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Forward Thinking: The Chicago Fire’s CJ Sapong is using the coronavirus hiatus to reflect

“You have to drastically change the way you think”

MLS: 2020 MLS Portraits
CJ Sapong
USA TODAY Sports

As a pro soccer player, Chicago Fire forward CJ Sapong is used to dealing with pressure. But these days, he’s dealing with pressure like he’s never felt before—both his mother and his girlfriend are busy working as nurses during the coronavirus pandemic.

So, Sapong is riding out the stay-at-home order in Chicago, trying to stay fit, talking to his mom and girlfriend as much as possible, and using his time to plan for whatever comes next, because as he points out, ”Who’s to say it’s not gonna come back?”

The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Patrick McCraney: CJ, how are you living these days? These are weird times, man.

CJ Sapong: I’m living with added perspective. Learning to improvise, having an opportunity to focus on things that are pretty important, right? So, while it’s a very unforeseen and uncomfortable and somewhat unknown situation, there are the little opportunities, I believe, to kind of refocus and reset as a human being. At the end of the day, that’s kind of the most important thing in all this.

Patrick: What kinds of things are you using your time to do?

CJ: Well, I had to adjust the monthly-to-year plan, which is part of a larger three-to-five-to-10 year plan for me. You know, I actually feel pretty blessed that I guess I’ve been on this track where I try to intertwine whatever financial, business, sports goals with personal goals. And, kind of, align the imagery of everything, so that I make sure everything that I’m doing is towards—I don’t call it an end “goal.” It’s more like an end “vibration.” I want to maximize the potential of my being, create something for my family. And then, also, something for humanity. So, yeah, that’s doing financial and personal plans, understanding what bodies of knowledge I’m trying to take in during this time so that I can ensure that no matter what happens—because this makes you think something like this— just because, let’s just say it goes away soon and we can all go back to our lovely lives. Who’s to say it’s not gonna come back?

So you have to drastically change the way you think now. You cannot continue to approach things the way you have. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed looking at the different scenarios and with a lot of my interests, whether it be self-sustainability, self-sufficiency, energetic amplification. All those topics, to me, that seemed alternative and out there are now pretty relevant right now. You see doctors and nurses chanting “om” in between shifts and stuff. You now see where, if this whole supply chain breaks down, people are gonna have to go back to being self-sufficient. So, I’m just thankful that my interests, goals and things that I’ve been pursuing all kind of align with that. I mean, I’m having fun, taking that in.

Obviously staying fit, too. Personally, the last week or so I kind of felt like staying inside. If I go outside, I make sure I’m very, very isolated or very secluded. But the physical aspect is actually the easy part, you know? Just get up and run. The hardest part is just starting it. Once you start it, you’re good, you get your sweat in. It’s what you do with the rest of the day—that’s the true, tricky part.

Patrick: I thought I saw on your social media, did the club drop off an exercise bike for you?

CJ: I don’t want to seem like a diva, but this week I kind of stated my concern with going outside. I like to consider myself a very balanced thinker. I’m stepping outside, and I realize I’m literally afraid to. I’m thinking of what that could mean for not just me, but people around me. When you weigh it at the end of the day, I’m like, if you guys could get me a bike I think that would be a better situation. The team has been great. Every aspect of the organization has been top notch. It’s amazing. So, they got the bike here, and I’m actually going to go for a little stroll with the view, after our call.

Patrick: It’s probably about staying soccer fit as much as you can, but it’s also about staying mentally strong. Those workouts really help with both, I’d imagine.

CJ: So that’s another aspect to bring into it. Not to go too deep, but to stay soccer fit when you’re not playing soccer is impossible. So, you can try as you might, try as you may, but at the end of the day, when we all come back that first day once this is all settled down, it’s going to take in a whole ‘nother mental engagement to start doing that again, because now we have the experience of this. So, it’s really easy to say, based on data you need to make sure you do... this. I’m doing what I can, however, you have to give space for the mental to maybe catch up in certain aspects of our experience. If you leave it too far behind, we’re gonna find ourselves in worse and worse situations.

Patrick: Are you reaching out to family, teammates, friends to talk? How are you staying connected with people?

