By SCOTT PURKS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002
The last time Bryce Wegerle's name appeared in the Times was in May 2001 in a listing of Gaither graduates.
It almost doesn't seem real. Barely more than a year ago, he was leading Gaither to a state final before losing 1-0 to Orange Park on penalty kicks.
A few weeks later, he was named the Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year after scoring a school-record 24 goals, including five in seven playoff games.
Then he signed a scholarship to James Madison, and then ...
"And then I decided to take an offer to pursue my dream of playing professional soccer," he said. "And that offer happened to be in Italy (in the Seriea League, which some argue is the best in the world)."
He was signed by Italian recruiters who just happened to be in Florida when Wegerle played in a club game. They saw him play, and just like that, they wanted to make a deal.
The signing was something few Americans, especially one fresh out of high school, have ever done.
Undaunted, Wegerle went to Udine, Italy, to play for Udinese's reserve team, which is roughly the equivalent of playing for the Yankees Triple A team and getting called up to the big leagues for a cup of coffee every now and then.
"And that," Wegerle's former Black Watch club coach Kelvin Jones said, "is truly remarkable.
"For people who don't follow soccer it might be difficult to appreciate, but making the jump to that level speaks volumes about his talent, which we've always said is off the charts.
"If he wants to keep working at it, he'll probably do just what he wants to do, which is play professional soccer for a living for a long, long time."
His dad, Steve Wegerle, played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and his uncle, Roy Wegerle, played for several professional teams and in the 1998 World Cup for the United States.
"He has some of the best soccer advisers anyone would want to have," Jones said. "Hopefully he will listen to what they have to say."
It appears Wegerle has done that along with some soul searching on his own. When he first got to Italy, he admitted it wasn't all peaches and cream.
"It was hard, real hard," he said from California where he was training with the U.S. under-20 national team. "I had this image of how great and fun all of it would be, and well, I learned this is a serious job.
"A job that you have to work very, very hard at. It's very competitive among the players, who are all trying to make the team. Most of it isn't glamorous at all. ...
"So for a little while there, I got real nostalgic and wanted to go home. I missed my friends.
"I didn't want to train. I made excuses and said I was hurt. I really just had a bad attitude.
"But then one day I said, "What are you doing?' And I sat myself down and said, "This is what you said you wanted to do. You said you wanted to be a professional soccer player. So you're going to have to start acting like a professional."'
And he did.
During the past four months, he has "Turned it around," scoring 12 goals in 11 games, a feat the team's president noticed. Now, about a month before he's scheduled to return to Italy, it appears Wegerle is on the verge of signing a four- to five-year contract to play with the Udinese "A" team.
"I realized you can't have a bad attitude one week and a good one the next," Wegerle said. "You can't do that in your job. And this is my job."
Besides the social and heavy training adjustments, he said the style of play is different. "Very sophisticated, very tactical.
"You kind of don't understand it at first but after a while you see how it helps. It's very, very different from what we did in Florida."
And finally, they have switched his position, from midfielder (the team's quarterback) to an "attacante," an attacking forward.
"I don't like it one bit, I'm a midfielder," Wegerle said. "But they see me as a big (185 pounds), tall (6 feet 2), fast forward who can score a lot of goals.
"I tried to discuss it with the coach in Italian, but I don't think I got my point across.
"Every team is looking for someone who can score goals, and that's the way they see me. But I see myself as a midfielder, a guy who handles the ball more. I still don't like it one bit.
"But I guess you have to do what you have to do."