Typography

Brent Sancho is in his first season as a player/assistant coach for the Rhinos, but his Rochester connection started about a decade ago.

He knew about the success fellow Trinidad & Tobago native, Craig Demmin, had on championship teams from 1998-2000, and he was happy when boyhood friend Mickey Trotman joined the Rhinos in 2001.

Sancho was with the Portland Timbers in 2001 when he and Trotman went home in early October to play for the T&T national team in a World Cup qualifying match.

But Trotman never played. He, his brother and two friends died in a car accident after they arrived. Only a twist of fate kept Sancho out of that car.

He and Trotman were sharing the same hotel room in Arima, Trinidad, and Mickey invited him to his mother’s house that evening. Sancho usually would go, but he was tired and not up for the 40-minute drive. He passed.

Later that night, Trotman lost control of his car on Pinto Road and, according to a police report, it slammed into a pole. By morning, the only survivor of the crash was another of Trotman’s brothers, Kenyon.

“I got the (phone) call and I just looked at Mickey’s clothes in the hotel room thinking: This can’t be true. I could have been in that car. I was in shock,” Sancho recalled.

The Rhinos dedicated that playoff run to Trotman, 26, their fallen teammate, and it remains their last championship. They also retired his “14” jersey number.

Trotman’s death is one of a few turning-point moments for Sancho, 32, in a career that has included an NCAA title with St. John’s (1997), stints playing in Finland, Scotland and England and his crowning achievement, the 2006 World Cup.

But the World Cup also included a controversial play that made the defender the talk of the soccer world for a few days.

T&T tied Sweden, 0-0, in its opener and held England scoreless for 82 minutes in its next match.

But Peter Crouch scored off David Beckham’s cross, converting a leaping header over Sancho, for the 83rd-minute lead. Although no foul was called, video replay showed Crouch pulling Sancho’s dreadlocks to win the header.

Still pictures of the play were plastered in every European newspaper.

“We are tiny Trinidad & Tobago,” Sancho was quoted as saying back then, “and there is no way that referee was going to make that call.”

The media frenzy was a circus. “Never seen that many reporters in my life,” he recalled.

And just think: After winning the NCAAs, he wasn’t even going to pursue professional soccer.

After playing for Essex (N.J.) Community College, he planned to go to Fordham. But St. John’s coach Dave Masur spotted Sancho in what he described as a Caribbean league game in the Bronx.

“You can picture the dreadlocks and all the different Caribbean atmosphere and there’s this sole white guy sitting there with his notepad,” Sancho said. “I said, ‘This guy is serious.’”

After earning his degree in psychology, Sancho worked with at-risk children in Queens. He made a connection with one boy who was trying to steer his life away from gang life. But the boy was shot and died.

“That really impacted me, so I went back to what I know, which was playing football,” Sancho said.

After a stint in Finland, the MetroStars (MLS) offered him a contract but Sancho declined. The offer was so low, Sancho called it “ridiculous.”

He played 71 matches from 2000-03 with Charleston and Portland in the USL. Then came two years in the Scottish Premier League with Dundee FC, the rival of Dundee United, where ex-Rhino Pat Onstad played.

“To play in front of that many fans, that kind of passion and rivalry,” Sancho said, “I was in awe.”

Then it was on to England’s second division, where he played for Gillingham from 2005-07.

The World Cup call wasn’t a surprise, but he never dreamed of starting. One center back got injured just before the opener, however, and coach Leo Beenhakker experimented by dropping a forward back to defense.

But he noticed Sancho’s body language in practice and asked, “Do you have a problem?”

“Yeah, I do,” Sancho responded. “I think I deserve a chance to play.”

“All right,” Beenhakker said, “you’re starting.”

Just like that.

“I think he was feeling me out,” Sancho said.

Spotting his family, including parents Pearl and Keith, with tears in their eyes during the national anthem, was “my proudest moment,” Sancho said.

He hopes his next big one is helping the Rhinos win a title.

Sancho has battled a hamstring and a shoulder injury that restricts his breathing, but he has paired nicely with Kenney Bertz.

“It’s Batman-Robin, smash-and-grab, gruesome twosome,” head coach Darren Tilley said of the chemistry between Sancho and Bertz. “Brent’s ability to read the game is just superb.”

Reading situations off the field is key, too. He was a player/coach last year for a pro team back home, an experience that got him thinking about life after his playing days.

“You need to know where to draw the line, when to put on your coaching hat and your playing hat,” said Sancho, who had a strong advocate coming to Rochester in midfielder and T&T native, Tiger Fitzpatrick. “But I’ve always admired this franchise. I know its history.”