By Mike Beamish, Vancouver Sun March 28, 2014 VANCOUVER — When told that signing up for high school football would be a huge mistake — that he would never get to play for the varsity team because of his small size — it just increased the size of the chip on Pat Tillman's shoulder.
As the right back for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Steven Beitashour wants to believe he plays footy with the same fierce intensity as Tillman did on the gridiron, "one of my inspirations, and a person I looked up to and admired growing up."
A graduate of Leland high school in the Almaden Valley suburb close to San Jose, Calif., it was impossible for Beitashour to escape the legacy of Tillman, who left Leland for Arizona State University, became the starting strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals and whose death in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Ranger shook his country like no other.
Tillman's family had a military heritage going back generations. After the events of 9/11, he turned his back on an NFL career to join the Rangers, served a tour of duty in Iraq and was killed 10 years ago by "friendly fire" in an ambush in a remote Afghan province.
The circumstances of Tillman's death — covered up by the U.S. military because it did not fit the proper narrative — only served to reinforce him more as a selfless American hero and patriot and the face of the war against terrorism that shows no end.
"He's done some great things for his country," said Beitashour, during a break from training for Saturday's Major League Soccer game at BC Place Stadium against the Houston Dynamo (4 p.m., TSN2, Team 1410). "Not many people would have made that decision to leave the NFL, with a multi-million contract, to go off and risk your life. He made a big impression on me. He was also a smaller athlete who had a tremendous work ethic. I was honoured to get that award, not just because of athletics but because of academics as well." In 2005, his graduating year at Leland, Beitashour received the inaugural Pat Tillman Award, given to an individual at one of the top public schools in the Bay Area for outstanding achievement in athletics and academics. In January this year, he was accorded yet an another honour, when his jersey No. 3 was retired, becoming only the second Leland athlete (after Tillman) given the distinction.
College coaches who went strictly by the numbers, and never witnessed the ferocity of his tackles and his intelligence in dissecting an opponent, sold Tillman short, which is why he was not a heavily recruited athlete coming out of Leland.
Likewise, as the star midfielder and forward on the Leland Chargers soccer team, Beitashour was given the same cursory looks, crushed that major universities in the Bay Area did not regard him as a premier prospect.
"The first school that saw me was Notre Dame de Namur — a small, private NAIA school about 30 minutes north of San Jose," Beitashour recalls. "That was my first official visit. I thought more teams would be interested. It kind of opened my eyes. I only got small school invites. But I knew I could play at one of the top schools."
A connection between Beitashour's high school coach and Lev Kirshner, the head soccer coach at San Diego State University, eventually led to Beitashour earning a scholarship with the Aztecs.
"He (Kirshner) came out to watch me play two games with my club team," Beitashour says. "I probably had two of the best games I ever had in my career (in youth soccer). They said, 'We'll take him.' I went there because I wanted to play against Cal (Berkeley) and Stanford (two of the Pac-12 schools who had rejected him). Cal later asked me if I wanted to transfer in my second year. Stanford told my fiancee's mom, 'Wow, we messed up on that one.' This is why people say, 'You play with a chip on your shoulder.' It started back then."
Are you picking up a pattern here?
Beitashour, the Whitecaps’ replacement for retired Y.P. Lee, is a reminder that it is possible to believe anything is possible.
Uninvited to the MLS combine in his senior year at San Diego State, he was nonetheless a second-round pick by his hometown San Jose Earthquakes in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft draft and went on to establish himself as "arguably, the best right back in the league" (according to Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson). In 2011, Beitashour led the Earthquakes in assists and a year later was named an MLS all-star.
"It's weird," said Moroccan-born midfielder Mehdi Bellouchy who, like Beitashour, joined the Whitecaps this season from the Earthquakes. "A lot of times, coaches don't get it right. Steven's gotten better every year. Luckily for him, he got to San Diego and had a chance to show what he can do. You'd be surprised at what a guy, who signs for the minimum, can do if he works hard at getting better. That's a lesson our young players should look at."
With that kind of dedication, you can even reach a point where you're playing some very serious soccer, such as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Born in San Jose to Iranian immigrants, Beitashour's dual citizenship allows him to play for both countries, neither of whom showed much interest until the latest World Cup cycle.
Twice, the 27-year-old has been called to the U.S. national team, for a friendly against Mexico (he dressed but didn't play) and a training camp overseen by former German World Cup star Jurgen Klinsmann, manager of the American national team.
A sports hernia — Beitashour twice has had surgery to correct the condition — compromised his form at the 2013 U.S. camp, however.
Aware that a World Cup opportunity seemed less likely under the Stars and Stripes, Beitashour accepted a chance to play right back for Iran, Asia's top team according to the FIFA rankings, placed in Group F of the 2014 World Cup tournament with Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and one of the tournament favourites, Argentina.
Iran is 45th in FIFA's world pecking order and has never made it to the second round of World Cup qualification. Yet as daunting as it would be to match wits with magical Lionel Messi and the artful Argentines, there is no doubt in Beitashour's mind that this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
"A chance to play in a World Cup … it's something I've looked forward to from a young age," he said. "Hopefully, I'll get that chance."
He'll get his through the circumstances of his birth. Beitashour's father, Edward, came to America in the 1960s to study electrical engineering at San Francisco State, where he also played soccer for the Gators. His mother, Pari, still observes Persian traditions, such as Narooz, the 13-day celebration of New Year which begins at the spring equinox.
Now retired, Ed Beitashour spent his career with Apple, working with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the company founders who were the basis for the 2013 biographical film, Jobs.
"Dad told me all the stories about developing the technology for iPhones, iPads, and iPods," Beitashour said. "I never really appreciated what he'd done until I saw the movie."
He's also seen the political thriller Argo, Hollywood's depiction of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which militants stormed the symbol of the "Great Satan" — the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 hostages. Six managed to escape through the cunning of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, although a CIA operative (played by actor and director Ben Affleck) comes off as the leading figure in the cinematic rescue, the historical facts notwithstanding.
"That's Hollywood," Beitashour responds. "I'm shocked by what you see in person to what you read (about Iran). Everybody is so welcoming over there. People love the Americans. They love the U.S. They love to visit. And I get no negative feedback when I tell people I'm playing for Iran. All I hear is positive. 'That's great, I hope you do well.' People, specifically reporters, are the only ones who ask about the negative feedback."
Beitashour has played four times for Iran — branded by former U.S. president George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil" in the aftermath of 9/11 — twice against Thailand, and in other matches against South Korea and Guinea. The caustic rhetoric between the countries has softened in more recent times, however, and Beitashour is hopeful his presence on the World Cup team is a small example of continuing reconciliation.
"Some people think an American playing for Iran will bring the countries closer together," Beitashour said. "Soccer is unique in that regard. If you want to compete on the biggest stage, which is the World Cup, you reach everywhere you can. And they are. Iranians love their national team, no matter where they come from."
As a second-generation American eligible to play for Iran, he could be the embodiment of the World Cup's power to heal and unify.