NEW CASTLE —
That’s American football in Serbian.
Perhaps it’s the first words Jordon Rooney should memorize before joining his new football team, the Forestlanders, in Mladenovac, Serbia.
Rooney is in pursuit of his dream — furthering his career on the gridiron. It’s been a long road for the former Union High and Westminster College player, one filled with personal determination, dedication and adversity. And now, its one that’s taking the 23-year-old overseas.
“I was online and there’s a website called Europlayers.com where you can send out your film to every team that’s in Europe,” Rooney said. “I sent out my film and about 100 messages to different teams. I heard back from a team in Poland, a team in Finland and the team in Serbia. I was most comfortable with them.”
Intrigued by the small European country, Rooney was eager to learn more.
“I didn’t know anything about it. I messaged the coaches and they said they liked my film and they liked everything I had to offer. We started to Skype. I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “The good thing about it is they do speak English as well as Serbian. The coaches, Zeljko Sreckovic and Sasa Petrovic, are really honest and they like me a lot. So, it’s a good opportunity. They’re going to give me a small, decent salary. Serbia is a very poor country. Its economy is really bad, but they’re going to give me a salary, a really nice apartment, they’re going to pay for that, all my meals, Internet, cable, transportation and insurance.
“I started to do some research from the stuff they told me. They said that they don’t have things like violent crimes and they’re very hard-working people. For instance, my head coach owns a landscaping business and the other one owns a garage.”
Boarding a plane to play football again wasn’t something doctors imagined for Rooney just months ago, as a laundry list of injuries prohibited him from joining an arena team in the fall.
“I had two sports hernias,” Rooney said. “I wasn’t going to make it back in time to try out for any arena teams this year because tryouts were coming earlier.
“I graduated from Westminster and I had two concussions in two weeks two football seasons ago. I wasn’t cleared to play football for eight months because of my concussions. And then, I got my sports hernia surgery. Doctors told me there’d be a chance I’d never play again because they said I might not be able to run without pain. They didn’t think my concussion would allow me to play, because I was still feeling symptoms eight months later.”
On top of the injuries, Rooney was struggling with family issues. His mother, Jodie Sizer, was diagnosed with cervical cancer, on Aug. 1, one day after his sports hernia surgery.
“That was definitely rough,” he said. “She just got her final scan three weeks ago. I wouldn’t have left, but we found out she was cancer-free.”
Stuck at a crossroads with his football career and personal struggles, Rooney, who also is a son of Mike Rooney, saw no turning back.
“I didn’t tell many people I planned on playing football after college. I knew many wouldn’t have believed in me. I really haven’t had a backup (career). For me, it was like I’m going to risk everything and give it everything I got. If I don’t risk everything, how would I know how far I make it? I wouldn’t let myself think otherwise because of possibly failing.”
Rooney took the injury news hard, but didn’t get discouraged. After all, at 5-foot-9, he has been doubted by others his entire playing career.
“I guess people say they’re motivated by people doubting them, but I feel like I have enough motivation from within, it doesn’t bother me who doubts me,” he said. “I guess, since I always had the thought within myself, when it came to fruition, it was a surreal feeling. Playing football is something I think about all the time. It was something I think about and work for, and when it finally starts to pay off, it was like, is this really even happening?”
A strong support system was in place for Rooney as he began his long recovery process this past year.
“I feel like my family couldn’t be more supportive of me with everything. I know some parents would probably not be OK with their kid doing what I’m doing. I know my school loans are coming,” Rooney said. “It’s going to be rough paying them. My parents and everyone have been really helpful with that.
“One big thing is being around Union. They’re all so supportive. I’m hearing stuff from people I didn’t even know, ‘oh Jordon, you’re going overseas? Make us proud.’ Union is just like one big family.”
Community members also were there for support. Jeff Smiley, a local trainer for the Ellwood City Athletic Club, reinforced Rooney’s positive outlook. Rooney has been training with Smiley over the summer the past two years working on things like sprinting drills and Olympic weight training.
“Everyone needs someone to tell them that it’s going to be OK. I kind of reinforced his hard work,” Smiley said. “His dream is to continue to play and play at a pro level. That’s what he wants to do. I believe that he can make it. I get kids from 15 high schools here. All my kids, we reinforce hard work. I believe he will continue, and he will have a great career in Serbia.
“He’s a great kid. He’s headstrong and he believes. He will never give up and he’s all about hard work. He’s just another great kid out of Union. He’s a great role model for a lot of kids. He’s a total package.”
For his physical therapy, Rooney makes a trip to Pittsburgh twice a week to the Evolution Sports Institute, working to recover from his sports hernia surgery.
“I’m down there and I’m training next to NFL players like Ryan Clark, Willie Colon and (baseball star) Neil Walker. They treat me the same as they treat them,” Rooney said. “The one guy down there, Cole Haley, he’s really been helpful in motivating me to keep pushing and get healthy. I didn’t think I was going to be healthy a month ago. I didn’t think I’d be able to go.”
A FARAWAY LAND
Symptom-free and pain-free, Rooney can’t wait to take the field as a wide receiver for the Forestlanders. However, he isn’t worry-free about his first trip to Europe.
“I’m definitely nervous for the first time I get out there and start to run, but I know after a couple plays I’ll get going and I’ll be fine and it won’t be really too nerve-wracking,” Rooney said. “The biggest thing I’m nervous about is just being away from my family for so long. I’m a very family-oriented person. I don’t like that I’ll be a nine-hour flight away if anything were to go wrong. I’m looking forward to it, but that would be my biggest fear.
“The one big thing they told me is that if I play well, the people in the town will look at me like a superstar. They said that you’ll walk through town and everyone will want to buy lunch for the American. They said the kids will adore you and that there are different charity things the team does. If I play well, and since I’m an American, they’ll love me.”
Rooney continues to pursue his dream, something he says others would have given up on a long time ago. His drive to become a role model in the Union community is his inspiration.
“I coached at Union this past year as a defensive backs coach for the high school and I’m also the strength and conditioning coordinator. I am there every day,” Rooney said. “I think the one big reason why I’m going so far is the pride I have in Union. Obviously, people laugh when I say this, but I feel Union is the greatest place in the world. That’s why I volunteer to coach fifth- and sixth-grade basketball and I do what I can. I had a 3-on-3 tournament there and helped build a court up there. That’s the pride I have in my high school and where I’m from.”
NEW CASTLE —
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