It’s the perfect subject for a new series of boys’ books. Wouter (10) spends five years living in Curaçao with his parents. He then moves to Almelo, starts playing in the position of keeper at the local football club, and within six months he’s scouted by a professional club. During his entire youth Wouter plays as keeper for the Dutch national youth teams and goes on to become a professional footballer. But it doesn’t end there. Wouter wants more, so he enrols in the medicine programme at Erasmus University to realise his dream: studying at a prestigious American university.

There’s just one big difference between this boys’ book and the stories about Billy Boots or the twins Hielke and Sietse and their boat The Chameleon. Wouter’s story is true.

Two important letters

Late last year this medical student received letters from the US. Sender: the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University. Subject: he had been admitted. “Sometimes I come across as emotionless, and as a footballer you keep your emotions in check. But when I got those letters, I wept like a child.” In July Dronkers will (if all goes according to plan) take his last Dutch exam before his adventure in America starts. “At Erasmus MC I came in contact with a surgeon who was involved in research at a children’s hospital in Boston. Right away I
thought: Harvard is practically in Boston. This is as close it gets. That’s why I applied to both. After this summer I will be studying at Harvard and conducting research at Boston Children’s Hospital.”

Studying at one of America’s most prestigious universities has been a long-cherished wish for Dronkers. As a little boy he wasn’t dreaming about a career as a fireman, policeman or astronaut. “When I was 5, my father’s job took us from the Netherlands to Curaçao. While we lived there we often went on holidays to Boston and New York and we visited the big university campuses there. I still remember walking there as a little 8-yearold boy and finding it fascinating. You’re not fully conscious of it at that age, but ever since I’ve always dreamt of studying there.”


In spite of this, the dream was pushed into the background for a long time. When he was 10, the Vlaardingen-born Wouter moved with his family from the Caribbean to the somewhat less tropical environs of Almelo. After six months in the Netherlands his life took an unexpected turn. “I played a lot of sports in Curaçao, but I’d never really played football. Back here in the Netherlands I started in the position of keeper and within half a year I’d been scouted by FC Twente.” This ‘transfer’ turned Dronkers’ teenage years upside down.

Every day the alarm clock sounded before six and after a full day at school and football training, the young keeper was usually only home by seven thirty. Not much time left over for teenage activities, but it was worth it. At 16 Dronkers made his debut for the Dutch National team and in the same year he signed his first professional contract.

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Even though it all seemed to bode well, his definitive breakthrough with FC Twente’s first team failed to materialise. The keeper played for the reserve team and sat on the bench for the Eredivisie (Dutch equivalent of the English Premier League) and European matches. He was unable to claim a first-team place in goal. “The reason? Maybe I wasn’t good enough, but it’s also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I also really don’t think I got the opportunities I deserved.” That’s when fulfilling the dream of studying at a prestigious university returned. “I wanted a different kind of challenge, so I started studying psychology at the University of Twente. That’s the first time I started having doubts about my football career.”

Patrick Kluivert

Then something special happened, banishing his doubts. It’s not his parents or friends who convinced him not to pack away his goalkeeper gloves just yet, but it’s former Dutch national team striker Patrick Kluivert. “From 2011 through 2013 he was my trainer with the FC Twente youth team. Patrick is the best trainer I’ve ever had and the kindest man I’ve ever met in the football world. I still speak with him every week.” In their oneon-one talks, Kluivert convinced him to take the plunge. “He said: ‘You’re crazy if you quit now. I know you don’t have control of everything, but sometimes you have to take a risk and just go for it.’ When someone like Patrick Kluivert tells you something like that, you take it to heart and think about it twice.”

With a transfer to Vitesse in the summer of 2014, Dronkers hoped his dream of becoming a keeper in the Eredivisie would come true. He signed for three years, but from the start, he makes his plans for his studies clear. “I told them right away that I had started studying medicine in Rotterdam. Everybody was positive about this and I found it reassuring. I’ll never be able to prove it and people will say I’m shifting the blame, but I believe my intention to study was the reason my contract with Twente wasn’t extended.

A lot of people view Vitesse as a kind of soap opera, but I’ve never gotten that impression. It’s a close-knit, friendly club.” But despite the good reception at Vitesse, Dronkers gets no more than few minutes with the youth team, and none in the Eredivisie.


