A soccer star from APU, Lenhart went on to have a phenomenal career in the MLS. He also faced a moment that would change his life forever.
The Steven Lenhart we see today is not the same man we saw walking Azusa’s campus over a decade ago.
You could ask anyone who was witness to Lenhart’s impact in Azusa and they would all agree: he was the model competitor and Samaritan. Always had a smile on his face. Took any opportunity he could to give a helping hand. He grew up in an incredibly loving family, one he would later describe as “super ideal.” And, most importantly to him at the time, he was a young man embodied through the spirit of Jesus. This was his worldview.
It would all change for him in 2011. He received a phone call from his mother, who had found her husband, Steven’s dad, dead inside the shower. He had become a victim of suicide.
“My whole life just got flipped on its head. There was just no context for life as it was in that moment,” Lenhart told Sam Stejskal of The Athletic.
From that point on, the perfect, joyful, God-encompassing view that he held close to his heart at APU was no more. In fact, it would never return. He spent years trying to figure out his life after tragedy, and to this day he continuously struggles to fight on after that horrific day.
At the time, the only thing that was allowing him to keep his head up was sports, particularly soccer. Today, sports are still playing that role. However, it is no longer playing that brings such support for Lenhart. Instead, it is physical therapy for sports injuries, particularly in craniosacral therapy – a still scientifically debated hands-on therapy that examines the membranes in and around the central nervous system.
With this, he traveled the world in search of something greater and to clear his psyche. Lenhart bought a 1984 Toyota Dolphin in 2015 and continues to drive it along the West Coast, stopping at several camping sights, spending weeks alone practicing meditation and yoga and experimenting with psychedelics.
Whether it be practicing therapy or finding ways to try and escape his past, there are two motives that are a constant in everything Lenhart does: easing his pain and taking away the pain that others are feeling. Both are a product of his father’s tragedy.
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Lenhart grew up in Yorba Linda, Calif. with his mother, father and three siblings. It was a house centered around the church, yet it was an atmosphere that heavily encouraged physical activity. Snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing were all consistently practiced in the Lenhart house. However, Steven’s most impressive efforts were seen on the pitch.
He was a natural at soccer. In many ways, it grew to become a release of aggression for a young Steven. Off the field, he was a composed and cheerful figure – his background often required him to act in such a manner. On the field, he became a competitive juggernaut. For those 90 minutes, he was given permission to let go of all his societal expectations and be a competitor that can focus on one single mission: getting the ball in the back of the net.
He excelled at Esperanza High School, and he received a scholarship to play at Point Loma Nazarene University only to transfer to Azusa in 2005. Coached by Phil Wolf, Lenhart immediately excelled for the Cougars. During his three years with the program, he played in 61 career games. During that time, he amassed 38 goals along with 12 assists, placing him ninth on the Cougars’ all-time goals list and tenth in career points with 88.
His best campaign for APU was seen in 2007. During that season he scored 16 goals, including 9 game-winning tallies throughout the regular season. He was named an All-American for his efforts. Yet the real magic happened in that season’s NAIA Tournament, where Lenhart scored two game-winning goals in the playoffs, giving him MVP honors for tournament play. It was also enough to conquer Concordia University, Irvine in the final, which gave APU’s men’s soccer program their first-ever NAIA championship.
Yet professional soccer was not something that Lenhart considered. After APU, he made plans to join his friend from Azusa in starting a non-profit bicycle assembly organization in Zambia, Africa. “I never dreamed of playing soccer after college until it just started becoming a reality over the last couple of months,” he said following his time at APU.
In 2008, though, the Columbus Crew of the MLS drafted Lenhart in that year’s MLS SuperDraft. Suddenly, he would be moving to a foreign state in Ohio to compete in the organization’s training camp.
His professional rookie season could not have gone better. His first goal in the MLS occurred on July 21, 2008. He was a substitute in a game against the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy (at the time, LA had both Landon Donovan and David Beckham on their roster). With the Crew down 2-3, Lenhart found the back of the net in the 88th minute and tied the game at three apiece. Once the season ended, Columbus had won the MLS Cup, American soccer’s most prestigious hardware.
After two years in Columbus, he was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes, with allocation money in exchange for the 15th pick in the 2011 SuperDraft. It was near this time when he suffered the loss of his father. It was also the time he would meet Alan Gordon, a former striker of the Galaxy who was traded to San Jose that same year.
Both Gordon and Lenhart resided in Santa Cruz, Calif. Hoping to save money on gas, Gordon asked if Lenhart would want to carpool with him to the Quakes’ training camps. Hesitation persisted from Lenhart, who remained quiet and secluded. But Steven would eventually do so, and when he did, he opened up to Alan unlike he had opened up to anyone before. About his upbringing. About his confusions. About his father.
“He didn’t have God anymore,” Gordon told The Athletic. “He didn’t have something he could believe in to fix these things, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He was experiencing the world as it is. He was learning that it’s okay to admit that there are parts of you that aren’t perfect.”
The two would build a bond both on and off the field. During competition, though, they failed to be beloved by fans outside of San Jose. In fact, it was the opposite. Gordon and Lenhart began to be recognized as two of the most aggressive and dirty players in the MLS. They were the villains, and both seemed to enjoy playing with such a title.
Realistically, the physical style of play brought tremendous success for the Earthquakes in 2012. Led by the all-time leading goal scorer in MLS history, Chris Wondolowski, San Jose won 19 games that season along with accumulating 66 points, which was enough to secure the Supporter’s Shield – a trophy handed to the team who holds the most points by season’s end. If Wondolowski and midfielder Ramiro Corrales were represented as the captains of that team, then Gordon and Lenhart, now recognized under their established nickname the “Bash Brothers,” were the heart and soul.
Nevertheless, Lenhart was still struggling tremendously. He was battling depression, and it grew even more intense following the 2014 season when a series of knee injuries limited his playing time. In 2015-16, despite still being under contract with San Jose, he failed to step on the pitch at all. Suddenly, he retired from the game due to the brutal pain in his knees and his fear of concussion symptoms. He now needed to figure out how to continue life without the game he loved.
His passion for travel led him to Laos, a Southeast Asian country that was holding a month-long Thai massage retreat. He was searching for relief due to the complications of his injuries when he met a French healer that introduced him to craniosacral therapy. While he realized the practice held little scientific merit, it worked for him. It worked so well in fact that he returned to soccer briefly, playing for the Japanese club FC Imabari.
It was a short-lived reunion, as he only appeared for the team four times. Yet, he had now learned that he wanted to place his focus on therapy, something that he believes can play the role of a trusting long-term resolution, and one that helps people escape their pain. During his childhood, faith in God played that role. Yet life led him towards a different path, one that is more applicable to his circumstances. Therapy had become his religion.
I am not blind to the reaction this story might get. Many may be disappointed or sad in Lenhart’s transition, one that managed to lead him away from the Christian faith. Nevertheless, Steven’s story is incredibly important to tell, and perhaps it shows the flaws that exist under the evangelical bubble; a bubble that is especially existent on Azusa’s campus.
Steven felt incredible pressure as a child, leading to a perception that perfection was the only option. That sinning was unacceptable; that falling to temptation was criminal. When those earth-shattering pressures are met with such deep tragedy, they simply won’t last. In fact, it is not healthy for them to last – Lenhart’s story shows this.
And despite his faith deconstruction, Lenhart continued to show an immense passion for helping others through healing. Can any attribute be more relatable to the existence of Jesus than Lenhart’s form of assistance?
No, Steven Lenhart is no longer a man of God. However, he is a man of nurturing. A man who cares. A man of personality and eccentricity. He is fully himself, and there should be no shame in that.