No pampered athletes play soccer for American University. Take Michael Brady, the senior leader who sets the example on this slightly miraculous team that has reached the NCAA's Final Four. The Final Four! And yet to get there, the Eagles had to soar into a headwind.
Most of his college life, Brady (24 goals, seven assists this season) has had jobs: giving out parking tickets on campus, making pizzas off campus, selling in the school bookstore and doing a string of odd jobs such as shining cars and shoveling snow. The coach can offer only two full scholarships. The coach was a checker in a food store when he got this job.
It's come to this: AU is 18-2-2, fresh from an upset victory at South Carolina and ready for a 1 p.m. Saturday appointment at home against Hartwick College, a small school in Oneonta, N.Y., with a big soccer tradition.
A crowd of 5,000 is expected to gather on the Ward Circle campus to see if the Eagles can land in the Kingdome final in Seattle, against either UCLA or Evansville. Said Brady, "We used to get a few people to the games -- girlfriends and parents."
Now the secret's out about this team led by Brady, blue-eyed and auburn-haired, born in Chicago of Irish parents and raised in England, and the coach of the Eagles, Pete Mehlert, born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, London and Bethesda. Mehlert played soccer at Walter Johnson High and later for Boston University, and in 1972, a year after his college graduation, got the AU job, months after his interview and to his utter amazement. That's when he was punching a cash register for Giant.
"He's taken a little and made a lot out of it," said AU publicist Terry Cornwell, walking across campus after practice the other evening in the bitter cold dark. "He's got a mind that never stops. He's raised the program up to a level where the school can't help but give him some financial aid."
In addition to his two full scholarships, Mehlert, 37, a wiry man with glasses, said he can offer eight tuition-only grants, "which I divide up into parts." But, "This sounds like more than it is. Tuition alone is $8,200. If I give half tuition, the player still has to pay $4,100. Plus $4,000 to live on campus. And you haven't bought books yet."
What's more, Mehlert has a modest recruiting budget. But he has a car and is willing to drive to find players. "What's a tank of gas to me?"
If it takes more than a tank, however, he usually uses the phone. He's built up a network of friends, among them Dieter Ficken, the Columbia University coach.
For different reasons, Ficken recommended two standout players to Mehlert -- David Nakhid, AU's second-highest scorer this year, who is from Trinidad, and defenseman Keith Trehy, from London. Both are juniors and both all-conference in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I called Dieter Ficken just yesterday to thank him," said Mehlert.
"He said, 'You so-and-so . . . ' "
Columbia only made the final 16 teams, but Ficken doesn't begrudge AU its current state of soccer euphoria, a "fever," said Nakhid, that "has risen from the beginning of the season."
At the heart of it is a little United Nations of a team -- four come from Trinidad, three from England, one from France (he wrote Mehlert), one from Spain (he called Mehlert) and 12 of the first 20 on the roster from the United States. Unspoiled athletes with a sense of where they are: enjoying a close-to-perfect time in life.
"I like Washington," said Trehy. "It's right up there with London, in my opinion."
"When I look back on this, I'll think it was all worth it," said Glen Buchanan, a senior from Annandale and Thomas Jefferson High.
"This was a team that no one expected much of. We've always been the underdog, even this year, 'til the last three or four games. And now, one of the four best in the nation. We deserve it. We actually deserve it."
None seems to miss the special treatment normally associated with collegiate powers -- even if the team had to take a bus, eight hours each way, to the Clemson game in October.
Sure, it would have been nice to fly, but, said Billy Corbett, from Olney and Sherwood High, a freshman who is learning fast, "Those are luxuries. You've got to think of real life. In real life, you may have to do things that are worse, harder."
In addition, Corbett has seen what goes into the making of an outstanding athlete. He watches Brady. "He practices just as he plays in the game, always the same way, the same intensity. That's why he's good. As a freshman, I think this is good for me to see."
Brady is Mehlert's type of player. Mehlert "demands a lot," said Brady, "but I think that's very good."
"I have a feeling about the game of soccer," said Mehlert, at the end of another long day that included teaching physical education classes. "If you have the technical ability to pass the ball and the tactical awareness, the vision, you can simply pick the right man to pass to."
Mehlert's game is "one-touch soccer," passing the ball "without stopping it," with the player aware of where to kick the ball even before he gets it. The properly executed soccer pass, he said, is like an all-in-one-motion assist by basketball's Larry Bird, when he takes a pass and redirects it instantly to an open man.
"People say, wow, what a good pass," said Mehlert. "I try to emphasize that kind of play."
But if Mehlert "demands a lot," he puts in long hours himself. Not by accident has AU reached the Final Four.
For instance, there are the scouting reports he comes up with. "He usually hits it right on the head," said Buchanan. "He was 100 percent on South Carolina."
And now, Hartwick. The past few days, students have lined up to buy tickets. "Kingdome" shirts are in evidence.
Two weeks ago, as AU was host of its first NCAA playoff game ever, students hung a 150-foot banner, turned on their scoreboard for the first time since 1973 after finding some new bulbs and welcomed 3,727 fans. The 3-1 final score looked good up on the board.
Truly, the lights were sweet.