Serious doubts resurfaced when the goalkeeper once again failed to realise his Eredivisie dream due to all the sacrifices he’d made. “Ever since secondary school I’ve been in unfamiliar surroundings and I sacrificed a lot in my social life. I rarely regret anything, but that lack of a social life sometimes gnaws at me. I made those choices, so I’m not looking for pity, but I do feel lonely sometimes. It’s hard to say this about yourself, but that’s the way it is.” His ‘second life’ as a student doesn’t make things any easier. “I work about a hundred hours a week. I’m up before six every day of the week. If I have to train, I drive to Arnhem. In the afternoon I drive back and study until bedtime. It’s demanding, but necessary. I have to complete my bachelor programme before I can go to America. I’ve had this kind of pressure my entire life and I enjoy it.”

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That’s why it’s not the pressure that troubles him. It’s the loneliness. “Of course I have my contacts in football. Yet even though it’s a team sport, it’s still lonely. Everyone is focused on their own careers, so I don’t have any real friendships there. I know a lot of people through my studies, but when they go to the pub or to other social activities, I have to head home. I have to be up the next morning before six o’clock to go to the training ground.”

Off to the casino

Dronkers lives in two different worlds and when they clash, it amplifies the feeling of loneliness. In both the football dressing room and at university, he often feels like an outsider. “It’s not that people don’t accept me. I play football at Vitesse with guys from Chelsea who probably earn twenty times more than I do, but I have something they don’t have: my university education. That wins a lot of respect. They’re also genuinely interested, but I still don’t belong.” He has the same feeling at university. “I always have to prove that I’m not just ‘that footballer’. Professors and students not really interested in football look at you a certain way at first. I can’t blame them for that, but it means I’m facing an uphill battle from the outset and that’s frustrating. Every summer I find I’m asking myself if my dream of playing football is really worth it.”

So far, the answer to that question has been a resounding yes every year. “Perhaps at some point when I’m 36 I’ll realise I didn’t make it to the Eredivisie or reach other goals in my football career, but I always gave a hundred percent. That means the feeling of disappointment won’t run so deep.” Dronkers admits that studying medicine might be the best remedy for healing that feeling of regret. “If I’ve had a bad day at football training then I can still make my day worthwhile at university. There are some guys who train and afterwards they go to the casino. That kind of life seems empty to me. In terms of a social life, perhaps my life is empty sometimes, but their world is empty too. I know I’ll be devastated if I don’t reach my footballing goals. I want to make my debut in the Eredivisie and I’ll be dismayed if I if I don’t succeed. But soon I will have the opportunity of appearing in the Champions League of university studies.”

No superpowers

Wouter hopes his extraordinary story will inspire his fellow students and others his age, even though he doesn’t cast himself as a guru. “I could use my experiences as a new source of motivation for people. They could probably also do it without me – I don’t have any superpowers – but I would appreciate the chance to give something back. Following your dreams is possible, even at Erasmus. I’ve always had a lot of support. Of course it’s hard, but no one ever said it would be easy.” Dronkers believes his story could serve as encouragement for both prospective professional athletes as well as for his fellow medical students. “You’re already so privileged to have been selected. And then you don’t attend lectures because you feel like sleeping in? I can’t understand that. Force yourself to get out of bed; if not for yourself, do it for your future patients.”

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His American adventure starts this summer, when he hopes to take the first steps leading to a life as a plastic surgeon or neurosurgeon. “Not breast augmentation. Reconstructive surgery, the real precision work is what I want. I was born with a physical defect where my middle finger and my ring finger were fused together, so I’ve always been drawn to reconstructive surgery.” On top of all this, Dronkers wants to continue playing football. “I’ve had talks with Major League Soccer clubs (American Premier League football – ed.). I’m going to carry on. Some days I think: I’m just going to drop it all and go have a beer with my friends. But then I realise how much I’ve achieved and I think: why are you being so daft? The moment that I decide ‘enough with football, I’m finished’ could happen any time. Then I’ll stop. But not yet. When I’m 70 I could ask myself how many friends I could have had if I had made different choices, but I never want to regret failing to pursue my dreams. That’s more important to me.”