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Jan 27, 2008

Hamm rallies the celebrity troops for a good cause

CARSON, Calif. -- While Mia Hamm had a prolific scoring career in her playing days, she was looking for an assist on a sunny Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. During halftime of the celebrity soccer challenge she hosted with husband Nomar Garciaparra, Hamm appealed to the audience to get tested for the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. Recipients of transplants also were on hand to testify to their struggles.

Bone marrow transplants can turn the tide of a number of diseases, including certain types of cancer.

Although U.S Soccer pioneer Paul Caliguri was playing in the event -- which saw Mia FC eke out a 13-12 win over Nomar United -- he wasted no time joining the cause.

"During halftime, I heard the stories and I was so moved," Caliguri said. "I'm registered now. It's fantastic. I ran up the stairs and came back before the end of the game."

Others answered the call by showing up to the match in the first place.

"As far as I'm concerned, Mia Hamm in the soccer community is royalty," said Alexi Lalas, Los Angeles Galaxy general manager. "So when the queen calls, you go."

Both Hamm and Garciaparra, a first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, contacted friends in the sports and entertainment world to support the event.

"I'm friends with Mia, because she was on the show with us one time," said Ty Pennington, host of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." "Shining a light on the bone marrow thing is really cool. I lost a cousin to it, but another friend of mine fought it and won. There really is hope out there. A cotton swab [the testing method for the registry often is a cheek cell sample] goes a long way."

Despite the seriousness of the cause, the tone of the match was light and fun. With a good-natured crowd of about 6,000 cheering every move, the celebrities and soccer stars provided an energetic match with prolific scoring. Hamm tallied the first goal, but throughout the game, she and her fellow soccer pros did their best to involve all the participants by distributing passes early and often.

"I was pretty stoked to play with Tony Hawk," Caliguri said. "I was trying to feed him the ball so he could score, but maybe he needed a skateboard to do that."

Rivers Cuomo of the band Weezer knocked in Nomar United's first goal. The musician, a long-time soccer fan, was thrilled to be involved.

"It was a dream come true," Cuomo said. "Passing with Landon Donovan and going against Mia Hamm -- it's just unreal. I was terrified, but I was so excited that the excitement overcame the terror."

Garciaparra, who couldn't play because of Major League Baseball restrictions, said the match offered the participating celebrities a unique opportunity.

"No one else has an event like this, where they get to go out and play soccer," Garciaparra said.

Some admitted it had been a while since they strapped on their shin guards.

"I last played 23 years ago," said Elizabeth Shue, an Academy Award-nominated actress.

A few players were newcomers to the sport, including former pitcher Jim Abbott.

"You have a whole new appreciation for how hard the game is," Abbott said after the match.

Unlike Garciaparra, former catcher Mike Lieberthal was able to play, having made official his retirement from baseball just before the match began.

A couple of the soccer stars switched positions. New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman served a stint in goal, while Brad Guzan, who normally plays goalkeeper, scored twice against him.

"He was running his mouth a little bit," Guzan said of his motivation against Twellman.

Mia FC, with Hamm as coach and a player, counted Lieberthal, Pennington, Shue, Twellman, Pat Noonan, Chris Albright, Milo Ventimiglia, Andy Samberg, Eric Wynalda, Seth Meyers, Joy Fawcett, Casey Jennings and Eric Braeden among its members.

On the other side of the fence, Garciaparra coached Caliguri, Hawk, Abbott, Cuomo, Donovan, Guzan, Lalas, Bianca Kajlich, Ted Colleti, Allen Hopkins, Julie Foudy, Carlos Mencia, Kristine Lilly, Kim Ng, Tisha Venturini Hoch, Peter Vagenas and Anthony LaPaglia. Liberal substitution rules were in effect throughout the match, which was played on a shortened field and divided into four15-minute periods. Although they applauded the plucky effort of the celebs, savvy fans showed plenty of appreciation for the skills of the soccer pros.

But for Hamm, the important part was the cause, an especially personal one at that. Her older brother, Garrett, who helped teach her the sport, died from complications related to aplastic anemia. An ideal bone marrow donor match never appeared (and a half-match isn't as beneficial, although it was tried).

"If I got just one more person signed up, that's one more opportunity that someone out there has," Hamm said.

In 1997, the year Garret died, Hamm's national teammates helped her hold the first fundraising match in his honor. A few of them, including Foudy, Lilly, Venturini Hoch and Fawcett, were on hand Saturday, more than a decade later, for the latest version. It seemed only fitting, given their constant support, that the game closed the way it did. With the score knotted at 12-12 and only a minute left, Hamm carried the ball down the wing, then slipped a pass to Fawcett for the winning strike.

Of course, for Hamm, the real win was the event's continued success. She tentatively is planning on making it an annual event to continue to get the word out about bone marrow registration.

Hamm emphasized the good that a donor match can accomplish. "You change a family's life -- not just the recipient's, but the entire family's life -- forever. You change that despair and struggle they've had and give them an opportunity for hope."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.