New page in the playbook
Growing up in the Tampa, Florida, area, Jeff Attinella
never imagined he would have the career he does.
Playing in MLS? Sure, young Jeff did have dreams of becoming a professional athlete.
But the Portland Timbers goalkeeper would not have scripted his newest endeavor.
Over the past year, Attinella has written a series of children's books.
It is, Attinella admits, an interesting twist given that as a youth he was not one to spend time with a book.
"I'm all about sports. I've been about sports my whole life," he says. "Even when I started this, my mom told me that (as a kid) I wouldn't open up a book unless it was 'Sports Illustrated for Kids' or the sports page."
Not surprisingly, sports have provided both inspiration and material for his work. Of his four published books, three are sports stories: "The Curse Ends" is about the 2016 Chicago Cubs, "Cleveland Wins a Championship" about the Cavaliers' 2016 NBA title, and "Greatest Ever" about the New England Patriots' improbable comeback in Super Bowl LI.
His fourth book, "The Great Space Race" recounts the 1969 moon landing.
The spark of an idea happened as Attinella watched the Cubs win Game 7 of the World Series. His weeks-old daughter, Remy, was beside him on the couch.
"All of a sudden the Cubs were the best team in baseball. I looked to my right and we had this little baby and she's not going to know about The Curse and all of that. All she knows is the Cubs are the best team in baseball," Attinella says.
But it was his passion for Tampa Bay sports teams that finally started the words flowing.
"I was at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game. I was trying to think of ways to get my daughter to like my sports teams," he says. "So I started writing down a little story on my phone about the Tampa Bay sports teams."
His publishing career got a quick boost from his wife, Kendall, and her family. Kendall's father, Wayne Curtiss, owns Smack Apparel, a sports-themed shirt company. He formed It Had to Be Told Publishing and found illustrators who Attinella credits for making his books pop.
"What he put together caught me off guard with how nice the books turned out," Attinella says.
Rosemary Curtiss, Attinella's mother-in-law, is a retired newspaper publisher. Kendall Attinella is putting her journalism degree to work editing Jeff's writing.
Attinella, 28, did not develop an interest in reading until after he graduated from the University of South Florida with a communications degree and began life in pro soccer. Reading became a way to pass the time on road trips.
"You can only watch so much TV," he says.
Attinella's own story is that of a multisport athlete who in high school figured out goalkeeping was the skill that might take him places.
"It seemed like the right choice. I was good at basketball, but I wasn't tall enough," he says.
Playing every sport he could growing up in Clearwater, Florida, helped the 6-2, 180-pound Attinella grow into an accomplished goalkeeper.
His youth baseball background led him to volunteer to play goalkeeper for his under-9 soccer team.
"When I was younger, it took a lot to keep me in the net. You want to score goals; you want to have fun that way. But as I got older, I loved it," Attinella says. "I'm not a big soccer junkie. I'm a sports junkie. And I think the goalkeeper position relates to other sports so much more than the field (positions). It's where I'm more comfortable, to be honest, using my hands and just being the last line back there."
As a junior at USF, Attinella was an All-American and the goalkeeper of the year in the Big East Conference.
His professional career started with his hometown team, the North American Soccer League's Tampa Bay Rowdies. In 2012, Attinella stopped three shots in the championship match shootout to lift his team to a title.
Brininging a championship to Tampa was neat, and his play helped him land with Real Salt Lake for the 2013 MLS season. He then spent four seasons as the backup to star Nick Rimando. After the Minnesota United selected Attinella in an expansion draft, he was traded to Portland.
Recently, Attinella has enjoyed his own storybook experiences. With Jake Gleeson injured, Attinella has thrived.
In his four starts, the Timbers have three wins and a draw. His point-blank reaction stop preserved an Aug. 18 win over the New York Red Bulls. At Yankee Stadium on Sept. 9, Attinella reacted to deny a point-blank chance for Frederic Brillant in a 1-0 victory over New York City FC.
Attinella says backing up Rimando — the MLS all-time leader in wins, shutouts, saves and games played — taught him to focus on preparation every week.
"I got to play in a lot of games, a lot of road games, a lot of tough situations that when I was young in my career were tough to respond to and bounce back from. But you had to. That was just the nature of it," Attinella says. "It's taught me a lot about this opportunity I'm getting right now and trusting the process of every week doing what I can to stay ready for the game. Then, if it's my time to go, I know I'm ready."
Still, the sports fan in Attinella can surface on the field. When the Timbers faced Colorado last month, Tim Howard was in goal for the Rapids. Attinella had followed Howard's career in England and with the U.S. national team, so "looking across the field at Tim Howard, that was pretty cool. ... That was a 'take a step back and look at how far you've come' type moment for me."
And, before the Timbers headed to Yankee Stadium last week, Attinella said playing on that field would be a bucket-list moment.
Last Saturday, Attinella got another meaningful opportunity. The Timbers traveled to Real Salt Lake, and he saw old pal Rimando at the other end of the pitch.
"Salt Lake was very comfortable for me and my family. I probably could have been Nick's backup for a long time and made a good career out of that. But I was always trying to push for the next thing," he says. "Once we got word that we were coming here, we were really excited."
Attinella heard good things about Portland from friends Nat Borchers and Will Johnson and is enjoying Portland's passion for soccer. He is especially impressed with the presence of Timbers fans at road games.
"I've never seen anything like it. There's Timbers fans at every single away game, which is crazy," he says.
As a devoted fan of the Buccaneers, MLB Tampa Bay Rays and NHL Tampa Bay Lightning, Attinella understands the fans' passion.
It's the kind of enthusiasm he hopes to connect with through his books. If kids who are as into sports as he was can learn to love reading at a young age, their world will expand.
"It's been a fun project, that is, bringing in kids who don't necessarily enjoy reading. I didn't either. So I get it," Attinella says. "We're really hoping these books can reach those reluctant readers because it is so important."
None of the half-dozen stories currently on Attinella's computer are about the Timbers. He wants to keep his careers separate for now. In the pipeline are stories about the championship legacies of Pittsburgh (his mother-in-law's hometown) and of Alabama Crimson Tide football.
Fine-tuning rhymes that will engage young readers is new to Attinella. But in some ways, the process is not all that different from his day-to-day work for the Timbers.
"I'm trying to learn as much as I can because I still feel like I have so much room to grow. So me for me it's a lot more asking questions," he says.
He is talking about soccer. Seasons worth commemorating in rhyme, after all, do not happen without detailed commitment.