ST. PETERSBURG — He's the Rowdies captain now, and seemingly for every other soccer team he's been on, but growing up in a rugby town could have easily set Tamika Mkandawire onto a different career path.
And by rugby town, it can't be any more literal: the eastern England town where Mkandawire's family moved when he was 3 is indeed called Rugby. The name makes sense as the game was invented there, and all of the official Gilbert rugby balls are made there as well.
So, yes, the Rowdies' 33-year-old Ironman defender could have gone that route.
"I quite enjoyed it, the physicality of it. You can tackle people, the hits as you call them over here," Mkandawire said.
Naturally, he was captain of the Harris High School rugby team.
"I've always enjoyed having the armband," he said.
No kidding. After coming up in the West Brom system, Mkandawire was loaned to Hereford United in 2004 and signed with the club for the next full season. In 2005-2006, captain Tony James was injured and Mkandawire took the armband, and Player of the Year honors as Hereford won a championship.
Not surprisingly, Mkandawire was named captain for the next season as Hereford moved up to the Football League. His success led to a bigger contract, and bigger team, Leyton Orient.
After that team was relegated in the summer of 2014, the Rowdies swooped in and Mkandawire — that's what it says on the back of his jersey for brevity's sake — was United States-bound.
And from the get-go, in 15 fall season appearances, he captained numerous times before getting the permanent role before the current season.
"Ever since I was young, coaches saw something in me I guess," he said. "I've always had good leadership qualities and from the first time I was named captain, I've never looked back."
Apart from leadership Mkandawire has become well known for his desire to stay on the field. He played every minute of the 2015 season.
Finally, in last week's U.S. Open defeat at Columbus, the secret to keeping Mkandawire off the pitch was revealed. He had a nasty stomach bug that had him laid up in bed.
And without their stalwart, the Rowdies were defeated 4-0.
"Watching is not something I particularly enjoy," he said. "To miss out is a big blow for me. Playing is all I know. Match day is what you love and enjoy, and work all week for. To miss out is very difficult for me."
Though he was born in Malawi, Africa, his family moved to England at an early age and Mkandawire is every bit the Brit. And he was the lone British player (head coach Stuart Campbell was born in Corby, England) until two in-season additions of Neil Collins and Joe Cole.
Those moves went over well with Mkandawire.
"Anybody who comes with quality additions and both those guys have that, but you do gravitate towards each other," he said. "Joe, for me, should be playing in the Premiereship. The whole squad is a great group of guys who get on really well. So there's not a British clique as it were. But there are certain things we (British) can say to each other that only you knew growing up in England."
Like where Rugby is located (near the River Avon), or the rules of the sport that never panned out for Mkandawire.
"I was not very good at all. The coach who taught me left, and I kind of lost interest around age 13. I stopped playing rugby and just started playing soccer," he said.