Editor’s note: After leading the United States to the 2019 Women’s World Cup title on July 7, 2019, Megan Rapinoe gave her brother Brian a birthday shout-out on national TV. This story, on their complicated relationship, was originally posted on June 27, 2019.
DAYS BEFORE THE first game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Brian Rapinoe jokingly texted his sister, Megan Rapinoe — co-captain and star midfielder for the U.S. women’s national team: “Megs, breaks my heart that you couldn’t fly me out for an all-expenses-paid trip to France.” She shot back: “Oh yeah, so sad I couldn’t pamper you for a month in France.”
An hour before kickoff against Thailand on June 11, the rest of the Rapinoe family found their seats in the Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims; Brian charged his ankle monitor and rounded up the other guys in the dormitory at San Diego’s Male Community Reentry Program, a rehabilitative program that allows an inmate to finish the final 12 months of his sentence taking classes or working jobs outside of prison.
The MCRP common room might not be France, but it’s a vast improvement over solitary confinement, where Brian has watched Megan play in the previous two World Cups. He sat on a couch in his red USA jersey, watching on a 60-inch flat-screen, and felt “f—ing great.” He had accomplished a major goal for himself: to get out of prison in time to watch his kid sister play in her third World Cup.
Every time the U.S. scored, the room full of men cheered loudly. Nobody there thought the U.S.’s 13 goals against Thailand and exuberant celebrations after each were done in poor taste. “This is what soccer should always be like,” one man said.
“It’s the World Cup: There’s no f—ing holding back,” 38-year-old Brian says. “This is every four years.”
And his sister didn’t hold back. When Megan scored goal No. 9 for the U.S., she sprinted to the sideline, spun around twice and then slid to the ground for a foot-kicking celebration. As the camera zoomed in on her, one of the guys yelled, “Holy s—, it’s Brian!”
He has the same face as his sister.
The face, the charisma, the wit, the tendency to burst into song: In so many ways, Brian and Megan are alike. But they are also a study in contrasts: At 15 years old, Brian brought meth to school and has been in and out of incarceration ever since. At 15, Megan played with her first youth U.S. national team and started traveling the world. As a young inmate and gang member, Brian was inked with swastika tattoos — an allegiance to white supremacy that he now disavows; as a professional soccer player, Megan was the first prominent white athlete to kneel to protest racial inequality.
Despite their different paths, the brother and sister have stayed close through letters, phone calls and texts. “I have so much respect for her. And not just because she’s the s— at soccer. It’s her utter conviction in the things that she believes in and the stances she takes against injustices in the world,” he says.
“I was her hero, but now — there’s no question — she is mine.”
GROWING UP, MEGAN and her twin sister, Rachael, adored Brian. He was their hero, the charismatic jokester who did Jim Carrey and Steve Urkel impressions and danced ridiculous dances. The girls had three other siblings, but he could make them laugh harder than anyone else could. He taught them how to catch crawfish in the creek, walked them to the patch of field across from the church and taught them soccer until his mother called them in with a two-finger whistle. In the side yard, he set up cones and showed his 4-year-old sisters how to dribble the ball — with the inside of the foot only, with the outside of the foot only, left and then right. “And it wasn’t like he drilled them. He let them do it their own way,” says his mother, Denise Rapinoe, her voice cracking. “It was just the cutest thing, and we remember it so clearly.”
In elementary school, like her brother, Megan was rough and tumble, and spoke her mind. Her second-grade teacher’s aide pulled Denise aside to relay the following scene: Megan came in from the playground, walked into the classroom, stood with her arms on her hips and announced, “Brian Rapinoe is my brother, and I am just like him!”
“I worshipped him,” Megan says. “He played left wing, so I played left wing. He wore No. 7; I wore No. 7. He got a bowl cut, so I did too.”
So when Brian first started smoking marijuana as a 12-year-old, a 7-year-old Megan was confounded. Why was he doing that? Brian still doesn’t know for sure. “Right from the start, I was hooked,” he says. “One drug always led to the next.” He was also attracted to the “fast life,” he says, to getting high, to driving nice cars and to the “hype around this lifestyle.” She wanted him to stop, and she was still young enough to think there was something she could do. Three years later, when her parents sat her and Rachael down and told them the police had arrested Brian for bringing meth to school, she cried. He was going to juvenile detention. She did not understand: What had happened to her big brother?
“For many years, Megan and Rachael were pissed as hell,” Brian says. “They still loved me, they still let me know they were there for me, but they were like, ‘What the f— are you doing?'”
BY 18 YEARS OLD, Brian had moved on to harder drugs — heroin, specifically — and he became more reckless. He was charged with car theft, evading arrest and a hit-and-run while driving under the influence of drugs — and now, as an adult, his juvenile detention days were over. He was sent to prison. Within months, he aligned himself with the white prison gang and was inked with Nazi tattoos. A swastika on his palm; lightning bolts on his fingers, sides and calves.
