When he took up smoking at the age of six, Luis Robles was just trying to be cool.
"Growing up in southeast Arizona like I did, you can't really help but see the cowboy thing, the way it gets glorified," the Red Bulls goalkeeper told us over the phone earlier this week. "At school, they always told us that we shouldn't try to be like the Marlboro man. But I wanted to be like the Marlboro man, full stop. He had the dopest hat. Just a huge, huge hat."
"I wanted that dope hat to basically, like, envelop my whole body like a womb."
But smoking at six years old? What could have enabled such a thing as that?
"There really wasn't much else to do, really. It was just a lot of hanging out in parking lots, staring contests with stray dogs, window-shopping for spittoons," he recalled. "Pretty typical upbringing, I guess. And everybody smoked. Everybody. It felt like a given. Even Old Nan from down at the seed-feed store smoked unfiltered reds through her larynx surgery neckhole. Sheriff Broadfoot always gave out Zippos and Camel Cash coupons on Halloween."
"Honestly, now that I think about it," he said, "Sheriff Broadfoot was a camel."
The downward spiral into a world of mesothelioma, a cascade of cancers, and the ever-expanding sense of social alienation that is a function "cigarette culture" seemed assured for young Luis. But then, when it came time for him to head off to play soccer in college, something amazing happened.
He moved to Portland.
"This was a game-changer. See, I had no idea what vaping was before I moved to Oregon. Luckily, every Portland citizen is willing to take the time to provide a really, really detailed explanation of why vaping is great and how it helped them quit cigs and why it's such a big part of their social and spiritual lives," he told us.
"In fact, most people in Portland will explain all of this without even being asked."
"My friend Bhodi, who was a backup winger for us at U. Portland, gave me my first 'e-cigarette.' I told myself, hey, since I was spending most of my housing budget on American Spirits, it was worth exploring."
But the transition, we learned, was anything but easy.
"I started to use the vape pen, but only in the shadows. I just wasn't sure I had it in me to be a 'Vaper.' But the more I learned about this amazing culture," Robles said, "I came to love it. Puffing on that sweet-ass juice, it was like I was smoking a tube full of hopes and dreams."
Of course, we all know what happened after Robles graduated from college. He became a champion.
With Kaiserslautern and later with Karlsruher, Robles was a frequent champion of the mid-table of Germany's second division. Then, with the elite New York Red Bulls, he reached even greater heights, winning the MLS Supporters' Shield two times, which is basically a championship if you ignore the rules of MLS and pretend that the league is really the German second division, which Red Bulls fans are known to do with a heady combination of pride and stately grace. Don't let anyone tell you that RBNY fans have a chip on their shoulder, or some kind of intense, feverish inferiority complex. No, sir.
"My name is Luis Robles, and I love to vape," he said. "It's such a huge part of who I am, and it's something that I want to share with all of my people. I vape before every game; it's what gives me my killer instinct out there on the field."
But what's his favorite vape juice flavor? There are tons to choose from, sure. There's even a Red Bull flavor! Seriously! That's got to be his go-to, right?
"Actually, the Red Bull vape juice tastes like disappointment plus anonymity. Also, I pick up some fruity notes in there. Nectarines. Stone fruits, I think they call it. But for my money, the best e-juice product is the 'Donkey Puff,' the Guy Fieri flavor. I am so totally down with Donkey Puff. I mean, I take one big drag, and it's like, welcome to FlavorTown."
Luis Robles and the Red Bulls take on local foes New York City FC this Sunday. We can't say who will win, but one thing is already certain:
He isn't blowing smoke. He's blowing life.
In so, so many ways, Robles has already won.
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