Rob Gillespie and his son at a D.C. United game Credit: Courtesy Kim Kolb

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For someone fighting leukemia, who’s had his life savings drained, been forced into early retirement, moved across the country, and had to resort to crowdfunding his lifesaving treatment, “lucky” isn’t the first word that would come to mind.

But even as his life has been turned upside down, Robert Gillespie sees himself as one of the luckier ones.

“I’m very aware that I’m quite fortunate,” Gillespie says. “I tell people that I’m kind of a victim of my success. I stay alive but it’s cost me everything I had.”

It may be unfair to call Gillespie lucky. He’s clearly experienced plenty of misfortune, and his “success,” as he calls it, can be categorized as luck of the self-made variety, if anything.

Gillespie, or “Big Rob” as he’s widely known, is one of the founding members of D.C. United supporters group La Barra Brava. Nearly 25 years after he joined, his association with one of American soccer’s pioneering pillars of supporters culture hasn’t just made him a major part of the D.C. soccer community. It’s keeping him alive. 

Whether that’s a heartwarming tale of a community stepping up to save one of its own or a damning indictment of our country’s healthcare system depends on your perspective. 

Or, more likely, it’s both.

In the early days of Major League Soccer, the league wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. Soccer was barely on the radar in the U.S. when the league began in 1996, so MLS attempted to Americanize its product. There were American-style team names, a clock that counted down instead of up, and shootouts to eliminate the very un-American concept of a tie game. 

As the league tried to reach soccer-resistant fans, there was one team that showed there was a major appetite for the game in all its unfettered glory: D.C. United. What made United stand out, aside from its huge success on the field, was its supporters culture. 

The Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava were a boisterous, unending source of support for United, shaking the stands at RFK Stadium by bouncing, drumming, and singing all game long, while also organizing travel to away matches. The team was American, but its supporters groups were more akin to those found in Europe or South America.

“We were always early in the league looking for authenticity,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen says. “To have a fanbase that understood the pageantry and the energy and the songs and for them to put that type of atmosphere for us, we felt authentic.”

Olsen is inextricably linked to D.C. United’s past and present. He joined United in 1998 and spent nearly his entire playing career with the club. In 2010 he took over as the team’s head coach, a position he still occupies.

In those early days, fans, particularly those in prominent positions in supporters groups, enjoyed a close relationship with D.C. United players. There was one particular fan that stood out to Olsen.

He’s so recognizable, you could never miss him,” Olsen says of Gillespie. “He was always in the front row and always with a big smile on his face and that big beautiful bald head of his.”

“Super warm, super positive,” Olsen continues. “Rob was never a guy if things weren’t going well to go toward the negative. If the team looked like shit, at least with me he was always super supportive, very encouraging, looking on the bright side.”

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Gillespie, 54, played a major role in the growth of the Barra, organizing trips to away matches, tailgates at home games, charity events, and working to sort out issues the group had with security at games. 

“He’s one of the guys who really set the tone in the early days for what the Barra would become,” says Jay Igiel, one of the current leaders of the Barra. “In the early days it was easier to have a personal relationship with a lot of the players and Big Rob had that with a lot of the players and a lot of the front office staff. Because of that I think the team and the league had a great idea of what the supporters could mean for the team and for the league.”

Gillespie gave a boost to United countless times over the years. But more recently, those roles have been reversed.

It all started with a torn rotator cuff in 2012. Gillespie went in for a routine pre-surgical visit and quickly heard from his doctor. She needed Gillespie to come in right away.

“I said I can probably be in some time next week,” Gillespie recalls. “And she said, ‘No I need you to come in today.’”

The diagnosis was chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a treatable but incurable form of cancer.

Gillespie says he owned two homes in the D.C. area and he had nearly a million dollars saved up. But his treatments, though partially covered by insurance, were costly. 

“I spent all the money that I spent 32 years saving,” Gillespie says. “It really drains you fast.”

As his treatments continued, Gillespie says there were several setbacks. The cancer affected some cells around Gillespie’s heart, which required heart surgery, while two new forms of cancer developed and necessitated surgery to remove tumors.

In 2016, Gillespie was forced to leave the D.C. area and move to Oregon to be closer to family. He is a single parent, and his frequent treatments meant he needed help raising his son, who is now 12.

As his money ebbed away, some of Gillespie’s friends started a fundraiser for his treatment on GoFundMe—an all-too-common occurrence in a country where two-thirds of all bankruptcies are tied to medical issues. Like countless Americans, Gillespie says the generosity of others means the difference between life and death.

“It kills him to be in a position now where he has to rely on other people’s donations to help fund his medical treatments,” Igiel says.

Gillespie’s cancer requires constant upkeep. He flies to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston every month for what he calls “maintenance chemo,” which his form of leukemia requires. 

As he’s continued fundraising over the years Gillespie’s message has been amplified by D.C. United, soccer fans all over the country and by several players themselves. 

“I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I think if I had been a regular fan of D.C. United, I don’t think I would get this support,” Gillespie says. 

The largest donation Gillespie has ever received came from U.S. national team forward Jozy Altidore, a player who has no connection to Gillespie or D.C. United. The second largest came from Olsen.

“There’s a lot of people reaching out to support Rob with the club, and individuals have done what they can but really he’s just an absolute warrior,” Olsen says.

Gillespie’s fight couldn’t happen without the support of others. It’s a scenario that’s produced an odd dichotomy: a man who’s been extremely unlucky who can simultaneously feel incredibly fortunate. 

“The vast majority of people who try to fundraise for medical expenses don’t reach their targets. It’s a very small percentage of people who are successful,” Gillespie says. “There’s no doubt that my relationship with D.C. United and with the Barra Brava and other supporters groups are a big reason why I’ve been successful.”

Gillespie’s soccer connections, positivity and infectious personality have been his saving grace. It’s a story worth savoring, but one that also comes with a major caveat.

“It shows one of the best things about our country is everyone rallying behind him, supporting him, doing everything they can to help him,” Igiel says, “and also one of the worst things about this country is that somebody like him could be in this position.”