is late, near midnight in Germany. Gio is cold, even under his blankets. His parents live halfway around the world in New York and he is alone in his apartment in a country where he doesn’t speak the language.
Gio is 17. His fever spikes. His mind runs wild.
What if it is the coronavirus? What if he has to quarantine for a week? Or a month? What if he can’t go home when the other players leave? What if Dortmund has to forfeit all of its games?
Gio is a rising star in the Bundesliga. He is one of the American sensations who is supposed to help transform the U.S. national team over the next two World Cup cycles. His parents are soccer royalty and yet, even at his young age, there are plenty who believe he might end up being better than both of them.
But at this moment, Gio isn’t any of those things. He is just a sick kid, far from home, who has sandpaper in his throat and a runaway train in his head. He tosses and turns, and then, finally, bolts upright, gripped suddenly by the thought that truly frightens him:
What if I have the coronavirus and it leads to the whole league getting shut down? He groans. What if I ruin everything?
A MONTH LATER, sitting in the living room of his family’s house about an hour outside New York City, Gio can laugh, at least a little, about his hysteria that night. “My mind was going so many places,” he says through a shy grin. He had strep throat, it turned out, not COVID-19. He missed only one game.
The experience still mattered, though. The sheer panic he felt that night in June was real, and the wringer he went through in the days that followed — as he dealt with doctors, his own worries and a series of internet rumors speculating that he had the coronavirus — left a mark. In many ways, it crystalized for him the biggest challenge that comes with being a prodigy at an age when you are supposed to be going to prom.
“I’ve heard some athletes speak about mental health issues,” he says at one point, his eyes widening, “and I can understand why.”
He explains that it isn’t about Dortmund. Not even a little. In truth, the soccer part of his life is perhaps the most straightforward for him. Gio’s game is a marriage of the best parts of his parents: his father, former national team captain Claudio Reyna, had legendary ball control and vision, and his mother, Danielle Egan, made her name at North Carolina, and on the women’s national team, with electric speed and a loping stride. Dortmund recruited Gio as he showed off both skill sets playing for New York City FC’s youth teams.
He arrived at Dortmund’s academy last summer. Within months, he’d shown he could play at a higher level and spent the second half of the season with the first team, playing mostly as an attacking midfielder off the bench. His touch on the ball was unhurried. His confidence was high. He has quickly connected with two of Dortmund’s other young stars, Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho, and the trio play video games and bond over their shared love for television shows such as “Outer Banks” on Netflix.
Haaland, who is quickly becoming one of the sport’s biggest names, has been “like a big brother,” Gio says, which “almost makes me feel like I’m at home a little bit.” The chemistry between the two of them, as well as Sancho, moves easily from on the field to off it, and after making his Bundesliga debut on Jan. 18 — moving past Christian Pulisic as the youngest American to appear in the league — Gio’s first goal was an absolute stunner.
In that game, against Werder Bremen on Feb. 4, Gio made a sharp dribble near the top of the box and unleashed a wicked, curving shot that ripped into the top corner of the net as the stadium exploded. “It was just the perfect opportunity,” he says, breaking into a small smile as he runs through the memory again. “It couldn’t have been placed any better.”
That part — the pure sport and competition — is what makes sense to Gio. It is straightforward. But there is another part to all this, he says. The part where he leaves school and moves into an apartment and tries to learn a language and gets strep throat and lives through a pandemic and tries to comprehend a worldwide reckoning on race all alone. That part? At 17, it is harder.
Some of it is the little things. Lately, Gio has started ordering sweatshirts in larger sizes because he can’t seem to do laundry without shrinking everything, and any time he wants to go to the grocery store, he has to enlist someone — often, it’s Haaland — to drive him. Gio is still a few months from getting a license.
Other issues weigh heavier. As news coverage of the U.S. government’s harsh response to protests in support of Black Lives Matter spread around the world, several Dortmund teammates asked Gio — the resident American now that Pulisic has moved on to Chelsea — what was going on. Why were these protesters being treated like this?
Gio knew they were just talking to him as a peer, a status affirmation he craved, and he knew exactly how he felt about what he was seeing. But he also was sure that, like most 17-year-olds (and perhaps even most 77-year-olds), he wasn’t quite prepared to speak authoritatively on why, exactly, the United States hasn’t yet solved systemic racism. He didn’t have answers.
“I support this movement like no other,” he tells me, “But in those situations, I just didn’t really know what to say.”