These tattoos devastated his family. “The prejudice, the racism — it was so against the way he’d been raised,” Denise says. “He wasn’t that kind of kid. He was kind, his nature was so loving.”
To Brian, the swastikas weren’t about prejudice and racism at that point — they were about heroin and survival. To support his addiction, he needed to be, in his words, “an active participant in prison culture.” The California prison system was segregated. That meant Brian lived strictly among the white population. “You come in as a kid, and there are these older dudes you think you respect, spouting ideas, and you kind of listen,” Brian says. “I developed a protect-your-own mentality.”
He tried to explain that to his mother. The gang was a family, he said; it was a place to belong. “I told him, ‘This is not who we are,'” Denise says. “‘This is not who you are.'”
Megan was as heartbroken as her mother. “I thought [the tattoos] were horrible,” she says. “I still think they’re horrible. I could rationalize them: I understood that when he first got in there, he was searching for identity, trying to survive.”
But the big brother she had worshipped? It felt like she had lost him.
BRIAN BECAME HEAVILY involved in gang life and racked up charges while doing time: possession of drugs, possession of a deadly weapon, three assaults on other white inmates. He spent eight of his 16 years in prison in solitary confinement for this behavior. By 2007 — as he was turning 27 years old — he was transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, the state’s only super-max-security prison.
While general population is segregated, solitary confinement is not, and every inmate gets one hour out of his cell to walk the pod. Here, the protect-your-own thinking began to fall away for Brian. “You start relating to people beyond your hood, your area, your color,” he says. “It doesn’t take long before you start talking with each other, seeing how much you have in common. Back there, it’s just you in the cell, and the man next to you is just a man himself.”
There’s no radio, no television in the individual cells in the hole. Sitting in a cement box, counting the number of holes in the perforated door is “hard; it’s definitely hard,” he says. “But you find a way to escape. You’ve got books, you’ve got writing, some guys draw. And you develop these relations with other people, these connections.”
Three times a week, inmates also get three hours outside, albeit in his own cage. “In the yard, you start talking [to other guys] — sports, music, my sister is always a big ice-breaking conversation. You say [to them], ‘When we go back in from yard, you can look at my pictures,’ or you say, ‘Here’s something I wrote.’ Maybe you become good friends — like me and Monster did.”
Monster, also known as Sanyika Shakur, is a Black nationalist and the author of the bestseller, Monster: Autobiography of an LA Gang Member. He and Brian were on the same pod for two years. Using a line and a weight, they’d send each other long letters from cell to cell, fishing for them beneath the doors. Brian shared the song lyrics he wrote; Monster let him read drafts of his articles and essays. For years, Brian had been a serious reader, consuming everything from the classics, to books about social issues. He’d read The New Jim Crow and learned about how police disproportionately search Black men and arrest them for nonviolent drug offenses, and how the War on Drugs decimated communities of color.
“He taught me what it means to be racist,” Brian says, “and he taught me what it means not to be racist.”
By 2010, the now 30-year-old had a new understanding of what the white supremacist insignias represented. He had his face tattoos lasered off. The swastika on his palm became a spider web; the Nazi lightning bolts became skulls. He did not want any racial insignias on his skin. They did not reflect who he was. But he was still using heroin — and the next year, he was arrested for selling it.
Brian was behind bars once again — this time at Donovan State Prison in San Diego.
IN JUNE 2011, Brian had something new to talk about during his hour walking the pod: His little sister was playing in her first World Cup — and he was going to get everybody to watch.
The 15-inch television was at the other end of the hallway, some 50 yards away. He built a tower out of 60 books and tied them together with torn sheets. Sitting on top of it, he could just see the TV through the window in the door. In an early game against Colombia, Megan roped in a goal, then immediately sprinted to the corner flag, grabbed a cameraman’s mic and sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The guys got a kick out of this because Brian was the singer on the pod, and this flamboyant corner-flag serenade was so like him.
Days later, ahead of the quarterfinals against Brazil, all 30 cells on top and all 30 cells on bottom were watching, everybody perched at their doors. Megan — young and audacious with her signature short blonde hair — subbed in at the end of the game, and in extra time, sure enough — boom! — she sent a 50-yard cross-field ball to U.S. forward Abby Wambach, who headed it home to tie the game. “We were going wild,” Brian says. “We were yelling and pounding on the doors.”
Later that night, on the prison pay phone, Brian talked with his mom. She described the end of the game, how Megan, having just experienced the craziest, most awesome moment of her life, walked to the stands and stood there, searching through the some 20,000 faces for her mom’s. Denise put her two index fingers in her mouth and let out her trademark whistle — the same whistle she had used when they were kids. She had to do it a second and then a third time before Megan could hear her. Megan tapped her ear. “She was letting me know she heard me,” Denise told Brian at the time, choking up — which made Brian choke up a little, too. He could imagine it.
