MLS Soccer

John McGrath: Former Bellarmine Prep star coming home with Tacoma Stars

Danny Waltman has no idea how his dream will turn out. All he knows is that he’s living it.

Waltman was introduced to the Tacoma Stars 28 years ago, at the age of 5. On June 11, on a party deck at Cheney Stadium, the Stars will return the favor by introducing the goalkeeper as the face of a resuscitated franchise.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Waltman said. “I basically grew up in the Tacoma Dome, going to Stars games with my brother. For them to come alive again and for me to be a part of that, wow. It’s like it was meant to be, like it was in the stars.

“Too easy, huh?”

The pun about how the stars are aligned with the Stars was easy and unavoidable. An 11-year veteran of the pro-indoor circuit, Waltman is a Gig Harbor native who honed his skills at Stars summer camps before going on to play at Bellarmine Prep and the University of Washington. His signing with the Stars, reincarnated over the winter as a professional team competing in the Major Arena Soccer League, was the kind of harmonic convergence that finds those privy to it celebrating their good fortune.

But as Branch Rickey used to say, luck is the residue of design.

Waltman won 17 games last season for the Missouri Comets, a MASL powerhouse representing Kansas City. And though he enjoyed everything about his time with the Comets, on and off the field, Waltman made sure his contract contained an out clause: If ever Tacoma rejoined the pro ranks, he was off to Tacoma.

“I knew nothing about Kansas City when I got there and ended up falling in love with it,” he said. “I was ready to make it my home. The Comets were great to me, too. Everything was in place.

“But there was no way I could turn down a chance to play for the Tacoma Stars.”

It would not be an overstatement to equate the Stars as family for Waltman. His physician father, Rick, was part of the ownership group of the original Stars, who set an indoor-soccer attendance record —21,728 for a 1987 playoff game against Dallas at the Tacoma Dome — before disbanding in 1992.

“There’s a power about sports, at a local level, that transcends sports,” Rick Waltman said. “A team can have a huge impact on a community, and Danny gets that.

“The 20 home games he went to each season as a kid were the 20 best nights of his life, but the connection the players had with the public went beyond the games. They made hospital visits and talked at schools. That’s what Danny wants to do here and I’m inspired by him, because it was a brave decision. He could have stayed in place — Missouri is loaded, they’re the team to beat — but he chose to go with his heart.”

Despite the acquisition of an accomplished goalkeeper anxious to serve a dual role as the team’s most public ambassador, the Stars are a work in progress. On Jan. 14, owner Lane Smith acquired the assets of the MASL’s doomed-by-a-weird-sideshow Seattle Impact, but not their players. The Stars finished the 2014-15 MASL season schedule with the semi-pros who won the Western Indoor Soccer League championship.

In other words, Stars coach and general manager Darren Sawatzky has an entire roster to fill before the November season opener at the ShoWare Center in Kent. While Sawatzky understands the challenge, he also knows there’s a first brick to every building.

Danny Waltman is that brick.

“Goalkeepers float out there on their own terms,” said Sawatzky, a Huskies assistant coach during Waltman’s collegiate career. “They’re quirky, definitely not what you’d call ‘normal,’ and Danny fits the description. It’s what I love about him. He plays with a passion that excites fans.

“Indoor soccer is different from outdoor soccer. Indoor soccer is all about action and entertainment. Danny entertains and yet has ability to anticipate shots and give cues to the defense.”

An obvious crimp to the feel-good story of Waltman’s return to the Tacoma area is his age: When the Stars take the field for their ShoWare Center opener in November, he’ll be 34.

At 34, team-sport athletes usually are in the down-cycle phase of their careers.

“Not so much for goalkeepers,” said former Stars standout Joe Waters, Waltman’s high-school coach at Bellarmine. “Guys get older and lose a half-step, you can see it. But a goalkeeper doesn’t run around. He relies on his experience and savvy, knowing what angles to take. The best of them can play well into their late 30’s.”

As for Waltman, he’s still nimble enough to perform signature pregame back flips in the acrobatic style of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

“Maybe I’ll try one now and then, I don’t know,” Waltman said in an understandably pensive tone. A 34-year old performing a pregame back flip can irritate some coaches.

Assured Sawatzky: “If Danny wants to back flip for our fans, he can back flip. We’re about entertainment.”

For somebody who fell in love with the Tacoma Stars as a child and waited three decades to play for them, one back flip will say it all.

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