Danielle and Claudio are certain that someday he will. Over the past year, they have felt so much pride about what they’ve seen from Gio. His play on the field, sure: That incredible assist against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League or the first goal are memories that won’t be forgotten. But impressive as they were, those sorts of accomplishment aren’t what his parents see as critical: They are more grateful that as Gio’s life has morphed from American teenager to European soccer star, his focus on what is important hasn’t shifted.
Most days, Gio and Claudio talk after training is over, which is early morning in the U.S. There will be a few quick check-ins through lunch, and then, in the late afternoons, Danielle will FaceTime with Gio for an hour, setting him on the counter as she cooks dinner. They don’t have to chat the entire time; Danielle just likes hearing her son bang around his apartment because it’s the closest she gets to feeling as if he is at home. Gio enjoys it because it gives him a tether; it is what keeps him feeling safe.
“He’s still so little in some ways, but he’s doing this man’s job and he’s still never exhibited that anything other than family is his main priority,” Danielle says. She nods. “I think that’s really important.”
It is. Particularly when you consider what the Reyna family has already endured.
WHEN GIO WAS LITTLE, other parents in the local kids’ league were always more impressed by how far he could kick the ball, as opposed to how easily he could dribble it. This perpetually amused Claudio, whose father is Argentine and mother is Portuguese-American. It doesn’t take much to get him started on the misplaced priorities of many American soccer novices.
“Everyone liked seeing him take goal kicks — like, goal kicks! — which, OK, I guess,” Claudio says, rolling his eyes. Even so, it wasn’t long before everyone, including the most casual observer, could see that Gio’s talent was remarkable.
No one was shocked. Claudio played in three World Cups and Danielle won four college championships at North Carolina. But even as it became obvious he was a wunderkind, Gio wasn’t much interested in what his parents had done. He only wanted to be like his big brother, Jack.
Jack was four years older than Gio, sturdy and strong and fast. The boys often played one-on-one soccer in the hallway upstairs, and most of the time the games ended with flailing punches, someone crying and “definitely some punishments,” Danielle says. As competitive as they were, though, Jack never hesitated to highlight his brother’s growing skills. At Gio’s games, Jack would often listen to the spectators on the other sideline, remarking about the tiny 6-year-old who was playing in the 8-year-old division, then sprint over to Claudio, cackling and shouting, “They don’t know what they’re in for!” as Gio would score again and again.
Jack was plenty good at sports, too. He played everything he could, was a natural athlete and, in 2010, his soccer team won the New York State Cup. Everyone in the family was thrilled.
But a few weeks later, Jack began complaining of crippling headaches. Doctors first suggested it might be a bad sinus infection, maybe, or meningitis. Then a CT scan showed a mass on Jack’s brain. There was a surgery and, finally, a diagnosis: Jack, who was 11, had brain cancer — specifically stage IV glioblastoma, a disease that typically affects people who are in their 70s.
“We were just blindsided,” Claudio says. “It was literally, from one day to the next, our whole life changed.” His voice catches and he puts his hand to his face. “Everything you think is going to happen just … didn’t.”
There were treatments. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Blood draws. Long days, waiting rooms and tests. Jack played with Legos over and over; he was often too tired to do anything more.
After about nine months, it seemed as though Jack’s cancer had responded to the treatments. Everyone felt a sliver of hope. But the disease returned a few months later, and the Reynas tried to squeeze in as many bucket-list items as they could, attending a big game or taking a family trip to Mexico or eating at a famous restaurant or going to a show. Jack’s speech began to decline. He couldn’t walk.
On July 19, 2012, Jack died. He was 13. His baby sister, Carolina, was 2. Another brother, Joah-Mikel, was 5. Gio was 9.
How can you measure what something like that does to a person? To a family? It is impossible. Gio never erupted; he never did any of the things the therapists told Danielle and Claudio to look out for. He never raged or lashed out. He went on, as best as he could, the way they all did. He stayed close to Jack’s friends. He became the big brother he lost. Now, when Gio comes home from Germany, he and Carolina and Joah have sleepovers together. They stay up late. They snuggle close.
Gio doesn’t like talking about Jack publicly. So much of his life is on display — remember, the result of a nasal swab he took was literally international news — but he isn’t yet sure how much of his grief he wants to expose. Much of that is, as Danielle says, probably because he doesn’t want to be vulnerable on stage, and part of it is almost surely how deeply Jack still underpins all that Gio does.