“Not being there — it hurt,” Brian says.
Another four years passed. This time he was in solitary confinement because of his violent record at the Vista Detention Facility, a lower-security prison, in San Diego County — and Megan was headed to Canada for her second World Cup. The women would end up winning it all, the first time the team had done so since 1999.
“That was the hardest,” Brian says. “I was super happy for Megs and super sad for myself. I fricking love my family so much. They were all there. It was like, f—, man, I’m like not really even a part of this. Yeah, I got a lot of support for her in prison, but when the game is over and the ruckus has died down, I’m sitting in my cell. I’m not there to give her a hug, I’m not there to witness it, I’m not there to be a part of it. It’s just another thing in their lives that I’m missing out on. What the f— am I doing with my life?”
Brian was almost 35 years old. He had spent more than half of his adult life incarcerated.
ON SEPT. 1, 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial profiling, Brian was briefly out of prison — although he was still using heroin. Three days later, Megan kneeled in support while playing for her club team, the Seattle Reign. Then, while playing for the U.S., she did it again.
Brian saved the newspaper article with the picture of her solemn, angled-down face. He watched the YouTube videos of the coverage. He thought, Hell yeah. He also read the comments: “If she was on my team, I’d knock this idiot out. She should be banned from the national squad for life. Such disrespect.” He understood that she would anger people, understood the impending fallout. He knew that enrollment in her summer camps and sales of her clothing brand, Be Your Best You, would go down. He thought, My sister is brave; my sister is bad ass.
Like every time before, Brian’s freedom proved to be short-lived. By July 2017, he was back up north in Pelican Bay. Back to the regimented, day-to-day prison routine. Where tomorrow is the same as today. His whole life had been a habitual rut; Megan’s anthem protest felt like the opposite of that. Her stance showed him there is a way to put a foot down on something in life, in spite of the fallout that will come.
Not long after, he had a breakthrough. His cellmate was helping him inject heroin into the back of his neck when the needle broke. “I freaked out on him, really lost it,” Brian says. “And he said to me, ‘Look at how you are acting right now.'” And for whatever reason, those words torpedoed into Brian and transformed into personal questions he asked himself. Your whole happiness and peace of mind is focused on this dirty-ass hypodermic needle: Is this what you want? Do you want this cell and this bulls— powerful persona to be all you are?
He thought about the seven murders he’d witnessed out on the yard. He thought about his own knife fights — about everything he’d done and been a part of — just so he could continue to do heroin. He thought about Megan. Look at all she’s done with her life — look at what you’ve done with yours.
That’s when he finally decided he was ready for change. He enrolled in the new self-improvement and rehabilitation classes the California prison system had begun to offer. Each completed class reduced time from his sentence.
Most importantly, after using and selling drugs for 24 years, Brian quit — and he’s been clean for 18 months.
“If I do drugs,” he says, “I will go back to prison. I didn’t believe that for a long time. Now, I believe that — I don’t ever want to go back.”
TODAY IS BRIAN’S first day at San Diego City College. As part of the Male Community Reentry Program, he’s taking classes to finish up the final year of his sentence, and he has some butterflies. “It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to school — even when I was in school, it was juvenile hall — I’ve never taken anything except regular math. I’ve never even taken algebra.”
Plus, he says, it’s a little unnerving to sit in a classroom with 18-year-olds whose experiences have been drastically different from his own. He’s self-conscious about his tattoos — particularly his neck tattoo, SHASTA, inscribed in large gothic letters, the name of the county in which he grew up. “These tattoos, I freaking hate them,” Brian says.
But he also knows those tattoos could matter again in the future. He wants to get involved in the juvenile delinquency program, wants to talk to anybody who might be about to jump off the same ledge he did. “These tattoos, it’s gonna get their attention,” he says. “It’s like, dude, you don’t think I know what I’m talking about?
“I want to make a difference,” he says. “I want to be like Megan.”
He had “a really fricking deep conversation” with her about two months ago. They talked about racial profiling; they talked about police brutality; they talked about what Megan’s kneeling meant to both of them. Megan saw that in spite of their very different paths, they’d arrived at similar conclusions.
“My brother is special,” Megan says. “He has so much to offer. It would be such a shame if he left this world with nothing but prison sentences behind him. To be able to have him out, and to play for him, and to have him healthy, with this different perspective that he has now: This is like the best thing ever.”
While Megan is in France, she and Brian text daily — with game thoughts, encouragement and shared excitement.
“This is one of the most exciting things I can even remember … just everything really, you, the school, the program,” Brian texts.
She replies: “People always ask me what got me into soccer … your wild ass of course.”
“Luckily I played a cool sport. What if I’d been into arm-wrestling or something.”
“Oh lawd, yea you really set me up.”
“Get some sleep — love you.”
“Lovee you Bri! Let’s f—ing go!”
— Freelance writer Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer.