It was June 19, 1999, and that ‘N Sync song was playing again. And again. And one more time.
I didn’t really know anything about ‘N Sync except that a curly-haired kid named Justin was the lead singer. And I only knew this because I’d seen it on magazine covers at grocery stores.
But on the field down below me at Giants Stadium was ‘N Sync, rehearsing for a performance later that day. I didn’t know any of their songs, but this particular one was being embedded into my brain by repetition.
“It’s tearin’ up my heart when I’m with you …”
It was hours before the United States’ opening match of the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament, but many of us sportswriters were already there in the press box. We had been told the place would be packed, so we’d better not risk getting stuck in traffic.
Instead, we risked getting an ‘N Sync song stuck in our heads.
“But when we are apart, I feel it too …”
‘N Sync was going to perform at halftime of the U.S.-Denmark match, and someone in the press box who had a daughter suggested that this was truly a day straight out of heaven for thousands of tween-and-younger girls. There would be nearly 79,000 people at Giants Stadium that day, and a good many of them would be screaming their little pig-tailed heads off.
And it occurred to me that I was, indeed, going to be seeing something rather different this afternoon. Kids going crazy with glee watching “girls” play sports and “boys” sing and dance. Interesting …
“And no matter what I do, I feel the pain … with or without you.”
I looked out at these “famous” guys that I didn’t know practicing their dance moves on the field, getting ready.
“I guess,” I said to myself, “this song isn’t that bad.”
Who really knew how big the Women’s World Cup would turn out to be that summer? Some media outlets anticipated it being a worthwhile event to cover and sent reporters from the start: an opening press conference with Team USA in Manhattan a few days before the first matches.
The Kansas City Star was one of those papers. It’s been a decade now, and today is the 10-year anniversary of the Americans’ WWC-opening victory against Denmark, 3-0. An indicator of how perfectly this tournament would turn out for the United States was the “holy trinity” that scored those three goals on June 19: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly.
By the time it was over, on July 10, the WWC had become a cultural phenomenon, and remains one of the most amazing journalistic experiences of my career. Many of the “big-timers” in the sports-media world didn’t cover any of the matches. It was women, it was soccer – what could be more beneath them, they thought. It never occurred to them that any sporting event could become so huge without their presence or their blessing.
Once it did, they scrambled to diminish it, “blaming” the journalists who had covered it for turning it into a bigger deal than it was. They couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a big deal, and the fans _ not the media _ made it so.
There were disappointments, to be sure, after the WWC. The women’s success brought out the worst in the U.S. Soccer Federation, which was ill-prepared to capitalize on it and actually undermined the players. A professional league was launched, the WUSA, but a faulty business plan, financial mismanagement and bad decision-making doomed it.
The league launched in 2001 and was finished by the fall of 2003, just before the start of the next Women’s World Cup.
A seven-team league, Women’s Professional Soccer, began this spring, with the hope being that it learns from the mistakes of the past.
For the definitive look at that 1999 WWC, read Jere Longman’s book, “The Girls of Summer,” in which he chronicles with keen insight every aspect of the story of women’s soccer’s growth and growing pains. I re-read it recently as part of recalling the experiences of that summer.
Some of my memories don’t have a lot to do with soccer, but all of them come back when thinking about the Summer of ’99.
At 34, I went to New York City for the first time in my life. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I’d never gone before. But I grew up in the heart of the Midwest, and didn’t visit the East Coast (not counting a vacation to Florida when I was a teen) until I went on a job interview in Virginia when I was 25.
You see New York so much on television that it can seem as if you’ve been there even if you haven’t. That is until you’re actually there, and you realize TV really can’t make you feel what it’s like.
“I’m NOT a bumpkin,” I kept telling myself on the way there. “I’m not! I’ve been to every other big city in the United States before. I’ve been to Hawaii. I’ve been to Canada and Mexico. Lots of people haven’t been to New York. It’s OK. I’m going now.”
I flew into Newark, arriving just after dusk. The media hotel was in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. Obviously, I’d never driven in New Jersey before, but I had printed out very specific directions on how to get there. At least I thought they were very specific.
I got close to what I thought was my hotel, and it had been very easy. Too easy.
I drove up to the hotel and realized it was not my place, but decided to go in to find out if I was in the vicinity. (I should point out here I didn’t get a cell phone until 2001.) I was just a couple of minutes away from my hotel, I was told. A little further down the road, take this exit and you’re there.
Something like two hours later, I was back at this same hotel that was not mine. And when I walked in, the two people at the front desk were the same two who had previously told me I was only minutes away. They looked at me as if I was an unfortunate fish that had washed ashore, and they were not sure they could save me.
“Oh, my God,” the woman said. “Please tell me that you haven’t been driving around looking for your hotel the whole time since you left here.”
I shook my head, “Not the whole time. At some point, I parked the car for a few minutes and had a nervous breakdown.”
To this day, I am convinced the exit that they spoke of was actually one only someone who grew up in New Jersey could find – much like how students going to Hogwarts are able to access the correct train by plowing through what appears to everyone else to be a brick wall.
“I’ve made about 20 loops,” I said, and somehow my voice did not sound as hysterical as I actually felt. “Maybe 25. There is no such exit. It was moved or something, but it’s not there now. It no longer exists.”
I sighed, figuring I might as well play my pathetic sympathy card.
“I’m from Kansas,” I said.
The woman looked, in total alarm, at her co-worker.
“I’ll cover things here,” she said to him. “You have to lead her over there.”
