At age 11, Sonny Askew's sporting peers included players 19 and 20. He was swift and agile, shot well and practiced passionately whenever possible. Yet he never could be called a prodigy, for the simple reason that Sonny Askew is an American.
And his sport is soccer. Players become excellent early only if their countries have a tradition of excellence in that team game - and America will yield a Pele about as often as Poland produces a pope.
Still, being a precocious American helped him become a soccer professional, at 19, with the Washington Diplomats. But when his average playing time over two years could be measured in seconds, rather than minutes, and Coach Gordon Bradley wanted to talk after last season, Askew assumed the worst.
"I hadn't played a second the whole year," he said. "I didn't even sit on the bench. During games, I'd sit in the stands - and I wouldn't go upstairs for the parties afterward. I just didn't feel part of the team."
So he assumed Bradley was about to banish him to somewhere in the North American Soccer League hinterlands. Or worse, perhaps out of soccer and back permanently to his hometown, Baltimore, from where he had commuted almost daily.
Instead, Bradley sent Askew to Scotland, for three months of development under reasonably extreme conditions, the way a father might send a headstrong son to a stern uncle for discipline. Askew, it seems, was what a wonderful Hungarian coach named Andre Nagy would call "too much the dribble boy."
You have seen young Askews everywhere, in and out of sport: the football runner who must juke 25 yards sideways to go five yards upfield, the basketball guard who must double clutch on the simplest layup, the preacher who spends 10 minutes getting to the point of his sermon.
"I'd jink with the ball," Askew said. "Hold it too long, create few opportunities."
Which, at Askew's position - the soccer equivalent of point guard - was a disaster.
"A soccer field can be divided into thirds," said Bradley. "The defensive third, the midfield third and the offensive third. Sonny's in the middle, the creative third, and when he loses the ball we break down.
"When a middle-field player has the ball, others move to support him up ahead. Control the ball, push it and run, that's what the game's all about. And when Sonny loses the ball, or takes too long doing something with it, he not only puts himself out but also four or five others."
Bradley knew the Scots would help cure that. Literally, they would beat some sense into Askew. Or as the free-thinking Englishman, paul Cannell, said, "You try something fancy over there, you pay. Bounce the ball off your ear and they'll just knock your ear off. tit's a man's game, you know."
Not long after he arrived in Scotland, Askew phoned Bradley, frantic, saying, "They're whammin" me every time I get the ball. I can't do anything. They're killin" me whenever I touch the ball."
Undoubtedly smiling, Bradley replied, "They're teaching you to get rid of it." In a hurry. With no frills.
Askew survived - and learned.
"I finally know what to do with the ball before I get it," he said, "and when you learn that, you've got it. You don't want to trap it, you want to knock it on the first touch, keep the action fluid, allow things to open up.
"My (field) vision now is much better. My range is longer. Instead of seeing maybe 20 yards away I can pretty much look 50 yards ahead. I'm keeping my head up more now, knowing where the players are."
Although the Scots were invaluable, Askew insists his daily experience with the Diplomats his first two years also was important in his leaping from seldom-seen scrub to starter this season, from zero action (he had played sparingly his first season) to scoring the winning goal in three of the Dips' last five games.
Against Vancouver on Wednesday night in RFK Stadium, the newly economical Askew smacked home the winner after a long upfield pass and Cagnell's lovely header.
"You could practice that 50 times and it wouldn't come off like that," Cannell said of the precision. "It was a worthy goal to win the game." And against a worthy team, although Bradley later considered the Whitecap goalkeeper - statistically the best in the league - overrated.
With his half-acre of curls flowing behind a face growing ever more manly, Askew could become one of the Dips' better salesmen, an engaging American who seems on the verge of playing this foreign sport quite well.
"It's the same as anything else, the more you play the better you get," said Cannell. "Parents come up to me all the time and ask how their kid can get better - and I tell them it's simple. All the kid has to do is play the game, every chance he gets.
"Like Sonny did when he was growing up. And now. Two or three games back he started to go back to his old ways. But if he keeps doing what he did this game, the simple things, he can be one of the best, if not the best, Americans in this league." CAPTION: Picture, Diplomats' Sonny Askew: Less is better. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post