Last April, a grown man violently swept a 14-year-old's legs out from under him on a District soccer field. The kid had stolen the ball, begun to laugh, and the next moment he was on the ground, looking up at this maniacal, tree stump of a man who could not deal with having the ball taken from him -- even during a routine drill.
The adults nearby did nothing because, well, the man was their coach.
Peter Nowak now admits it was a crime of adrenaline, but he had to knock Freddy Adu down that day, because of who Peter Nowak is and what his father would have done to him.
"After I make the tackle," the Polish-born D.C. United coach began, "Freddy just look at me, straight in the eye, like, 'Do you really want to kick me?' And I look back like, 'Yeah. Why not?'
"I hate to lose."
Vince Lombardi and Michael Jordan felt the same way, but they never endangered an entire league's marketing plan. What was the man thinking, treating Adu as he would any other player? Did Nowak (pronounced No-vak) not get the memo, the one from Major League Soccer with three caveats to a financially successful season?
1. Play Freddy. 2. Start Freddy and 3. If Adu says he is tired, tell him to shut up. Keep that little revenue producer in the game!
In fairness to MLS, Nowak, 40, said he never felt direct pressure from the league to sell and market Adu. But it would not have mattered, because Nowak had different ideas about how to balance the challenge of bringing along a teenage wunderkind and raising a once-proud franchise that had not climbed above .500 for four years.
From the start, Nowak said he did not have one Freddy Adu. He said he had 24, and the best 11 of them would start each weekend. Soon, Freddy was not making an entrance until midway through the second half of matches, and D.C. United was still winning. Other players' stories began to unfold. The renaissance of Jaime Moreno, who came back from a career-threatening back injury to contend for the league's MVP award. The scoring prowess of young forward Alecko Eskandarian, buried on the sideline last year, leading the team in goals.
Now, here they are, back in the championship game for the first time in five years. United plays the Kansas City Wizards on ABC Sunday afternoon for the ninth MLS Cup. They will play south of Los Angeles, in a stadium constructed specifically for soccer. Network TV ratings are up 27 percent. Investors include such luminaries as Dave Checketts, the former Madison Square Garden president who will oversee the operations of the Salt Lake City franchise.
Wild, huh? An American professional soccer league is about to mark its 10th anniversary without folding or going bankrupt.
And Nowak still won't bend the rules for the golden child -- because he knows that would be its downfall. Because one young prima donna begets another. And another. And another. Until someone needs a month off to sell their CD, the public sours on your players and you're back to trying to sell a flawed product.
"If he would have treated Freddy differently, I think he would have lost us," United defender Ryan Nelsen said. "Peter knew what he was doing."
The story of this MLS season began with Adu, the youngest player in the history of pro team sports in a century. By midseason, it was about Adu again, his Q-rating at the all-star game. But as much as everybody wanted the entire United season to be about Adu, the force of one man's personality would not let it happen.
The result was the gradual development of a phenom, now 15. Adu rifled a penalty kick into the top-right corner of the goal last week at RFK Stadium against New England, in a game that Commissioner Don Garber called one of the greatest matches in league history.
Adu carried the cones at practice this season, like any rookie. He was subjected to the same fines if his cell phone went off in the locker room or, God forbid, he threw his jersey inside-out into the dirty-laundry hamper.
Is Nowak a few fries short of a Happy Meal in the Tom Coughlin-Bobby Knight kind of way? Maybe. But he can't help it. Josef Nowak made him that way. Peter's father played professionally. He used to embarrass his son in front of friends and girlfriends, telling him they would not stop playing until he could beat his father. This game began when Peter was 9 and ended when he was 22.
Even after representing the Polish national team, playing in the German Bundesliga and winning a championship for the Chicago Fire as a player, dad still needles.
" 'You won a championship as a player, but I don't think you can win as a coach,' " he told Peter when he took the United job earlier this year, having never coached a day in his life.
"It didn't matter what you were playing -- cards, dominoes, Monopoly," Nowak said. "Every small game you have to win. I learned this."
After college players from Maryland, American University and other local schools would occasionally work out with United's players this year, they sometimes approached Nowak about his practice methods.
"After, the college players sometimes tell me, 'How are you going to play on the weekend? They are going to be dying.' "
But Nowak persisted, running his players into the ground so they could play two overtime periods at the end of the season and still be fresh enough to blast home enough penalty kicks to put them in the title game. Adu may start. He may not. Does it matter?
Something happened to this franchise the past seven months, something beyond marketing and ticket sales, something beyond Adu. A coach whose intense vision of winning won out, over everything.
"We've been through hell, but we go through it together," Nowak said.
Well put, by the driven man who stoked the fire.