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Mar 14, 2003

Kicking It with ... Michelle Akers

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - A 14-year-old girl stands there with the ball at her feet. She's on display for hundreds of coaches helping demonstrate a drill at the Soccer Champions Clinic. And she's doing a good job without any sort of deer-in-the-headlights type of looks. That is, until Tony DiCicco ups the ante.

"Don't be nervous," the World Cup-winning coach and organizer of the clinic says. "You're only about to pass that ball to the Player of the Century."

The girl smiles and quickly knocks the ball over to Michelle Akers.

The former U.S. Women's National Team star looks as though she could still be good for a goal a game despite being 37 years old and the fact that her last competitive game came in 2000.

As I'll soon find out, such opportunities to work with kids at clinics or in doing work as an ambassador to WUSA and the game of soccer in general are the only times Akers thinks about the game she dominated on a global scale for nearly 15 years. Now happily retired from soccer, the greatest female player of all-time sits down next to me after spending close to 45 minutes signing autographs and taking photos with young fans to reflect on a wide-variety of topics.

As always, her answers convey what an individual she is.

Connolly: The last time you were heard from was when you played in a testimonial-type match in Boston last fall. What have you been up to?

Akers: I've been down on the farm with my horses. That's where this brace comes from (on her wrist).

Connolly: What happened?

Akers: I was opening some pine shavings with a utility knife and I stabbed my forearm and then sliced two of the muscles going to my ring and middle finger. So I'm in this for six weeks. I narrowly missed surgery.

Connolly: Do you ever get the feeling you are permanently jinxed with all your injuries?

Akers: I was telling my fiancée -- that's another thing that has happened, I'm getting married in August -- and he was saying how I'm always active and always going hard, so of course it leads me to so many more opportunities to get hurt.

Connolly: Soccer-wise, what have you been doing?

Akers: I'm doing appearances with the WUSA to promote the league. That's why I am here with Tony. That's one of my jobs, to go and visit teams or to go to events. Mostly, though, I've just been home in Orlando on my five acres working with my horses. I'm still trying to put my body back together. My knee has to be redone next fall, since I got thrown off one of my horses and tore my PCL. I'm gearing up for the summer and trying to get to the wedding without wrecking my knee.

Connolly: Did you see a difference on the field between the league's first year and Year Two?

Akers: Yeah, definitely. As far as player performance and team performance, there was a huge difference. Everybody seemed to be on the same page. The players understand what was going to be asked of them as far as preparation for the season - what the schedule would be like, what it's like to play such a long season. I think everyone has figured it out. The front-office figured out a few things better in Year Two, as well.

One of the goals is to get butts in seats, so that's why it's good we get out there and help kids and get people excited about the league. Hopefully, the kids get their parents to bring them out to the games.

Connolly: When you are at home, what teams do you tend to try and watch?

Akers: To be honest, I'm not a big sports watcher. Sometimes I catch the games by accident. It'll be raining outside, so I'll be indoors.

Connolly: What about with the National Team games?

Akers: I don't watch. I happened to catch the game against Iceland, but it's usually by accident. I'm not a big TV person. I'm always outside doing things. I've never been a sports watcher. I was just a sports player. My friends kid me about it because I have no idea as far as the NBA Finals, college basketball finals or the Super Bowl. I never know when anything is.

Connolly: Have you seen enough of Aly Wagner to be excited about her prospects?

Akers: Yeah. I like her. She's definitely the midfielder for that team. She's got great touch and good vision. She's always one of the reasons why someone is scoring. Aly has a great future. And she has a great number too.

Connolly: Aly will be out there wearing your old number in the World Cup this summer. It seems like your team just won that epic game in Pasadena. Looking back, how much do you remember considering the shape you were in?

Akers: I've had that day put together for me by different people. From my step-mom's video to the doctor, people have filled in the gaps over the past four years. Fans have sent me pictures, too. There are just many gaps.

Connolly: When Brandi hit the kick, where were you?

Akers: I don't remember any of that. I remember being on the sideline. Tony came over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I said, Yes, but then Doc Brown said, No, that I was a goner. After that, I just remember them working on me and then getting back out onto the field. There's just not a lot of memories.

Connolly: With the Rose Bowl packed and everyone waving flags and going crazy despite the crazy heat, is that something you could have ever imagined happening back in 1985 when you started with the National Team?

Akers: Well, yeah (smiling). Absolutely. That was the dream and the vision many, many years before that not only by me but by many other people.

Connolly: So to have one of your best performances -- one of the all-time courageous performances, in fact -- on that day, it had to be like a fairy tale.

Akers: It was everything I dreamed of and expected, yet it was so much more than I ever expected. The journey of getting there and what goes into it with all the challenges along the way is worth it. For me, even after having my head knocked off and being unconscious, it was the culmination of my whole career to be able to come out and celebrate the victory with the team. You expect all that. But you can't ever understand all the feelings and emotion that goes along with it when it happens.

Connolly: Is it hard being away from it all?

Akers: No, not at all. Soccer is something I love playing and I have so many friends on the team and I miss certain parts of it, but I love my life. I have so many other different things going on. Soccer is and will always be a part of my life, but it wasn't ever the only game on the block, so to speak, as far as a life perspective.

It was fun and awesome and I still love to play and I'm proud of everything I did, but now I get to do the things I never got to do. I go skiing, do a lot of horseback riding. I hike. I get a lot of hangout time with my dad. I have a real life and do things like go grocery shopping and clean and mow my lawn. Those things are all incredible because so much of my time used to be done either playing soccer or having surgery or all the other things for my career.

Connolly: Would you ever try coaching?

Akers: I don't really want a team. I love playing with the kids and interacting with them, whether it's the young ones or the college players. But as far as the team aspect, I'm not interested. But as long as I do the camps and the clinics and volunteer a little at the University of Central Florida, I'm doing the things I really enjoy.

Connolly: When your mind wanders, what will be the moments from your career -- the highlights, if you will -- that you'll think of? Small or big.

Akers: It's different than what must people would think or expect. For me, it's going out really early morning on the field. It's really foggy and I'm running my ass off because you know that you're going to be in a World Cup in the next year. That was the type of thing I loved. Or it's being on the field and running next to people like Kristine Lilly, (Julie) Foudy or Carla Overbeck. We would yell at each other, C'mon, we want to beat those damn Norwegians or how we could do more and be strong and be faster. Those things. When you're done and you want to puke because you worked so hard, you are totally satisfied.

I miss how after each game I'd look for my dad in each stadium and get to sit down with my folks after the games and have a Coke. I miss the small e-mails or letters from kids saying how our performance or how my determination inspired them or helped changed their lives. I even miss coming home after games and being away when my friend would come over and bring me my dogs. It's all the little things.

Connolly: All the intrinsic things. Not all the hat tricks you scored or anything like that?

Akers: Yeah, I don't know my stats. Tony says them every time he introduces me and I go, Oh. To me, it's more the we part of it and the things you have to do behind the scenes to be the best. The things that no one ever knows about. To go out there and play and perform and to see it all come together. Maybe sometimes it doesn't, too. That's part of it.

One of my best memories is from the 1995 World Cup when we lost. We stood together on the field as a team and we said that we're not letting this happen to us next year in the Olympics. We said we were going to come back and win the Olympics. And we did.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.