Wayne Rooney is a bit of an enigma in Washington. When he joined D.C. United last summer, there was hope that the English forward could help drum up excitement for the local soccer club in the newly opened Audi Field. He accomplished that in a short period of time—short, because the 33-year-old star will head back to England after this season to be a player-coach for second-tier Derby County F.C. The guy misses home and wants to be close to his family.
Understandable. But what’s harder to grasp is why he would give up the chance to score more sensational goals here in DC, where, despite being the biggest global celebrity in our midst, he can live his life in relative anonymity. Need proof of this? Just ask Jesse Rifkin, a local journalist and regular performer at Mr. Smith’s—a storied bar in Georgetown where Rifkin has been playing piano and crooning for locals and tourists every Friday and Saturday night for a year and a half.
Earlier this summer, Rifkin was doing his regular routine when a group of guys walked in, ready for a good time. The group turned out to be six D.C. United players; among them, Rooney, who requested the guest microphone so he could sing “Rocket Man” by Elton John. Rifkin’s brother, David, was caught up in conversation and didn’t recognize who was singing until the two caught up after Jesse’s gig.
“David said, ‘Okay, if Wayne ever comes in again and I’m not there, send me a text message right away. Whatever it is that I’m doing, I will drop it to come in and actually pay attention to Wayne Rooney being there.'”
Two weeks later, that’s exactly what happened. This time, Rooney, again dressed plainly, requested “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. In the video, defender Steven Birnbaum and midfielder Chris McCann (who parted with the team in July) can be seen cheering him on, great teammates that they are.
“The US is probably the only country literally on planet Earth where not 100 percent of people would recognize him,” Rifkin says. “I think one of the things that the D.C. United crowd likes about Mr. Smith’s is that they’re not getting mobbed. Yeah, some people recognized him, but it wasn’t like they needed bodyguards.”
Can Rooney actually sing, though? Rifkin says that while Rooney was no Aretha Franklin, he sang the right notes and words—most importantly, he picked songs within his comfort zone.
“The guest mic karaoke singers have spanned the range from could-win-American-Idol to atrocious, and he was far from the worst,” Rifkin says. “He was a really good sport. He was cheering along, he was getting the crowd excited because people saw that it was him. He’s just really fun.”
One caveat: While Rooney was confidently singing along to English classics like “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis, he wasn’t as familiar with the American pop hits his teammates requested. “Somebody requested ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth, and I think every other player on D.C. United was singing along except him. He didn’t appear to know the words,” Rifkin says.
Rooney is by far the biggest celebrity Rifkin has played for at Mr. Smith’s, though he laments a recent near-encounter with Ringo Starr. When the Beatles legend took the stage at Wolf Trap in August, Rifkin, a longtime Beatles fan, took the night off to see the show—only to find out that Starr and his band stopped by Mr. Smith’s to relax after the concert.
Rifkin’s manager tells him stories of countless boldface names who’ve made appearances over the decades (a cabinet member here, a President’s daughter there). But now we can all collectively mourn Rooney’s departure this fall when, as the song goes, his train keeps a rollin’…