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Jan 19, 2009

Hamm and Co. gather again for charity

CARSON, Calif. -- Soccer legend Mia Hamm has never been one to shy away from a challenge, so it comes as no surprise that the Mia Hamm Foundation is leading the fight against leukemia, lymphoma, and other life-threatening diseases.

Hamm and her husband, Nomar Garciaparra, hosted their second annual Celebrity Soccer Challenge at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., on Saturday. The event brought soccer stars and celebrities together to raise awareness of bone marrow diseases and add volunteers to the growing registry of potential marrow donors.

Throughout the game -- a 7-6 win for Nomar United over Mia FC -- fans were encouraged to add their names to the National Marrow Donor Program registry. In tents set up by Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, potential donors provided cheek swabs that will be analyzed to help find genetic matches for marrow donation.

While the cause was a serious one, the mood of the game was casual. The enthusiastic crowd cheered loudest for Hamm and fellow women's soccer stars Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Tisha Venturini Hoch and Joy Fawcett.

Hamm got the crowd going early with a nutmeg of actor C. Thomas Howell and Chastain followed with an attempted bicycle kick, only to have New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis deflect the ball just before she could make contact.

The game was played on a short field to allow plenty of scoring and creative play.

Although the soccer stars were clearly a couple of steps faster than the actors and musicians, the celebrities scored their fair share of goals, something former men's national team standout Cobi Jones didn't expect.

"Some of the celebrities surprised me, to tell you the truth. There are a few of them that can play," Jones said.

"Heroes" star Jimmy Jean-Louis, a longtime soccer player, even tallied a hat trick for FC Mia. For him, answering Hamm's call to play was a no-brainer.

"First of all, as a football player I never say no to a game, and second of all, to know that it's for a good purpose, it was a done deal," Jean-Louis said.

For others, taking the field was a new experience. Skater Ryan Sheckler freely admitted that soccer is probably not his game.

"This is actually the first time I've ever played," he said.

The athletes made an obvious effort to get everyone involved on the field, occasionally passing on open shots to set up the celebrities.

"You find very quickly when you're involved with soccer that it's a thread that kind of goes through everybody," former men's national team star Alexi Lalas said. "I thought this crop of celebrities actually did a very good job. There weren't any complete catastrophes out there."

On the contrary, the celebrities seemed to be enjoying themselves even more than the players. After scoring a second-half goal, "Scrubs" star Donald Faison played to the fans by sprinting the length of the field and drawing a half-serious yellow card for excessive celebration.

"It was a great moment in the history of my life. I've never done that before so it felt great," Faison said. "I should have played soccer when I was younger. I'm gonna play soccer as an adult now of course."

Hamm's team, Mia FC, included athletes Lilly, Reis, Lalas, Brian Ching, Tony Hawk, Casey Jennings and Paul Caliguri, and celebrities Jean-Louis, Faison, Josh Hutcherson, Benji Madden, Andrea Bowen, Chris Richardson, Allen Hopkins and Dulé Hill. Olympic star Kerri Walsh acted as coach.

Garciaparra's Nomar United countered with Chastain, Hoch, Fawcett, Jones, Sheckler, Chris Seitz, Robbie Rogers, Mark Langston, Oliver Wyss, and Danny Califf from the sports world, and celebrities Howell, Anthony LaPaglia, Angus T. Jones, Rivers Cuomo, Mark Consuelos, Josh Henderson, Brian Dunseth and LZ Granderson. U.S. women's national team star Abby Wambach, still recovering from the broken leg she suffered in July, offered advice from the sideline.

Bone marrow donation is a personal issue for Hamm, who lost her brother, Garrett, to a bone marrow disease in 1997. That year she organized the Garrett Game, an exhibition featuring stars of the women's national team, to raise funds in his honor. In 2008, she and Garciaparra, the former Los Angeles Dodgers infielder, organized the first Celebrity Soccer Challenge, which raised more than $150,000. More importantly, the registration efforts at the game led to a successful bone marrow match.

"It blew away our expectations, when someone said that. For such a short amount of time, with less than 200 people registering, that's unbelievable. It shows you just how important it is," Hamm said.

The emotional high point of the day came at halftime, when two recipients of bone marrow transfusions met their donors for the first time. The stadium went silent as the introductions were made, then cheered loudly when they embraced.

While the game was clearly more about the cause than who actually won, it was not without last-minute drama. Jean-Louis scored his third goal for FC Mia with 20 seconds left to tie the score at 7. Sudden death overtime followed, with both teams noticeably stepping up the intensity in the hunt for the winning goal.

"You didn't get to this point without being competitive and nobody likes to lose," Lalas said.

The breakthrough came from Garciaparra, who made a long run up the right wing before ripping a shot underneath sprawling FC Mia goalkeeper Hopkins.

It was a sweet moment for Garciaparra, whose team fell to Hamm's by a score of 13-12 in the event's first incarnation in 2008.

"I'm just glad we won so I don't have to hear it for another whole year that we lost," Garciaparra said. "I won't rub it in, but at least I have it under my hat."

Hamm, competitive as ever, was not thrilled by her husband's new bragging rights.

"Now I have to live with that for the next year," she joked.

Regardless of who came out ahead on the field, bone marrow registration was the clear winner of the afternoon. A full hour after the game had ended, dozens of people were still receiving cheek swabs. Organizers showed off a huge box overflowing with donor registration forms, an indication of the event's success and a hopeful sign in the battle against bone marrow diseases.

Andy Firchau is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at a_firchau@yahoo.com

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