- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

In these times when too many jocks are abusing fans or using steroids, Mia Hamm should rise head and shoulders above the constellation of star athletes. Alas, Hamm hung up her cleats for good Wednesday after playing an excellent game in the U.S. national team’s 5-0 win over Mexico at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

Hamm, who had two great assists in the match and had a shot come off the bar, easily could keep playing; she was the best player on the field against Mexico. But you knew it was really all over when she ran out in the second half with “Garciaparra” — the last name of her baseball star husband, Nomar — on the back of her No.9 jersey.

Hamm, 32, is still remarkably fit and could play for years, but all good things must end and she might as well bow out on top. Hamm was one of the classiest and most self-motivated athletes in American sports. She was the ultimate team player, one who often shunned the spotlight.

Those who know Hamm well vouch that she is a genuinely humble and good person. She once turned down the opportunity to have her face on the cover of a major magazine, saying she would only appear with her teammates.

Hamm was no softy or saint and could be tough at times. When she turned up to play for the Washington Freedom, she already ready starred on the U.S. team for more than a decade, and had ideas of her own on how to play the game. After three tough seasons, she led the Freedom to win a title before the WUSA folded.

Hamm was a perfectionist and demanded the best of her fellow players. If someone messed up Hamm didn’t have to say a word, just direct that icy “Mia Hamm stare” at the culprit. She could accept a player’s lack of skill but not a lack of effort. She worked harder than anyone else.

I remember getting a call from her when she was nominated as FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001. She was at her parents’ home in Texas baking cookies but took the time to chat.

I asked whether the pressure of fame ever got to her.

“That is not a burden,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest things, when you see girls wearing your number. It’s awesome. Sometimes I fall short, some days are tough, but I push through. There are times when I could have done more for the fans.”

She did enough. Hamm played her first game for the U.S. team in a 2-0 win in Tiajin, China, on Aug.3, 1987, when she was just 15. She went on to accumulate an amazing record. She won two World Cups (1991 and 1999), two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004), four NCAA titles at North Carolina (1989, ‘90, ‘92 and ‘93), a WUSA title with the Freedom (2003) and collected 158 goals and 144 assists in 275 U.S. team games from 1987 to 2004.

Could you ask for more?

More on the women — Tonya Antonucci , who headed up Yahoo! Sports, has now taken over the reigns of Women’s Soccer Initiative Inc., (WSII), which is developing a business plan aimed at reviving a women’s pro league. Antonucci played soccer at Stanford and was an assistant coach at Stanford and Santa Clara.

Rumor has it that former WUSA commissioner Tony DiCicco will leave WSII to coach the Chinese national team.

Beware the giant-killers — Some amazing fixtures were conjured at the FA Cup third-round draw this week. Tiny, non-league Yeading was picked to face Premier League club Newcastle United, while non-league Exeter earned a big-money visit to Manchester United.

Yeading’s average crowd this season has been a minuscule 137 and its stadium can only accommodate 2,000 fans, while Newcastle regularly plays in front of 52,000.

The draw managed to keep all the Premiership clubs apart. The FA Cup is a knockout event open to all teams. The games will be played on the weekend of Jan.8-9.

Nelsen of the Rovers — D.C. United captain Ryan Nelsen has been given an extended trial with English Premier League soccer club Blackburn Rovers. That is good news for the big central defender, whose contract with United ends this month.

“Ryan’s only had a few days with us so far, but he’s obviously keen to make an impression. We have asked him to stay for another week,” Blackburn coach Mark Hughes said on the club’s Web site.

Blackburn lost 1-0 at home to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend and is looking for younger legs on its backline after veteran defenders Craig Short, 36, and Andy Todd, 30, were caught out by Tottenham’s speedy forwards.

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