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Listen Up

When Bobby Boswell talks, people listen. They may not believe their ears or like what they hear or have any idea how to respond, but they listen. His is an influential personality, with or without the captain’s armband he has worn proudly on his right bicep throughout much of the season.

When Boswell arrived in Houston in December 2007, he was parting ways with D.C. United — which he had helped lead to back-to-back Supporters’ Shield titles — because of a disagreement with then-head coach Tom Soehn over what Soehn perceived as Boswell’s off-field activities affecting his play. Upon his arrival with the Dynamo, however, Boswell, still only 24, was quickly granted a different level of trust.

“I was kind of surprised when I came in with my locker placement: They put me next to Brian Ching and some of the veteran guys,” Boswell said. “All the young guys were on one side and the more veteran guys were on the other, and I knew right away they expected me to be more of a veteran guy. I still think I’m young — I’m especially young at heart — but I’ve found myself in a leadership role.”

It is a role Boswell has embraced, primarily as what Ching termed a “staple” of the Dynamo’s league-leading defense over the last two years, but also — gradually — as a leader in the locker room. He may be one of the chief pranksters, responsible for more frantic searches for missing car keys than any other player, but he also has gone out of his way to welcome newcomers.

“He took me to dinner and sat me down and showed me the ropes before I got to know everyone,” said midfielder Danny Cruz, who arrived as a 19-year-old rookie in 2009. “For me, it was important that he made me feel accepted and made it all less awkward. I won’t forget that.”
It comes naturally to Boswell, now in his sixth season in Major League Soccer after earning a D.C. United contract as an undrafted free agent in 2005, because he can relate to the younger players just breaking into the league.

“Bobby’s one of those guys who’s great for a team because he interacts with everybody and gets along with everybody; he’s a uniting personality within the team,” says Ching, who rooms with Boswell on road trips. “He’s always looking to tell a story or be part of a story or tell jokes. He’s come into our locker room and fit in so well because of that personality, and the guys take to him. Some of the younger guys look up to him. He’s a people person.”

In the Dynamo locker room, being a people person for Boswell means playing jokes on an almost daily basis, and his targets can be anybody from unsuspecting high school kids from the Dynamo Academy to a World Cup veteran in Ching.

“It’s the little things with the guys around you in the locker room that keep it fresh so it’s not monotonous,” Boswell says. “Whether it’s me putting cookies in Ching’s pockets, and he still hasn’t figured out that it’s me, or guys taping each other’s lockers shut, or taking each other’s keys and hiding them … there are plenty of things you can do.”

Interaction is important to Boswell, seemingly in all aspects of life. He is a Twitter veteran (he recently switched from @littleboswell to @bobbyboswell) and he remains active in the Houston community, spending time at the Houston Zoo and working with a YMCA after-school program. In the offseason, he also went on an Armed Forces Entertainment trip to visit United States troops at bases throughout the Pacific.

These are the types of things that raised his public profile in the first place, especially when publicized in a Cosmopolitan Bachelor of the Year contest and on his own website, which he is not currently maintaining. But since the pushback in D.C., Boswell has clearly pulled back a bit from the limelight.

“Any time you do something in the public spotlight that isn’t related to the sport, people can question your performance on the field versus what you’re doing off the field,” Boswell said. “I’ve tried to take a backseat to doing things off the field, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable in Houston, making good contacts and trying to help in the community a little more.”

That attitude — continuing to participate in community service without making it the focal point of his reputation — certainly fits in well with his Dynamo teammates.

“The guys [in Houston] are so active in the community, and they do it for themselves and the people they’re working with,” Boswell said. “They don’t do it to earn respect or get written up in the newspaper or shown on TV, which speaks volumes for the character of the team.”

Character is undoubtedly something Boswell has brought to the Dynamo, from the locker-room pranks to the fiery on-field desire. As a center back in Houston, Boswell has only missed two starts in league play out of 74 and has also been one of the regulars in cup and international competition. He first wore the captain’s armband for the Dynamo during last year’s run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals, and he has reprised the role much of this season due to Ching’s absence.

“It means a lot,” Boswell said. “It means that you’ve earned the respect of the guys and the coaching staff. … It’s not about me as an individual. I have been asked to step into that role, which is exciting. It’s new and something I’d never done before, but I want to be a guy that stands up for his teammates on and off the field. Hopefully they feel that way about me, because these are my friends and my family, during the season and even when the season’s over. I think maybe that’s the reason I get to wear the armband.”

Boswell’s contributions extend well beyond just standing up for his teammates, although he is quick to step in for support with referees or opponents. He is one of the team’s biggest and loudest communicators on the field, directing teammates and occasionally admonishing them. That Open Cup run ended, after all, with Boswell stamping in exhausted disappointment and frustration after the Dynamo gave up a last-minute goal on the road in Seattle and eventually lost in extra time. Players know they will get an honest report from Boswell.

“He’s the best on the field as far as communicating, along with Pat Onstad,” Cruz said. “Anybody who’s watched us play knows that he’s yelling the entire time. … He makes sure I know what I did wrong or what I did right.”

There are plenty of times, however, when Boswell’s actions speak louder than his words. Long before he was even considered as a candidate to be captain, he made it a point to applaud supporters’ groups and fans throughout the stadium after each game, win or lose, often joined by teammates. It may not be speaking, but it sure is leading, and people tend to pay attention to Bobby Boswell.