So, have you ever played soccer against Mia Hamm?
Yessir … she and I shared Berylson Soccer Park (now Preston Goldfarb Field at Berylson Soccer Park) on a hot July day in Birmingham, Alabama, and she even blocked one of my shots from her goalkeeper spot.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Mia Hamm (now Mia Hamm-Garciaparra) played forward for the United States Women’s National Team. She was a two-time World Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the most famous women’s soccer players of all time.
“And you’re … you. What could possibly put you two on the same field at the same time?”
Glad you asked.
Back in 1995 – a year before Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games where Birmingham’s Legion Field was a designated venue for men’s and women’s soccer competition – Birmingham-Southern College hosted a “One Year Out” extravaganza.
Aside from a news conference featuring Hamm and Hank Steinbrecher (former secretary-general of the United States Soccer Federation), there was a soccer match between media members and Birmingham’s Olympic organizers.
During warm ups, Hamm (who hung around to watch but didn’t actually play in the game) invited anyone who was interested to grab a ball and take a few shots at her.
I was anyone and I was interested, so I did.
Best I recall, I sent a slow worm-burner straight at her feet … the ball might’ve even stopped before it reached her.
I was a tad nervous, and although I played high school soccer it had been many, many years since I “suited up.” Plus, my skill level was always closer to George Worst than George Best.
Still, if I want to claim I played soccer against one of the sport’s greatest stars, I can.
And just did.
It’s a huge exaggeration that could easily be classified as a lie, of course. However, when you get to interact with one of your sports idols, you take liberties.
The women’s teams that have represented the United States in the World Cup and Olympics have been dear to me since the first WWC in 1991.
It wasn’t just that they showed Americans were capable of being elite soccer players – although they most certainly did – it was because I already had great respect for the women’s game.
See, back in 1978 when I played for the Huffman High School boys, we scrimmaged the girls team.
I’d love to tell you that before then I was already a strong proponent of sports equality, but I’d be lying.
I doubt I gave it much thought at all because I was too busy working twice as hard just to be half as good as the other guys on my team.
And before our scrimmage, I’m sure I assumed we’d have a relatively easy time, especially since both teams were told to treat it like an actual match and play as hard as we could.
Details from 41 years ago are a bit sketchy, but the one thing I remember is the final score was 2-2.
I don’t recall who scored for either side – I have no memory how many times I was beaten to a ball – but a draw in a game seen by no one other than the coaches and participants forever altered my view of sports.
The phrase “you play like a girl” suddenly became a compliment.
By the time women’s soccer became a “thing” I was already a fan, so when Hamm showed up in Birmingham it was hard not to be a fan boy.
And my appreciation for women’s soccer has only grown over the years, extending far beyond my borders. I love seeing the different teams, different stars and different styles from across the globe. When the world comes together for the Beautiful Game, it makes things seem even more beautiful.
Covering Olympic soccer in Birmingham in 1996 allowed me to watch Japan, Brazil and Germany play, and I was introduced to Brazilian star Pretinha, who scored four goals in the tourney and became one of my favorite athletes.
And although the U.S. team never made a stop at Legion Field during those Games, I still saw players such as Hamm, Briana Scurry and Brandi Chastain when they came to town to play friendlies.
By the time the 1999 WWC came along, I felt like I knew the American squad.
After Chastain’s spot kick – and Scurry’s brilliant performance in goal – lifted the U.S. to a 0-0 (5-4) victory over China in the final, everybody knew the “99ers.”
The WWC has taken up a great deal of my viewing time over the last month, and I hope today’s final between the United States and the Netherlands is a classic.
Regardless of how it plays out, it gave me a great excuse to talk about the time I played against Mia Hamm.
Have I told you that story before?