Gio still plays for Jack, still driven by the support he knows he would be getting from his brother. Within the family, Jack is a constant presence: His pictures are all over the house. When Claudio and Danielle and the kids sit in their Dortmund sweatsuits and watch Gio play on television, they sometimes talk about how Jack might have moved over to Germany to live with Gio during all of this, and how joyfully insufferable Jack might have been to his friends about what his little brother is doing.
Claudio tears up when we talk about Jack, but he explains that it’s not just because of the tragedy of it all. Rather, it has to do with the incredible joy a parent feels when one of their children is proud of a brother or sister. That sort of admiration from one to another is almost ethereal, and the bond between siblings is the fiercest a family can know. For Claudio, thinking about how Jack can’t do that for Gio — even now, eight years later — remains devastating.
“That is what’s so hard for Danielle and I,” Claudio says, and then he stops. His eyes water and he croaks, “That … you know … that Jack would be the happiest.”
ON JULY 28, Claudio loads Gio’s bags into the car and the entire family drives an hour to JFK Airport. The terminal is quiet. Normally, Claudio or Danielle would reassure Gio that one of them will be over to Germany in a few weeks to see him, but in these pandemic times, no one knows when that can happen. “See you … soon,” Claudio says. Gio walks into the security line.
Sending one child to live on another continent after losing another child years earlier seems borderline impossible to me as a parent. But when I mention this to Claudio and Danielle, they are adamant it is not that difficult a decision. They lived abroad for years when Claudio played overseas (Gio was actually born in England during Claudio’s spell with Manchester City), so more than most parents, they have experienced a fair bit of their son’s life already.
“We know there is so much in front of him,” Danielle says, “so how could we do anything but let him follow that path?”
Danielle is pragmatic. She makes it sound simple. But was it? How easy could it have been? The Reynas call Danielle “Doctor D” because she always knows what medicine to take or what drink to sip when someone is feeling sick. She always makes things better. But that night when Gio thought he had the coronavirus — all Doctor D wanted was to be able to sit by his bed and help him — she was on another continent. As a parent, is there a more helpless feeling?
But then, this is the journey. Dortmund is only a portion of it, too. The pandemic also delayed Gio’s first appearance with the U.S. national team, but that call-up is inevitable. Becoming a professional soccer player is part of Gio’s DNA, and representing the U.S. on its biggest stage is something Gio has been looking forward to for years. It comes with the name.
“It’s basically in our blood,” Gio says.
So, Danielle and Claudio let him go. To Germany. To national team games. To an Olympics, if it happens. To a World Cup, if the U.S. reboot is what everyone hopes.
They know the pressure will only grow hotter. Claudio’s nickname was “Captain America” and by going to Dortmund just as Pulisic did, Gio has made it even easier to put himself alongside the player many see as the most important player in the U.S. men’s revival. There are other players at big clubs who will make a difference, too — Weston McKennie has gone from struggling Schalke to Italian giants Juventus, and Tyler Adams is a key player at Leipzig — but Reyna’s potential is unmatched.
Gio, at least for the moment though, seems unbothered.
“My dad did a lot of things, I know that, but he’s my dad — to me, he’s my dad,” Gio says. “My mom is my mom. And I’m going to be me.” Some days, he says, that means putting together a sharp move with Haaland or Sancho in front of goal, while on others it means playing FIFA past midnight with Joah, who always likes to play as Dortmund so he can start his big brother on the bench.
All of it is important. And all of it — soccer and family — is what Gio sees as the existence he is chasing. A few weeks after returning to Europe, he scores the first goal of Dortmund’s exhibition schedule by coolly slipping the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs after taking a pass from Haaland. In the second preseason match, he does it again and adds another.
Claudio and Danielle and the kids watch the stream of the second game back home, howling. That night, they talk with Gio on FaceTime about the match, and how Gio got to play through the middle more and what it feels like to start off the season as part of the team’s plans. There are so many matches — league games and cup games and the Champions League — that Gio is certain he will have more chances than ever to prove he belongs.
“There is so much happening, in his world and around the world and everything,” Claudio says on the phone when we connect last week. “But when we talk to him, it’s like he sounds …” Claudio pauses and thinks for a second. Then he says, “It’s like he sounds ready.”
Danielle and Claudio have lived what Gio is living, but not as he will live it. Not in this time. Not in this moment. In the end, Danielle says, “He’ll be himself.” And that will be enough.