A goalless tie between San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake left little to celebrate for many in attendance at Avaya Stadium in week 22, but one west coast native was particularly jubilant, albeit focused on the job he was there to do for the first time this season.
PRO official Mike Rottersman was diagnosed with testicular cancer on February 28, less than a week before the 2018 MLS season got under way. Fast-forward to week 22 and he was back in action, running the line with his flag in hand once again.
“In January, I went to see a physician but he told me it was no big deal, probably just the hardening of a vessel, which of course made me think everything was good,” he said as he began to reveal his story.
“Almost two months went by and I knew something wasn’t right, so I got a second opinion and six days later I was on the operating table having been diagnosed with stage one testicular cancer.
“I was fortunate enough to catch it early, even with the two months I lost, and I was proactive. I had surgery to remove the tumor and began three weeks of chemotherapy a month later.”
Being back on the field is where he belongs, Rottersman says, and he has now begun adding to the 103 MLS games he had worked up until his illness. Week 23’s meeting between Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City, and Week 25’s Seattle Sounders against LA Galaxy match, broadcast nationally, add to his return.
The journey was far from simple though; having turned from a fitness fanatic to someone who couldn’t run a mile, Rottersman was confronted with the toughest challenge of his career.
Three weeks of intense chemotherapy ensured the 41-year-old is now healthy once again, but it was the work he had to go through after it that proved particularly challenging.
“It was shocking. I’ve always been someone who prides myself on fitness and a couple of days after finishing chemotherapy I went on a treadmill with the goal of running a mile – I only managed half,” he explained.
“That was humbling, it was eye-opening. The doctors said I could exercise during chemotherapy but I had no energy or motivation to, so I had to steadily build up and by the end of the first week I could run a mile again.
“It wasn’t unexpected, I knew it wouldn’t be the same but that it would come back. I’m quite young for cancer, so I had a lot of belief in myself that with some work, I could build on that base fitness I’ve always had. It helps that I’m a pretty optimistic person.
“The main thing now is that I’m healthy, cancer-free, and fit. I feel great, so it’s back to normal life for me.”
The fact that he used the words ‘cancer’ and ‘silver linings’ in the same sentence pays testament to just how positive a person Rottersman is – he was talking about the impact the referee community had on him following his diagnosis.
When he found out he would be missing the first games of the season following his visit to the physician, support poured in from officials across the country whether they knew Rottersman as a personal friend, or simply met with him a couple of times a year.
“I joked a lot through my illness because it’s a good way to handle tough situations and it’s who I am. People are really nice to you when you have cancer,” he said with a smirk.
“All of a sudden you start hearing from people you haven’t heard from in a long time, maybe they live out on the East coast and I’ve never worked a game with them, I just see them at Camp every now and then.
“I received some funny gifts too – Brian Dunn sent me a box of cookies because he thought everyone else would be sending flowers and he wanted to be different. That ignited a barrage of text messages between Brian and I to catch up and see how we were doing.
“It’s those silver linings in life, they’re beautiful.”
With the cancer now behind him, as well as being part of a five-year surveillance program to ensure the disease doesn’t return, it’s back to business as usual as an MLS assistant referee.
His support network of fellow soccer officials has been complemented by his family, who have played a vital role in getting Rottersman back on the field, allowing him to continue his dream career.
“I value every game differently because I don’t know how many seasons I have left – it’s not the same as being 30 years old knowing you could have 200 games left in you. The game [San Jose against Salt Lake] was extremely meaningful but it was business as usual. I always expected to be back out on the field, it’s where I belong, so it was just like riding a bike again.
“I have to thank my wife, Hannah, and my mom, who flew out from Chicago to support our family during my chemotherapy. Hannah told me to prioritize getting fit again and she would take care of the rest – anyone who has refereed and balanced a full-time job will understand the sacrifices our families and co-workers make for us.”