ST. PETERSBURG — Sean Fitzgibbon looked over his son’s shoulder from the stands at Al Lang Stadium as Lucky Mkosana jogged up to the wall between the seats and the field.
“Kai,” Mkosana called out, directing his attention to Fitzgibbon’s son. Wearing his white Louisville City road uniform, his forehead gleaming in sweat, Mkosana smiled as he reached out for the younger Fitzgibbon’s hand after his club tied the Rowdies 1-1 on April 13.
Mkosana’s relationship with the Fitzgibbon family extends to 2013, when the Zimbabwean striker played for Tampa Bay. Mkosana, 31, spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Rowdies.
Sean, a medical practitioner specializing in orthotics and prosthetics, began following the Rowdies in 2012. At the time, Kai was 6 years old and looked to the team as inspiration for his play on the soccer field.
So when Mkosana walked into Sean’s office in St. Petersburg, Sean was a bit surprised.
Team doctors had referred Mkosana to Sean for his struggles with turf toe. The two met as patient and practitioner, but their relationship grew.
Sean, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg native living in Seminole, maintained regular contact with Mkosana, often checking in on his injured foot but also sharing personal notes about his life and fandom. The Fitzgibbon family had season tickets, attending nearly every Rowdies game from 2012-2018.
Sean invited Mkosana and his Rowdies teammates to lead training sessions with Kai’s club. Kai and Mkosana formed a special bond, regularly passing a ball back and forth at those sessions.
Mkosana left the Rowdies after the 2014 season, signing a contract with the New York Cosmos.
“We followed him as he left for New York,” Sean said. “Any time he came into town for games, we would go to those games for sure.”
Last year Mkosana joined Penn FC, and he started this season with Louisville City. Each time he played in St. Petersburg, he made it a point to find the Fitzgibbon family and take a new photo with Kai, now 13.
“He’s just such a classy human being,” said Sean, who traded occasional messages over Facebook Messenger with Mkosana after he left the Rowdies. “He’s so approachable.”
Last month, Louisville City came calling for Antoine Hoppenot, a forward who couldn’t crack the Rowdies’ starting lineup.
“I just chanced by (Louisville) that we’d be willing to let (Hoppenot) go if they would give us Lucky,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “I didn’t think they would be open to that.”
Louisville was. A June 28 trade sent Mkosana, a finisher with four goals on the season, back to the Rowdies, who travel to Pittsburgh for a game against the Riverhounds on Saturday night.
“It was obviously unexpected,” Mkosana said. “In Louisville, I signed there for two years, and then all of a sudden I hear I’m in a trade.”
Mkosana and the Rowdies have transformed since his departure. Mkosana, responsible for putting balls in the back of the net, has sharpened his focus on physical conditioning. The Rowdies moved from the NASL to the USL and changed owners last offseason, from Bill Edwards to the Rays.
“I missed this atmosphere during the games,” Mkosana said. “The community feeling here, I missed that.”
Mkosana said the supporters in Tampa Bay play a big role in developing the community he has come to love.
“The relationship that we have with the fans, it goes a long way,” Mkosana said. “Ever since I left, I kept in touch with most of them. That shows that they care about the players and not just the club.”
The Fitzgibbon family opted out of their season tickets this year, choosing to keep an eye on the team from home. The trade to bring back Mkosana encouraged the family to re-up their ticket package.
“There were a lot of ‘yays’ and screaming and jumping up and down in our house that day (of the trade),” Sean said. “To have (Mkosana) home is awesome. He’s a Rowdie.”
In his first game back with the Rowdies, on June 29, Mkosana set up the winning goal against Ottawa. His assist to Sebastian Guenzatti in second-half stoppage time gave the Rowdies a 2-1 win and sent fans into a frenzy.
“Coming back was amazing,” Mkosana said. “It’s like I never left.”
Rowdies at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. Saturday