Way back in 1998, I was a working as an assistant in Florida’s sports information department while studying for my master’s degree. My primary duties were with the women’s soccer team and the baseball team. It just so happens the Gators soccer squad won the national title that year, stunning and remarkable given the program had only existed for four years.
I tagged along to Greensboro, riding on the bus with a few of the girls on the team and the rest of the support staff. One of the girls on that bus was freshman Abby Wambach. While in Greensboro, I shared an elevator with Mia Hamm, who was at the College Cup supporting her alma mater North Carolina. At the time, there was no connection between Hamm and Wambach beyond the fact they both played soccer. But years later, those two are arguably the best scorers in U.S. history (men or women).
I harken back to that story because earlier this week, the U.S. national team roster for the 2011 Women’s World Cup was named. Joining Wambach on the squad heading to Germany is another former Gator, Heather Mitts. The pair were teammates and starters on that ’98 national championship team and are two of the most decorated Gators soccer players ever.
As an assistant in the SID office, my duties included keeping stats, writing game recaps and coordinating interviews for the team. It was at that time that my love for Heather Mitts began.
I became enamored with Heather because of the way she played. She’s a feisty, hard nosed defender, just like I was in high school (first-team All Palm Beach County my senior year, forgive the Al Bundy recollection). She’s never the fastest player on the field yet she constantly tracks down balls on the back line. She’s a leader. The fact that she’s drop-dead gorgeous didn’t hurt either, of course.
I’m not the only obsessed fan out there. Mitts has proven to be a star on the soccer field. She was the anchor of the Gators defense during her time in Gainesville and has seen amazing success as a professional. She’s won two Olympic gold medals as a member of the national team and has played for various professional teams. She’s held other jobs, too, including sideline reporter for ESPN and model. She’s finally made her first World Cup roster, overcoming a bad hammy to prove her fitness. It is a great honor for a great Gator.
Mitts’ personal life has been just as intriguing to follow as her professional one. During her time at Florida, she dated baseball legend Brad Wilkerson, who I helped cover in my role with the SID office. It was just another reason to be jealous of Wilky, and frankly was more impressive to me than his sweet swing or strong left-handed pitching arm. Mitts moved on from Wilkerson to date journeyman NFL QB AJ Feeley. When Feeley was acquired by my Miami Dolphins, I felt again as if I was caught in the middle of a weird love triangle. My love of all things Heather and my love for my Dolphins were at odds because Feeley was not a good NFL QB and yet Heather and the Dolphins were both counting on him. It was awkward until Feeley moved on from Miami. But he of course has the last laugh, regardless of his abyssmal NFL statistics, because he married Heather. I saw Heather at BJ’s restaurant in Long Beach a couple years ago when she was out here training in Carson with the national team. I wish I would have said hi but I felt guilty about the whole Feeley/Dolphins situation so I couldn’t do it.
Wambach overshadows Mitts on the national team. That’s not a knock on Heather, it’s just that Abby has proven to be one of the most prolific scorers in U.S. national team history. She is one of only five Americans ever to score 100 goals in international play, achieving the mark quicker than any of the other four (Hamm is one of them). Quite simply, she has a chance to be the best American soccer player ever.
When I was on a bus to Greensboro with Heather, Abby and the rest of the 1998 Gators soccer team, I thought I was just along for a ride to that year’s Final Four. But some 13 years later, the ride has been a lot longer as I’ve followed Heather and Abby’s careers through the years all the way to Germany. I’ll be watching come late June and rooting for the U.S. and these two Gators who will not doubt have a big say in whether we take home the World Cup.