CJ: Man, it’s like a party every day. Often it’s this person, this friend, this partner, because I run a nonprofit in Philly. We were planning a spring bloom event, organizations were collaborating, now we gotta change it up a little bit. I’m actually very thankful I’ve gotten to talk to my family and my friends in gluttonous amounts. It’s kind of crazy that, again, we’re busy. Understandable. However, it’s those connections with people that really get us to where we are, and honestly, where we want to go. So, I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

Both my mother and my girlfriend are nurses, so it’s hard for sure. Fortunately, I have practices to kind of alleviate that anxiety, but my mom’s falling into the danger zone. My girlfriend works in, more like, treatment. So, it’s less hectic, but they’re still taking in people from all types of places. It’s such a high risk to be going in every other day. So, I talk to them every day. Like, I asked them exactly like how their days were. I don’t know. This is crazy. Quite bravely so. To have all that going on while I’m here in Chicago is just a wild, wild dynamic at play, but I think I’m making the most of it.

Patrick: Where do your girlfriend and mom live?

CJ: My girlfriend lives in Oxnard, California. My mom lives in Virginia.

Patrick: And you said you’re talking to them every day?

CJ: Whenever we can. Because Virginia is an hour ahead, Cali is two hours behind. But, given the fact that I really don’t have a set schedule, it’s a lot easier now to stay in contact, because usually it’s my schedule that keeps me from being able to talk to friends or family, or whatever. The shifts are at interesting times, anyway. So, I can wake up to a text, or go to bed, and get a call from mom. Talk about the day. Yeah. It is interesting, man.

Patrick: For you, not being able to see them, just being able to talk to them, that’s got to be stressful. I feel for you there.

CJ: Oh, it’s awful. I actually got into a little, tiny discrepancy with my girlfriend, because in her situation I, essentially, was trying to highlight the reasons why it was not safe, and why she shouldn’t feel obligated [to work.] And, it was kind of selfish. I don’t want anything to be wrong, to happen to her. However, when I say that to my mother, she’s just like straight up, “What? Look, this is what I signed up for. I can’t leave all those people.” It was like the way she said it, I know her, and I know it doesn’t matter what I say. But then when I tell my girl I said that to my mom, she’s like “Yeah, you’re trying to force me not to work? That’s messed up.” Frickin’ nurses, man!

Patrick: You’re super positive. If we’re looking for the positives here, what are they? One thing I thought of: You had an injury that’s probably getting better now that you’re not running around every day. How are you feeling, and are there any other positives out there to think about?

CJ: Yeah, I feel amazing, man. I was feeling pretty good too, though, when everything stopped. I was most likely gonna be back to full training around that time. But, I think, a slowdown is what is positive out of this. I almost want to say that I hate having to take it there, but I really don’t hate taking it here. As humans, we get in our modes, right? We get in our routine. And we almost do it in a hypnotic state. Like, you’re driving, and you’ve got it under control, but you’re just not… there. If that’s what floats your boat, okay. But, at least we have a moment of pause and understand what’s going on and see if that’s how we want to keep it going.

I’d be interested to see how businesses, how influencers, people like that—how they project their imagery to people. I believe there needs to be a little bit more human connection, and not simply for the clout, as they say. When you think about it, we all are trying to reach the same thing. And the fact that we can’t take this moment and just calm down, and connect with each other, and talk about real things and current things is very interesting. So, we won’t know the true positives, until we see our response. Yes, you can sit here and say “read a book,” or “think of your next project.” But, it’s when we get back to, I guess, whatever will be normal, and how we respond, and how this situation affects us and how this situation changes, whether it’s policy, or it’s simply someone talking, you know to their mom, more than just once every two weeks.

Patrick: You said something that really clicked with me. When you’re driving, but you’re not… there. There are so many times like that where I’m thinking about the next thing that I have to do. All this has caused me to be in the moment a lot more, so I thought that was a great point you made.

CJ: Thanks man. Honestly, I think you made the best point out of everything. Being in the moment. The moments are now. The past and the future, we waste our moments on thinking of those things, which you can relish, you can let it pass through. But why take away from the present?

We also interviewed goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm about how he’s spending his days during the coronavirus stay-at-home order. You can check that out here.