America’s newest soccer hero takes a page from Brandi Chastain’s playbook

Brandi Chastain, center, Kristine Lilly, left, and Julie Foudy, right, celebrate after the Americans won the 1999 World Cup (Source: Rich Lipski, The Washington Post).
Brandi Chastain, center, Kristine Lilly, left, and Julie Foudy, right, celebrate after the Americans won the 1999 World Cup (Source: Rich Lipski, The Washington Post).

It’s fitting that days after a star from the women’s 1999 World Cup championship team called on college graduates to “make an impact” during their lives, a German-American player, who came into the game as a substitute, headed in the winning goal against Ghana as the U.S. men’s soccer team kicked off its 2014 World Cup competition.

On Monday, the 21-year-old John Brooks, who many thought wasn’t good enough to make the team, made the difference with his score in the 86th minute.

On July 10, 1999, Brandi Chastain, who had been dropped from the national team in 1993, made the difference with her game-winning penalty kick. After regulation play, two overtime periods, and nine penalty kicks, Chastain was sent in to make the game-winning kick. Swinging her left foot forward in a powerful arc, she booted the ball past the Chinese goalkeeper’s outstretched arms into the back of the net, ripped her jersey off in front of 90,000 fans at a sold-out Rose Bowl and 40 million viewers on American TV, and propelled women’s soccer into the hearts of millions of Americans. Although the team had won the World Cup eight years earlier, it was the 1999 victory in Pasadena that made this team the most successful and famous women’s team in American history.

Fifteen years later, the 45-year-old Chastain delivered the undergraduate commencement address to a much smaller audience at her alma mater, Santa Clara University in California.

She reflected on how her soccer career — in addition to winning the World Cup in 1991 and 1999, Chastain earned two gold medals and a silver medal in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games — has shaped her life. She spoke on the 50th anniversary of women’s athletics at Santa Clara.

Although Chastain is obviously a talented soccer player, she told the Santa Clara crowd that she really wanted to be a lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers. She soon learned that she would never have the physical strength to become a lineman. Luckily, along came soccer.

After signing up for a girls’ soccer league in San Jose, Chastain recalled that “as soon as that ball hit the ground and I kicked it the first time, I fell in love, and it has been my passion ever since.” She became a star, first helping her high school team to three state championships and then earning national honors as a freshman player at the University of California at Berkeley.

But soccer was more than a game. “The game,” Chastain said, “has given my life purpose and meaning. It has helped me focus on what’s most important.”

Soccer taught her that the game isn’t “all about me.” It’s about the whole team, about giving back, and having a positive impact on others. And, in a foreshadowing of what Brooks did in the U.S.-Ghana match, she said that everyone on the team matters — the starters, the substitutes, the bench warmers.

Many who know Chastain mainly for having ripped off her jersey and swung it triumphantly over her head in 1999, may not know that her career didn’t follow a constant upward trajectory.

After graduating from high school, she played soccer at one of the most prestigious universities in the country and earned national acclaim during her freshman year. The next year, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament and eventually missed more than two years of collegiate soccer while recovering from knee surgery. She transferred to a less-rigorous university two years later.

She also had professional setbacks. Although she had played for the 1991 World Cup championship team, the coach cut her from the team just two years later.

As Chastain put it: “Injuries, kicked out of school, on the team as a world champion, cut from the team as a world champion.”

Through these setbacks, Chastain “learned a lesson about perseverance and making a dream come true.”

This career trajectory — shooting to the top, plummeting to the bottom, then rising again — shows the path that many of today’s college graduates may follow.

Two steps forward, and one step back.

Chastain’s famous 1999 World Cup series also has a famous setback. Though often overlooked because of her winning penalty kick, Chastain earlier risked becoming the team goat after she kicked the ball into her team’s own goal, putting the United States down 0-1 in the quarterfinal game against Germany.

At that moment, Chastain’s teammate came to her and said that things would be all right. That she would be part of the reason why the team would win.

For giving her this encouragement, Chastain calls that teammate, Carla Overbeck, her “impact player.”

“Please be ready to be that impact player,” Chastain encouraged Santa Clara’s graduating Broncos. “You never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to change someone’s life.”

Living up to her own message, Chastain co-founded the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, whose acronym, BAWSI, is pronounced “bossy.”

This group‘s mission is to impact young girls’ lives in a positive way about health and wellness, about how they see each other, and about how they feel when they go out into the world, according to Chastain.

“Light a fire under someone,” Chastain told the grads. “Now is the time to be passionate, have dreams, follow your heart,” but be flexible, “because things do change.”

That’s valuable advice to follow, whether it comes in the final of the World Cup, as it did for Chastain, or in the first game of the knock out round, as it did for John Brooks.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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