It was during this week 10 years ago that we were all building toward the “dream” final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup: USA vs. China at a sold-out Rose Bowl.
The semifinals had been at Stanford Stadium on July 4, and that was an incredible day. Briana Scurry was brilliant in goal, and so I wrote in my story for the Kansas City Star:
On this Fourth of July, you couldn’t have shot a bottle rocket past . The Brazilians might have liked to try, since nothing else worked.
Except the rocket would have hit , probably in the only unbruised and unbloodied part of her body left, and she would have cleared it. While Scurry ruled the U.S. nets, Akers took care of just about everything else in a 2-0 victory over Brazil in the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup. The Americans advance to Saturday’s final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Playing what she called her top game Sunday, Scurry made six saves. The crowd of 73,123 at Stanford Stadium included two particularly beaming people who, according to Scurry, can take some credit for her outstanding afternoon. This was the first World Cup game her parents attended.
“I think that’s why I had my best game,” Scurry said. “I’m just happy to do them proud.”
Scurry was so calm afterward, as was always the case, answering questions in the mix zone about the finest performance of her career. Another memory for me was being in the press box before the match when the national anthem was being played, and looking over at USA Today columnist Christine Brennan as she also surveyed the full house.
Christine is as nice a “superstar” as any profession has – she will chat warmly with the greenest rookie from the smallest newspaper, will encourage and advise anyone, and never has approached her work with that jaded “Oh, I already know it all” attitude that can poison writing. She asks very tough questions and yet has a kind heart.
As one of just a handful of nationally prominent female general-sports columnists, she has had to walk that unfair tightrope concerning women’s sports. She wanted to comment on the breadth of the athletic world and not be pigeon-holed into a lot of assignments just because of her gender. But by the same token, she has never wanted to treat women’s sports as a step-child. For someone of her stature, that is a much harder balancing act that I can adequately describe, and I’ve admired the way she’s done it.
While many “big-time” columnists tried to ignore the Women’s World Cup that year – in spite of how increasingly foolish that looked with each passing U.S. victory – Christine was among those front and center in coverage.
And that sunny Independence Day, with the Star-Spangled Banner playing, I glanced over at Christine and smiled. She smiled back, and there were no words necessary. We both felt same thing: This beautiful moment can be frozen in our minds, and we’ll think of it the next time some miserable, scared, chauvinist, small-minded puke e-mails us with that worn-out lie: “Nobody cares about women’s sports!” We’ll remember this afternoon and think, “Oh, screw you. Yes, there are people who do care.”
Well, I should stress that’s what I was thinking. I shouldn’t speak for Christine. But I’d guess it was probably about the same thing.
After that match, I did something incredibly dumb: packed up my gear but forgot my laptop power cord. I didn’t realize it, though, until the next day when I was far from Palo Alto. It would turn out to be a bit more of a hassle to find a replacement than I might have expected. If nothing else, that’s a mistake I haven’t made again. (Jinx.)
Anyway, when I left the stadium, it was evening and the fireworks were getting started. I drove to San Francisco, where I was staying for the night. And as the skies were lighting up with pyrotechnics over the bay, Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” came on the radio.
Wow, I thought. Two moments from this day seared into my mind. What a gift this World Cup has been.
(Of course, at this point, I was still blissfully unaware of the mistakenly abandoned power cord.)
The next day, I drove south to stay with my brother, who lives in Paso Robles, Calif. Then it was onto Los Angeles in preparation for the final. By then, all of us who were covering the World Cup had combined to write hundreds of features about the individual players, about the scope and success of the event, about the tactics of the various teams, about the appeal of the American squad (including the unavoidable topic of its so-called sex appeal), about what all this meant to women’s sports.
That most difficult thing for me by then was feeling I was short-changing the Chinese team, which we knew was every bit the equal to the U.S. team in terms of talent and competitiveness. But the language and cultural barriers were unscalable. Although some of the Chinese players knew a little English, we still spoke to them via translators, so we were dependent upon accurate translation … which we kind of doubted we were always getting.
I know the languages are vastly different, but when a player talks for 3 minutes straight in answering a question and then the translator gives you a 10-second translation, you know you’re not getting what she said. And it was frustrating for me as a journalist and as a human being. Because I really wanted to know what she said.
The American players were so responsive, intelligent and cooperative with us, it was impossible to not write clever stories about them. They made it so easy. Thus, I couldn’t escape the feeling that we were presenting them as the multi-faceted, fascinating protagonists of this upcoming drama, while – unintentionally – making the Chinese out to be one-dimensional, secretive, dull antagonists.
It just felt wrong, yet there was very little we could do about it. The access to the Chinese was strictly controlled. And even if it hadn’t been, we were still not going to be able to communicate with them anything like how we could communicate with the Americans. Admittedly, maybe the Chinese journalists might have felt the same way in reverse.
