If you’ve walked into the Waves Café at Pepperdine, you’ve probably bumped into James, the sociable, stocky and blonde-haired 44-year-old chef who greets students as they walk into the cafeteria, fist bumping them and asking them where they’re from.
But little do people know that this remarkable man keeps one secret of his past life tucked up his sleeve: a respectable career as a former top-flight professional soccer player.
“That’s surprisingly humble of him,” said junior Christian Ortiz, who always enjoys breakfast in the cafeteria before his class in the morning. “Most people just want to show off their achievements but it is very nice to see he is a good guy.”
Although it is the Scottish flag stitched to the right sleeve of Executive Chef James Foster Colson’s white double breasted jacket as he strolls through the Waves Café, his illustrated career through top-tier clubs like Hertha Berlin and Fulham started in the streets of Sydney, Australia where Colson grew up playing baseball, cricket, and of course, soccer.
Rangers Football Club, the most successful team in the world when it comes to national league titles, were hosting a youth camp in Sydney. And this is precisely where Colson saw the opportunity to excel in soccer.
After quickly impressing the talent scouts at the camp, a 12-year-old Colson was deemed good enough to integrate the Rangers FC youth academy – in Scotland.
“I was fortunate enough that my family had the opportunity to move out there with me,” Colson said. “When you’re at a soccer academy and you’re devoting your entire life to soccer it really just makes you a better athlete.”
Chef James, as most Pepperdine students knows him, attended the Rangers’ youth academy until he was around 16 years of age, when he moved to the English Fulham’s youth academy.
Even though soccer is all that Colson dedicated himself to at Rangers and Fulham, he never would’ve imagined that the baseball days of his childhood in Sydney would once again come in handy. Not seeing much first team action at Fulham, he was offered a scholarship to play Division 1 Baseball at the University of Mississippi for two years. And he took it.
“Not many people here know that James played for Fulham, Hertha Berlin or even ‘Ole Miss’,” coworker Jose Chon said.
At this point, Colson explained, he attended ‘Ole Miss’, where he also joined the school’s soccer team as an international student from Australia.
“My mother was Scottish,” Colson said. “But I chose Australia since I had a bigger chance of playing on the national team if I ever tried to.”
As a player on the Australian National Under-17 Soccer Team, Colson explained that he likely never would’ve made it to the national Scottish team, especially during the golden generation of the late 1980s and early 1990s with Craig Burley, Graeme Souness and Alex McLeish.
“Other than giving up the possibility to represent Scotland, I also postponed the possibility of going to the Fulham Under 21 squad,” Colson said. “But I did relatively well at ‘Ole Miss’. We never won any NCAA or conference championships but we were always in the final stretch. Soccer was always my main sport plus I still had some juice in me so I went back to Fulham after graduating.”
He graduated from ‘Ole Miss’ and rejoined Fulham in 1989, but this time as a first team player.
“I was a substitute,” Colson said, attempting to hide behind his modesty.
But that didn’t stop him from playing in the 1990-91 English Football League – the tournament that eventually became the English Premier League just a year later in 1992.
Looking to get more playing time he eventually went on loan to German club Hertha Berlin, playing the second tier of the Bundesliga at the time during the 1991-92 season.
“I remember scoring a couple of goals,” Colson recalls. “Two or three or maybe even four goals. But one of them was from the penalty spot so that doesn’t count.”
After another season as a substitute, the former attacker went on one more loan for the 1992-93 season, but this time to Berlin Staaken, Hertha Berlin’s B team.
“I remember playing for Staaken,” Colson said. “It was right after the Cold War ended. I remember seeing the Berlin wall in half as we went to practice.”
It was during his spell at Staaken that Colson saw the better days of his professional career. He scored 10 goals over half a season before being struck by an injury that terminated his loan and saw his return to Hertha Berlin for the remainder of the season.
Constantly in and out of injuries and not being able to keep up with the physical aptitude of his opponents, he began to realize that his career was nearing an end.
“I remember playing against Eric Cantona and Jurgen Klinsmann,” Colson said. “They were at 175, 185 pounds. I was barely at 165. I simply couldn’t compete with that.”
“So during my free time I learned how to cook,” Colson says as he pulls out his notepad full of recipes. For the remainder of his contract with Hertha, Colson stayed at the Adlon Hotel in downtown Berlin, what was at the time considered the best hotel in Europe, where he started cooking.
His career as a footballer came to an end when his Hertha contract expired. After that, he moved to Rhode Island and attended Brown University where he obtained a degree in culinary arts as well as creating Brown’s Club Men’s Soccer Team and serving as the graduate assistant coach for their Division 1 team. And from then on, he worked his way up to the title he holds today: Executive Chef for Pepperdine University, responsible for overseeing the dining services at all of Pepperdine’s seven campuses.
So next time you walk into the cafeteria and bump into “Chef James,” show some respect.
Anthony Wells completed this story in Dr. Ken Waters spring 2016 Jour 590 course on sports journalism.