With hundreds of children chirping "Fred-dee! Fred-dee!" a slight teenager with a shy smile named Freddy Adu loped onto the field yesterday, joining area youth players for a charity coaching event, his first as a big-time, big-name international soccer star.
He had an easy rapport with the kids. After all, he is only 15 -- and shorter than some of those he was teaching on the field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. "Teaching" is perhaps too strong a word. Adu spent the day playing with other kids. And they treated him less like a role model than like an older brother who happens to do amazing things with his feet.
"It wasn't so long ago that I was doing this," Adu said after some footwork drills.
Adu was born in Ghana and came to the United States in 1997, when his family settled in Potomac. He was discovered by local youth teams, and soon he was being courted by some of the biggest European teams. Instead, he signed with Major League Soccer's D.C. United for $500,000, making him the league's highest-paid player.
The students at yesterday's clinic were not intimidated. After all, Adu had to be driven to the event by his mom, just as they had.
Annie Bernal, a 7-year-old from Manassas, sneaked up behind Adu and tried to knock the ball out of his hands. Then, when Adu picked her up and posed for a photo, Annie made bunny ears behind Adu's head.
"Don't think I didn't see you do that," Adu said with a laugh.
Adu may be young, but he is quickly learning the ways of professional sports. Even though he was clowning around and having a good time, he made sure to pick up only soccer balls made by Nike, which he endorses. And though he is too young to drive, he posed behind the wheel of a polished new Audi, one of the event's sponsors.
The program was to raise money for America SCORES, a charity that involves children in a mix of after-school soccer, creative writing and public service.
The group has programs in 10 cities, including Washington, where it serves 630 children in 21 elementary schools.
The charity was started 10 years ago by D.C. public school teacher Julie Kennedy, who combined her love of soccer, poetry and volunteerism.
"Soccer is used as a hook to get them excited about reading and writing," said Holly O'Donnell, the director of the D.C. affiliate, who grew up playing soccer in Southeast.
"It's also about having fun," O'Donnell said.
The kids from DC SCORES who were on the field yesterday didn't have the fancy European soccer outfits worn by most of the other participants. Some wore jeans. Their shoes were hand-me-downs from kids through the McLean program Cleat Repeat. And when they walked onto the field, there were few smiles and lots of cool poses. But that lasted only until they got ahold of soccer balls. Smiles erupted as the balls flew into the air.
Eric Cartwright, a 10-year-old from Northeast who was the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, said he loved soccer because of the tricks he learned.
To prove his point, he had a friend, Dante Johnson, 9, throw a soccer ball at his head. Eric butted it back. Then he smiled broadly.
"They were so excited to meet Freddy, they were up at 7," said Juanita Johnson, a parent volunteer at Smothers Elementary School in Northeast.
She was doing her part to help the players, holding four shirts, two pocketbooks, a bag of shoes, two hats, a backpack and one white-and-yellow soccer ball.
Johnson said soccer is fun, but writing is just as important to the kids.
"There are a lot of things they can't say to their parents and their friends, but they put it in writing to let the world know," she said.
Sharticia Bryant, 13, said she never would have started playing soccer if it weren't for the program.
Her friends mostly like basketball. But her Northeast neighborhood is changing, and soccer has become a passport to new friends.
"I live in a mostly Spanish neighborhood, so I play with them," she said. "That's why I'm so good."