But it’s still something that stays with me about that week: How much a curse it can seem that we don’t all speak the same language _ and how hard I think all of us still tried to flesh-out stories about the Chinese women and show respect for them and their team.
Since it was six days between the semis and final, there was also time to take a side trip. That was to Palm Desert, Calif., to visit George Brett’s mother, Ethel. This had nothing to do with the World Cup … but in the end, it actually did.
Brett, the Kansas City Royals legend, was going to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later that month, and The Star was doing a three-section tribute package. It ended up being one of the very best projects I was ever involved with at The Star – incredibly well-planned, written, photographed and presented. My part was small, but I really enjoyed doing it.
George had met with several of us reporters earlier in the summer for a question-and-answer session, and at that time I had figured I would do two stories – one about Brett and his sons, and another about Brett and his late father, Jack, who had died in 1992. The latter story was well-trod ground. Many, many stories had been done about Brett’s relationship with his dad, a driving force in George’s life because he felt he could never please him. It was one of the bedrock parts of Brett’s personality: this unquenchable need to make his father happy.
When I asked Brett about his sons, he was jovial and effusive, proud of the boys and his close, affectionate relationship with them. Talking about his dad, though, was still tough for him. He nearly got choked up, but did that thing that some people learn to do really well – fight off tears with every muscle in their body. Of course, then it was me that nearly cried, because I empathized with how much he loved his dad, missed him and yet always felt like he wasn’t “good” enough for him.
So I thought I was set until I talked to Brett’s wife, Leslie, who said, “You know what? How come nobody ever does a story on George’s mom? She was every bit as much a part of who he is as his dad was. That’s a story that most people don’t know.”
Well, then, of course that’s what I had to write about. Leslie Brett told me that Ethel lived in Palm Desert and gave me her phone number, and it struck me that I’d have the opportunity during the World Cup to actually drive to her home and talk with her.
At first, Ethel said OK. Then later, she changed her mind. Frankly, she had been wounded by all the media attention that had always been placed on George’s relationship with his dad. She said, “Well, it’s too late now. Nobody wants to hear about George and me.”
And I said, “That’s absolutely not true. That’s the whole reason I want to come see you in person, because I want to hear about George and you.” So, after a little more coaxing, she agreed.
I drove from LA to Palm Desert in the late afternoon. Hot? Oh, my goodness. Upon arriving, I got out of the car to that kind of heat that seems like a physical force that could knock you over. Ethel Brett lived in a golf community and was a good player; she said she would go out on the course for a few holes later.
She was a delightful person to talk to. She got out all her memorabilia from George’s major-league career and pictures of him when he was a child. One photo of George as a little boy – shirtless, barefoot and in blue jeans, posing with his bat in a stance more straight-up than what would become his famous style – was reproduced as the cover of one of The Star’s sections.
We sat at Ethel’s dining-room table, and she shared cookies and stories with me for a couple of hours. She was straight-forward about her marriage: Things had gotten very strained between her and Jack, in part because she thought he was too hard on their four sons and he thought she was too soft. But, she said, she stayed with him because, as she put it bluntly, “I knew I could not raise four children by myself.” Once their sons were all finished with high school, Ethel and Jack divorced. She didn’t seem melancholy about it, just matter-of-fact. However, her eyes would light up and her laughter would ring when she talked about George and his brothers.
It was getting dark, and she was going to miss her planned golfing, but she said she didn’t mind. Hey, she could play every day. Traveling down memory lane about her beloved slugger son seemed to be something she’d wanted to do forever.
Ethel was going to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the induction with the rest of George’s family. And the one time during our conversation that she got choked up was when she shared what she had said to George after hearing that he’d been voted into the Hall of Fame. She had told him, “Don’t worry, George. Your dad is going to be there, too, looking down on you from Heaven. And he’s going to be so proud of you.”
(Ethel was very discreet in gently sliding the box of tissues over to me then, too.)
Leslie Brett had said that the gregarious side of George – how he was always chatting with fellow players, even opponents _ was something that she thought had come straight from his mom. She was absolutely right.
At any rate, near the end of my visit, Ethel started asking me questions … about the soccer team. She had watched all the United States’ matches and loved the players. She said that normally on Saturday afternoons, she and her friends always had their card games. But this coming Saturday, they were definitely not playing – because they were all going to be in front of the television, watching the U.S.-China championship match.
”Do you think the Americans will win?” she asked. “What do they think? I’m so nervous. I watched China’s semifinal, and they’re really good.”
I said I thought it would be close … not knowing, of course, how close it actually would be. And a few days later when Brandi Chastain made the winning penalty kick, one of my thoughts was, “I wonder how excited Ethel and her friends are?”
I never saw Ethel again; there was really no occasion to do so, and she passed away in 2004. But just like Briana Scurry’s saves, Independence Day, the lost power cord, and the mysteries of the Chinese team, Ethel is a permanent part of my mental mosaic of the ’99 Women’s World Cup.