I’m the same jerk I’ve always been,” declares Kyle Rote Jr. reassuringly. Organized sports could use a few more like him. Until recently Rote was merely the most famous American soccer player, a distinction that left him largely anonymous—and grossly underpaid. As starting center forward with the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League, the 23-year-old Rote, son of the former SMU All-American and New York Giants football star, earned only $1,400 last season. His wife Mary Lynne, with whom he shares a one-bedroom Dallas apartment, works as a secretary to help pay his tuition at theological school.
Now much of that is behind him. By soundly defeating a field of celebrated athletic superstars (among them, football’s O. J. Simpson, baseball’s Pete Rose, and pole vaulter Bob Seagren) in a nationally televised pseudo-Olympiad in Florida, Rote captured $53,400 in prizes and emerged arguably as the best all-around athlete in the country. In a world where prize jocks are often blue-ribbon hedonists, the winner was a little hard to believe—a quiet-spoken, home-loving ministerial student who inscribed autographs with quotes from the Bible. “To Donald, my good friend,” he wrote for one 3-year-old fan. “Give all the love you have. For as you do it for the least of my people, so you do it unto Me.” Turning to Donald’s startled parents, Rote told them, “That’s from Matthew.”
Thoughtful and independent, young Rote was never one to run with the herd. A three-sport star in high school, he accepted a football scholarship at Oklahoma State but moved on after only a year. “I wasn’t doing well in school,” he recalls. “Nobody else in the athletic dorm seemed to care about grades, so I didn’t either. I had very little self-discipline. So I knew I had to get out.” His destination was the little University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., where he promptly switched from football to soccer.
A devout Episcopalian, Rote regards sports as an opportune ministry but not merely as a pulpit to speak from. No sooner had he reaped his bonanza in Florida than he announced much of it would be given away. “I just want to get as much recognition with the good Lord as I do with some of the kids,” he explains. “Lynne and I are going to be good stewards. It may not amount to much—my agent gets 25%, and this prize puts me in the 50% bracket—but whatever we can do, we will. Go ahead and paint me as a do-gooder. That’s what I hope to be.”
Now in demand for commercial endorsements, Rote is being careful how he uses his name. Star athletes occupy a special position in America, he believes, and sometimes they abuse it through carelessness. “Pro athletes say a lot of things without realizing their impact,” he says. “Joe Namath made a crack about all the girls he slept with at Alabama. He may have been kidding, because the total would have qualified him for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But a lot of kids hear about that, and they think that’s the way it is at the top in athletics. They want to please their dads, so they emulate Namath.”