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"At first I thought I was gonna be this outcast old lady, but it's been so much better than I could have hoped. Way better. I mean I do feel like the team mom sometimes, I'm always telling the younger players, ‘Make good choices, if you need anything give me a call.' That kind of stuff."



Taylor Lemmond had finally gotten around to asking the question – the one that every player on the Oregon State women's soccer team asked McKenzie Redberg when they couldn't resist any longer.

"Hey McKenzie?" the freshman forward leaned closer to her senior teammate during a recent road trip. "Sooo exactly how old are you again? I mean, like what year were you born?"

McKenzie, who is exactly…well, let's not ruin the surprise…offered the 17-year-old from Elk Grove, California a friendly, but reserved smile – being ex-military, after all. "I was born in 1990."

"1990 what?"

"No. Just…1990," Redberg answered, and then waited for it.

"Wow," Taylor replied, raising an eyebrow. "So the day I was born you were already eight years old! That…is crazy!"

Yep, thanks for that, thanks a lot. Truth be told though? McKenzie Redberg loves it. Loves the question; loves sitting next to a teammate on their way to a Division One soccer match; loves feeling the anticipation, the knowing, that tomorrow she'll play the one sport she loves more than any other. A sport, played at a level, she'd given up on only a few years ago.

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"What kind of kid was I?" She answers without hesitation, "Rambunctious, stubborn. My sister, my brother, we were always running around the woods, getting in all sorts of trouble."

The woods she's talking about aren't in some other state, they're not even in another part of Oregon. They're on the fringe of Corvallis, her hometown, where McKenzie was born back in…well, just ask Taylor Lemmond, she'll tell you. The Redbergs were a tightly-knit bunch - plenty of outdoor stuff, the occasional board game, like when McKenzie would play CandyLand with her kid sister and stack the deck so she could bust a path through the Molasses Swamp. "Whatever it took to win," she grins.

Saturdays in the fall were reserved for one thing, aside from a heavy dose of youth soccer: and that was Beaver football. McKenzie was at both of the home wins over USC, storming the field right there with everyone else. She recollects her first OSU soccer game too, and it's not like she's guessing when she says, "They played Hawaii. I was seven years old."

Soccer was already deep in her blood by then, same as it was for a lot of kids, but her love for the sport ratcheted to a higher level the afternoon of July 10th, 1999. The Redbergs had gone out that morning to pick a tub of raspberries, and nine-year-old McKenzie held it tightly, right there in her lap as she watched the U.S. Women's National Team win the World Cup – Brandi Chastain striking the final penalty kick, igniting millions of young girls' dreams in a single split second. "I made a decision right there," Redberg says. "I'm gonna play college soccer. That's what I'm gonna do."

But dreams sometimes have a habit of running into nasty luck. During the State Track Finals her senior year, she pulled a hamstring, triggering a year in her life that was a blur of uncertainty. Soccer was her passion, but there were no scholarship offers. So when the track coach at Western Oregon offered her a full-ride to join the team in Monmouth, she accepted. Not only that, her father, who had worked for Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, took a new job in Arizona. And just like that, the tightly-knit Redbergs – dad, mom, siblings - were a little bit here, there and everywhere.

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Story by Mike Rich

Mike Rich is an Oregon State alumnus and award-winning screenwriter. His credits include Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Radio, The Nativity Story, Secretariat, and more.


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"I was kind of a lost soul there for awhile," she says, recounting her year at Western. With both soccer and family far away for the first time in her life, she hoped that running track would fill the sudden gaps in her life, only to discover – in more ways than one – she was running in circles. "I didn't want to be doing something that was just safe. I missed being part of a team."

And so, carrying a mindset nudging her to jump into the deepest end of the pool, McKenzie walked away from her track scholarship – and joined the U.S. Air Force. First stop was basic training in Texas, then on to Florida, before finally settling in Ohio, where she would spend the next three-and-a-half years of her life. If ever there was a "this ain't gonna be easy" box for her to check, she had just done it with bold and black ink.

