As Hejduk Grows, U.S. Goes
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 1998; Page B4
SAINT-JEAN D'ARDIERES, France, June 12 Just over a year ago, the U.S. national soccer team boarded a bus in front of a hotel in Pasadena, Calif., heading to the airport for a tournament in China. Absent from the group was U.S. midfielder Frankie Hejduk, a long-haired, sun-bronzed, California native with a predilection for surfing.
With the bus about to leave, two team officials looked for Hejduk in his hotel room. He wasn't there. The officials piled his strewn clothing into suitcases and took the bags to the airport, hoping Hejduk who spent the night with friends in Los Angeles would arrive in time for the flight.
Hejduk did not. He had overslept. Only his bags made the trip to China. At that time, it appeared Hejduk's short stay with the U.S. team was over.
U.S. Coach Steve Sampson seriously considered leaving him off the World Cup squad. "I was very, very disappointed in him," Sampson said.
Sixteen months later, Sampson still is waiting for Hejduk. Only this time, he's waiting to see if Hejduk has recovered fully from the sore hamstring that forced him to miss three consecutive U.S. matches and nearly a month of workouts. This past Monday, Hejduk trained with the U.S. team for the first time since the players assembled May 11. He played 45 minutes in a closed-door exhibition Tuesday and is likely to start at wide midfielder Monday, when the United States opens World Cup play against Germany in Paris.
"It's miraculous that he's come back from what was once considered a serious hamstring injury," Sampson said today. "At one point, I seriously considered leaving him off the squad."
Actually, until this year, Sampson rarely considered Hejduk for anything. After the missed flight, Hejduk played precisely six minutes with the national team in the next 12 months.
"He has come light years from a year ago," Sampson said. "His attitude changed dramatically."
Said Hejduk: "I was worried I would never be with the national team again. I thought it was over. But [Sampson] gave me another opportunity, and it worked."
Hejduk's turnabout has been so pronounced, he strongly influenced Sampson's decision to make a drastic formation change in April. Sampson said this week he likely would not have installed the new three-defender, six-midfielder, one-forward alignment partially responsible for the team's four-match undefeated streak without knowing Hejduk would be available. Hejduk, 23, possesses one simple attribute crucial to his position and lacking in most of the U.S. players: blinding, breathtaking speed.
That speed often has sent Hejduk in the wrong direction. The first time he was called up to the U.S. team during a training camp in 1996, Hejduk declined a lift to a match from U.S. General Manager Tom King, telling King he would instead get a ride from one of his buddies whom he had invited to stay in his room at the team hotel.
At the next workout, Sampson exploded at Hejduk for his lack of professionalism. U.S. team spokesman Jim Froslid said it was "the maddest I've ever seen Steve at a player in front of the team. He was livid. I've never seen a guy crawl into a deeper hole than Frankie did. He was so shaken by the whole thing."
Despite that barrage, Hejduk still didn't seem to understand Sampson's expectations. A UCLA graduate who learned to surf at age 4, Hejduk idolized reggae singer Bob Marley and seemingly preferred surfing to soccer. During a trip to Miami with the U.S. national team in the winter of 1996-97, the players disembarked from a van ride while Hejduk took a moment to peer into the rearview mirror to adjust his headband, Froslid said.
Sampson asked Hejduk what he was doing.
"I'm fixing my hair," Froslid recalled Hejduk saying innocently to Sampson. "You got a problem with that, bro?"
Hejduk did not practice with the team that day.
Shortly thereafter, on Jan. 23, 1997, he missed the flight to China. "That made me wake up a little bit," Hejduk said. "I realized missing the flight was a stupid thing to do. Since then, I have changed my life 100 percent."
Hejduk married his girlfriend, Kim Walters, that fall. (He proposed to her in knee-deep water along a San Diego beach, while holding a surfboard.) She since has given birth to Frankie Nesta Hamilton Hejduk. (Marley's middle name is Nesta.) They are planning to buy a house in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area, close to Hejduk's Major League Soccer team, the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
"Before, he didn't really think he was going to make soccer his career," Kim Hejduk said by phone from St. Petersburg. "He thought he was going to make partying his career. I knew, once he got his act together, he was going to be such a good player. He just had to get his mind in the state in which his body plays."
The only hurdle Hejduk faces at the moment is regaining full health in time to make an impact in this World Cup. Sampson said today Hejduk could handle about 45 minutes of playing time Monday.
"I think his marriage and the fact he had a child has a lot to do with his maturing," Sampson said. "He's now what I call a true professional. He is not just playing for himself, but for someone else in his life."