Inside, I felt a bit of shame. Here I was, actually using the stereotype of bumpkin Midwesterner. It’s not as if being from the Midwest prevents you from finding things in New Jersey! This was MY failure, not that of the Midwest. But …
I was tired, and I had to be up early the next day to go into Manhattan _ the Manhattan, not Manhattan, Kan. _ for interviews. So this is what I was reduced to: “I’m from Kansas.”
Worse, it was actually not the full truth. I am really from Missouri, but I live in Kansas. The thing is, Kansas just has more of an instant recognition factor with non-Midwesterners. Many hear it and think immediately that I come from a sepia-toned farm, am in dire peril from meteorological and supernatural forces, and desperately need help.
At this point, I was willing to let them believe that.
The man at the desk nodded. “It’s OK,” he said over his shoulder, while going to get the keys to the hotel’s shuttle van.”You can follow me.”
“Go slow,” the woman said. “Do NOT lose her.”
Then, to me, she said, “Well, it is dark. I guess that exit is a little hard to see in the dark.”
But I could tell she was thinking, “What kind of numbskull could not find an exit for two hours?”
OK, yes, suddenly the exit was there when I was following the guy in the van. I think it was an unmarked, 90-degree turn hidden behind a wall. Something like that. That’s the part I can’t remember too clearly.
Now, if you’re thinking this is going to turn into a horror movie with me driving into Manhattan, relax. I was not that stupid. Luckily, there was a WWC media shuttle into the hotel in Manhattan where the American players would meet with reporters.
For the weeks before the trip, I had studied the players. Printed every article I could find about them and carried the stories with me, re-reading them. I even read a paperback book hastily produced about the team (which was geared toward tweens). Still, I felt I didn’t know enough. I was consumed with this fear. I knew women’s basketball inside and out. I didn’t yet have the same comforting familiarity with the soccer team.
My friend and co-worker, Amanda, kept telling me to stop worrying about it. “Knock it off. You’re fine. You know plenty. You’ve watched them play several times. You’ve killed how many trees printing out 9,000 stories? What do you think, only soccer Mensa people are covering this thing?”
“Oh, no!” I said. “There are soccer Mensa people?”
On the ride to Manhattan, I was quizzing myself in my head. Tiffeny Milbrett’s mother’s name was …? Elsie. Carla Overbeck’s son was born in …? 1997. Mia Hamm played not just soccer but “American” football in what city when she was growing up …? Wichita Falls, Texas.
At the hotel, the players were assembled, and we could go up to talk to them. I approached Milbrett just about the same time a TV reporter did.
Before I got a word out, TV person said to Milbrett, “Hello! Who are you? Are you one of the soccer players?”
Suddenly, I wasn’t very worried about being the least-savvy person at this media confab anymore.
Of course, this would be a pattern repeated for the next three weeks. There would always be media folks parachuting in who hadn’t done any homework, but most of us had. The players, of course, could tell the difference. But they were nice to everyone. They thoughtfully answered questions about every possible sports and social topic. It was clear, even at this first meeting, that this was about soccer … and a whole lot else.
The next day, most of us reporters went out to the Jersey countryside to attend the soccer team’s practice, then wrote stories all the rest of the afternoon and night. The following day, it was time for me to go into Manhattan for as much touristy stuff as I could cram in before going to the Liberty-Sparks game that evening at Madison Square Garden. The Empire State Building was the most important. I never got to the World Trade Center. Next trip to New York, I thought.
Then, on Saturday, most of us were there in Giants Stadium in the morning. No wireless then for me, just dial-up access that was slightly quicker than glacial. So I wasn’t surfing the Web. I had out my thick folder of soccer stories, reading them over for the 200th time.
They said the place would be full; it was. The day was gorgeous, and the story line was perfect. Hamm scored the first goal in the 17th minute, then later assisted on a goal by Foudy, who struck an Austin Powers pose. The second Austin Powers film had been released a week before the match; that movie and the Ricky Martin song “Livin’ la Vida Loca” would be recurring themes for the U.S. team throughout the WWC.
Lilly, who didn’t strike a pose, scored the final goal. ‘N Sync had done their thing; and the kids had seen everything they came for, almost as if it had been a movie script. Late that night I was back in Hasbrouck Heights thinking, “And it’s all just getting started.”
There was one more day to this trip: Sunday, when I went to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. My flight was leaving about 8:30 p.m., so I figured I couldn’t possibly have any problems getting there on time. Oh, sure …
Ellis Island was captivating, an emotional tour through the dreams and fears of people brave enough to leave everything they knew for the hope of what they thought would be better. When they said goodbye to the Old World and loved ones in it, many knew it was goodbye for good. They were sailing away and wouldn’t be coming back.
I was glad I took a lot of tissues. I needed them.
At some point, I looked at my watch and realized time was no longer on my side; I’d just crossed over into that panic period when if something goes wrong _ a wrong turn, traffic, etc. _ you are not going to make your flight.
Well, at least I’d already proven I was adept at driving in New Jersey, right?
Somehow, nothing went wrong. Maybe I’d used up my allotment of bumpkiness on the two-hour search for the hotel that was two minutes away.
Took the bus back to Hasbrouck Heights, got the rental car, made it to the airport, turned in the car, checked the bag (“LATE CHECK!!!” they screamed.) … why, I had at least 37 seconds to spare before I’d have missed the flight.
New York, New York. If I could make it there (and back), I could make it anywhere.