"Ohio is very flat, very dry, and very cold," Redberg notes, before quickly shifting to how much the experience meant to her. She could have used a few more hours of sleep, sure, with her alarm going off at 4am every day for physical training. But it was what she was doing after that training that was scratching the itch – not just for what she might do with her life, but also for the sport she still loved.

McKenzie Redberg was now Senior Airman Redberg, filling the hours of her days as an Aerospace Medical Service Apprentice. And when it was time to punch out late in the afternoon, after squeezing in a few minutes for dinner, she was playing soccer again. She'd landed a spot on one of the teams on base and was out there almost every night showing the guys how it's done on the pitch.

That's right – the guys. McKenzie's hamstring had healed long ago, the 4am physical training was intense enough she could run all night, so when she finally got around to signing up for soccer - she signed with one of the men's soccer teams and promptly became the team's standout player. And as if all that wasn't enough…she'd met a guy.

Staff Sergeant Gabriel Nix was already there in Ohio when McKenzie arrived, with big plans of his own for a long career in the Air Force. "I was stationed in DC for two years, which is where I grew up," he says, "but they were shutting my base down – Walter Reed – so they gave me the choice of Ohio or Vegas. I chose Ohio because it was closer to home."

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Saying no to Vegas turned out to be a lucky choice. He was working as a Histopathology Technician (the diagnosis of disease samples) when he first noticed Redberg working in the same building. "She was very stoic, very beautiful," he recalls, knowing the description isn't one you hear every day. "I just remember her demeanor being very intense, yet calm."

Even during off-hours, he saw it. It's what Gabe and so many of Redberg's current teammates describe as her resting intense face. "Oh yeah, I've seen it," he laughs, shaking his head. "When we're playing video games, or watching a movie, she likes her silence. I mean, yeah, I've seen times when she's cried, but not often. When we were watching Lone Survivor, American Sniper, we both cried on those."

The years in Ohio whipped by in a flash - and as they grew closer, it wasn't long before their late-night conversations switched from work and movies to matters much, much closer to the heart; matters that were bumping against decisions both faced on whether to stay with the Air Force. McKenzie, now almost four years in and an honor grad, leaned against re-enlisting and wanted to go to school somewhere, hoping for a career in physical therapy. Gabe leaned the opposite way, now six years in himself. He says of those days, "I went into the military thinking I'd do twenty years, get my pension, that kind of thing." Never thinking he'd find the woman he'd want to marry.

If he stayed in the Air Force, chances were good his orders would take him to England, and if the two weren't married? McKenzie wouldn't be able to go. "We talked about it a lot," she says, putting plenty of emphasis on that last word. "We could've gotten married like a lot of military people do, so they can be together. But we didn't want that pressure of forcing an early marriage."

Seemed wherever they went, whatever they did, the decision was always tagging along, as if it was reminding them: I'm here guys, right behind you. You can't forget about me, okay?

As if there was a chance of that happening.

Neither one remembers the exact moment when Gabe came up with the idea – but one thing McKenzie does remember is what she thought of it: that it was crazy. That's what she said out loud at least. But there was another part of her, the quiet part deep inside where her dreams now stayed-put, that knew precisely why Gabe had come up with the idea.

It was the itch. The itch that had been kind of scratched, but never fully – going all the way back to that tub of raspberries on her lap in Corvallis, a nine-year-old kid declaring to anyone who would listen that she was going to play college soccer someday.

"I knew she dreamed about it," Gabe confides. "I saw her playing on the men's team at the base, dominating those guys. This was her dream, ever since she was a little girl. Watching all those games growing up."

So he put it on the table, right there where she couldn't ignore it. Go back to Corvallis. Go back…home. Give it a try at least, I'll be right there with you.

The gesture alone was enough to rock McKenzie, not because she thought it was a fool's mission, but for what it meant for Gabe. Because if everything worked out? He'd be leaving his military career behind – for her.

Maybe it was Gabe's selfless suggestion, maybe it was because dreams fight back, never wanting to die, or maybe it was a little of both that told her to push the send button on an email to Oregon State soccer coach Linus Rhode. Whatever it was, Rhode liked what he read – and invited McKenzie to come out for a summer soccer camp.

