Flag Football



March 16, 2010

US Puts Heart, Hugs Before Goals, Wins

    • Kevin Blackistone
    • Kevin Blackistone is a national columnist for FanHouse
Before the girls were allowed to break up for the night after the team dinner in Costa Rica on Thursday, they were read an email to them from the States that had just arrived. It began:

"Ladies, I am not the type to go out of my way unless something totally compels me to do so. Today, it did ...You can imagine how amazing I think what you all did after the Haiti game was and how much it means to me, and to this country."

The email's author was one of the girls' idols, decorated U.S. women's national team star Abby Wambach (pictured). The girls made up the U.S. under-17 soccer team that was kicking off play in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) championship tournament in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

But what Wambach came to admire so much about her admirers was that those admirers were mere girls no more. They were, instead, all grown, teaching life lessons of their own. This was their first.

Because it happened on a field of play it was called sportsmanship. But that it happened under the circumstances it did, we should all recognize it as that transcendent human quality called compassion.

The U.S. team was playing Haiti, after all, a team of girls from an unlucky country that two months ago was dealt another unlucky hand, an earthquake that killed more than 200,000. All of them arrived in Costa Rica homeless. One goalkeeper, Madeline Delice, came newly orphaned. The Haitian Federation's soccer headquarters in the center of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince collapsed and 32 people inside were killed.

"I was really amazed that they would play," U.S. goalie Bree Heaberlin told me Saturday by phone of her thoughts just a few weeks ago upon learning that her team's first opponents would be from that devastated Caribbean country.

Bree said she and her teammates started strategizing almost immediately about how to handle the Haitian girls. They weren't thinking of what kind of offense to run or how to shutdown Haiti's leading scorer. They were thinking about what they could do as a team to help the Haitian girls ease what must have been, Bree and her teammates thought, an unimaginable pain.

"A lot of my teammates talked about doing a fundraiser or something to help them," Bree said.

U.S. Soccer caught wind of the girls' concerns and stepped in to help them. They decided to collect as much soccer gear and clothing and toiletries and whatever else they could pack up and carry to Costa Rica as gifts to their Haitian counterparts as they could.

"I got my high school team and my club team to donate toothpaste and toothbrushes and goalie gloves and cleats," said Bree, a St. Petersburg, Fla., native.

They divided up the gifts into individual backpacks for each of the girls on the Haitian team and took off for Costa Rica.

It wasn't much of a contest, of course. The U.S. team was rested and prepared. The Haitian team was drained and, obviously, distracted.

The U.S. went up 1-0 after 92 seconds. It was 2-0 at the 13th minute and 4-0 at the half. The last goal came in stoppage time and made the final tally 9-0.

"It definitely wasn't a good feeling," Bree recounted as the final whistle sounded. "Nobody was thinking about the game."

And now no one who saw it end will ever forget it.

"When the [final] whistle blew," Bree recalled, "I walked to midfield with my teammates to shake hands with the Haitian team, and as I did I looked downfield and saw their goalie was laying on the ground, crying."

The emotion of everything toppled Alexandra Coby.

Coby's coach was the first to reach her side. Bree was the second. Bree's teammates were in tow.

"We started walking to her. Her coach helped her up," Bree said, "and I opened my arms and hugged her.

"She was crying and I started crying," Bree said. "And all my teammates began crying.

"Nobody spoke any French," Bree said of Haiti's native language. "We communicated with a nod and a smile."

Bree said it didn't last more than a minute and a half. But there is no doubt they all will carry the moment for the rest of their lives.

Wambach's email continued:

"It is rare to have moments like that show up, but even more rare to actually do the right thing when they arise. It takes people who think outside of themselves to do what you all did. I believe it truly shows one's character. And to do it in the way you did was simply one of the most gracious things I've seen in a long time."

U.S. Soccer snapped a photo of their victorious team in the locker room after its 9-0 win over Haiti. The young women looked as if they'd lost.

Bree said they saw the Haitian team again on Friday. Bree and her teammates were leaving the pitch after beating the Cayman Islands and the Haitian team was waiting to come on to play Costa Rica. They all hugged again.

Wambach's email concluded:

"Honestly, today I feel very proud to be an American. It gives me something to strive towards. It gives me strength in knowing that what I do every day will be taken over by good people that respect this life and game.

"The example that you all showed is exactly the kind of thing that makes this game so special. We have the ability to do so much. Keep up the good work, and keep making us proud. You all are an inspiration."

Haiti lost 2-0 on Friday to Costa Rica and was eliminated from the championship. The U.S. women remained undefeated and are two wins from making the finals, which will guarantee them a spot in their world cup this summer in Trinidad and Tobago.

But before all the young women's teams depart Costa Rica this week, the U.S. team will see the Haitians at least once more. It will be when it delivers its gifts of goodwill, exercising the life-affirming act of humanity once more.