It all started for Craig Forrest at a lacrosse game, not on a soccer pitch.
“I was in Ontario with my lacrosse team and a teammate who played goalkeeper on our local under-12 soccer team was going to miss a tournament back in B.C. His parents wanted to take an RV trip across the country back home and they wouldn’t be back in time. So they asked me if I wanted to give it a shot. Never tried soccer before. Nothing. They just threw me in there. That’s how I began my soccer career,” Forrest told Sportsnet.
That first game didn’t go so well for Forrest.
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“It was a nightmare—a nightmare. The very first goal I conceded was terrible. A guy broke in on me and I quickly ran out to challenge him and he chipped it over my head from the top of the 18-yard box. First lesson learned,” Forrest laughed.
Forrest, now 48, would eventually get the hang of the goalkeeper position and go on to become one of the greatest soccer players this country has ever produced. On Wednesday evening in Toronto, Forrest will be officially inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, becoming only the fifth soccer player to be so honoured.
“I’m touched by the whole thing. It’s a sport that’s not traditionally Canadian, if you like. Soccer isn’t a sport that has a lot of representation in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame over the years, so it’s nice to be recognized,” Forrest said.
He also hopes his induction can inspire young kids to take up sports, regardless of which one they choose to play.
“For me, it’s about getting involved in sports, period. If it happens to be soccer, great. I hope my example can inspire kids to get involved, and just enjoy sports—getting out there and having fun, because it’s such a great thing in terms of learning valuable life lessons that you’ll always remember,” Forrest offered.
For Forrest, the biggest life lessons began as a 16-year-old when he travelled to England and signed a two-year apprenticeship with Ipswich Town. On his own in a foreign country as a teenager, Forrest had to grow up and mature pretty quickly.
“There was no language barrier to overcome or culture shock. But it wasn’t easy. I felt homesick and times. You have to remember there was no Internet, Facebook, Skype or any of the social media back then. So you were pretty much isolated and cut off from your family. In 1984, it cost a buck a minute to call England. My mom got a job just to pay for the phone bills,” Forrest said.
Ipswich sent Forrest on loan to Colchester United, where he made his professional debut during the 1987-88 season. He returned to Ipswich where he played 14 seasons and made over 300 appearances, helping the team win promotion to the Premier League in 1992.
Amazingly, Forrest was one of only 11 active foreign players in the Premier League that season—a far cry from today where foreigners dominate starting line-ups of the biggest clubs in the English topflight. After a short loan with Chelsea at the end of the 1996-97 campaign, Forrest joined West Ham United in 1997.
His greatest success, though, came while playing for his country. Forrest was an integral part of the Canadian side that won the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup, still the only major tournament Canada has won at the senior level. Forrest was named to the Gold Cup’s all-star team, and was named the tournament MVP—he only gave up three goals and stopped two penalty shots in five games.
Forrest cites Frank Yallop, a former teammate at Ipswich and on the Canadian national team, as one of the biggest influence on his career.
“He helped me a lot in terms of settling into life in England as a 16-year-old. He took me under his wing when I first got to Ipswich, and without him I don’t know what would’ve have happened. He was very supportive in very tough times for me,” Forrest recalled.
Forrest earned 56 caps for Canada from between 1988 and 2002. He still holds the Canadian shutout record, posting 19 clean sheets.
In 2001, Forrest was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He beat the illness, but was forced to retire from the game in 2002, prematurely cutting short his career—although he was 35 at the time, goalkeepers usually play until their late 30s, or even early 40s.
“Sometimes I think about what might have been. But other times I think about athletes who had their careers cut short for other reasons, and who were much younger and didn’t have the same opportunities as I did. To get to 35 and do what I did, I look back on it in a positive way. No bitterness,” Forrest said.
After retiring, Forrest started working as a soccer pundit in Canada. He currently serves as a soccer analyst for Sportsnet, allowing him to stay intimately connected to the sport he loves.
“It’s been great because I’ve stayed involved in soccer without that umbilical cord being cut, unlike so many athletes do. It can be very tough for athletes once their careers are over because their sport is all they’ve known. So I’ve been very fortunate in that regard,” Forrest said.
Gerry Dobson, Forrest’s long-time broadcast partner at Sportsnet, characterized the former goalkeeper’s transition from player to media pundit as seamless during an interview with Sportsnet.ca earlier this year.
“Whether it was for Canada or Ipswich or West Ham, he always wore the jersey with pride and was an incredible shot stopper. But more important than that, he’s a generous and standup guy who believes in soccer and growing the game in Canada. I’m honoured to call him a friend,” Dobson said.
Former NHL star Paul Coffey, freestyle skier Jennifer Heil and women’s hockey player Danielle Goyette are among the other members of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015.
“You don’t really get a chance to meet people from other sports that often. I watched Paul Coffey as a kid growing up, so to meet him and get to go into the Hall with him, that’s pretty special,” Forrest said.