Dreams 1. Crazy 0.

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Even now, Redberg's expression moves closer to how you might imagine it looked during those late night viewings of Lone Survivor and American Sniper. "Gabe gave up a lot to follow me out here," she says. "It was a leap of faith for both of us. We just decided we didn't want to live our lives in fear. We asked ourselves, what's the worst that could happen?"

Well, for one, you can show up at a soccer camp filled with young phenoms, some barely sixteen years old, but all playing at a level McKenzie never saw when she was in high school. "I was SO nervous," she shakes her head. "I was eight years older than some of those girls. All I could think was, I'm gonna get my butt kicked here."

She dragged herself back home – the place she and Gabe were calling home for the time being – and waited for Rhode to give her a call. It was now more than four years since she'd joined the Air Force, having gone from west to east, a self-described "lost soul."

But this time was different. Even if Linus were to call and say thanks-but-no-thanks, she knew things would be okay. That's what leaps of faith will do for you, what finding the right person will as well, how journeys across more state-lines than you can remember can shape you.

Linus called and asked her to drop by his office – and she remembers that being the moment when the nerves really kicked in. The answer had to be no, didn't it? The only reason he wants to meet with me face-to-face is because I made the drive all the way out here. He's just being nice, right?

But there was something Redberg had said to Rhode at the end of the camp that had stuck with him.

"Did I show you what you were looking for?"

She didn't know it at the time – but she had shown him exactly what he was looking for. Oh, and by the way, what soccer player (in her mid-twenties) asks THAT question, using those words, in a straightforward matter-of-fact tone of voice? The next player on the Oregon State women's soccer team, that's who.

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"It was so fulfilling, when Linus told me I'd made the team," she says with a resting smile that's not even in the neighborhood of intense. "It happened. My entire life I'd looked up to these athletes, and now I was one of them! I hadn't even told my parents I'd come out here because I didn't want them to get their hopes up."

Sometimes you don't need to stack the deck. Sometimes - with the right amount of work, discipline and dedication - the itch gets scratched for good. "Oh man, I was so proud of her," Gabe glows, thinking back on it, "no other words to describe it, just proud. And the thing is, she didn't know she could do it."

This is the part of the story where the screenwriter sometimes takes a creative liberty, letting the hero have a slightly bigger moment on the field than they did in real life. But with McKenzie, no creative license is needed. She wouldn't want any, of course – being ex-military, after all. She scored her first goal against Washington on the day before Halloween. But Rhode knew her tenacity and fierce determination would be of most value to the team as a defender, where she's now putting in 50 to 70 minutes a game.

"At first I thought I was gonna be this outcast old lady," McKenzie grins, "but it's been so much better than I could have hoped. Way better. I mean I do feel like the team mom sometimes, I'm always telling the younger players, ‘Make good choices, if you need anything give me a call.' That kind of stuff."

And how have things worked out for Gabe? Well, for starters, there's the wedding that's coming up in June of next year. He's working at Good Sam in Corvallis, while helping McKenzie make plans for physical therapy school. But a funny thing happened on Gabe's journey from east coast, to Ohio, and then out to Corvallis.

"I'm a die-hard Beaver now!" he says from underneath his Oregon State hat, a perfect match for his Oregon State fleece. "I grew up this big-time Georgia football fan. I meet McKenzie and she tells me she grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. I shrug, no clue. Then she tells me, Oregon State University? The Beavers? Nothing. Finally, she rolls her eyes and says: Chad Johnson?"

"Chad Johnson!" his eyes brighten. "No way!" Which is, yes, how Staff Sergeant and Histopathology Technician Gabriel Nix filled his closet with orange and black and became a life-long Oregon State football fan.

So just remember - next time your daughter, or your granddaughter, or any nine-year-old girl you might know - sits down with a tub of raspberries and wants to watch Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd or Megan Rapinoe play a game of soccer…you might want to buckle up. Turns out you can go back home after all.