LOS ANGELES - Landon Donovan is used to failure. That sounds strange considering he’s U.S. Soccer’s leading all-time leader in scoring and assists - the golden boy of the red, white and blue.
But the 27-year-old from
has certainly been thwarted in his scoring attempts far more frequent than say Albert Pujols has been swinging for a base hit.
Beyond talent and skill, scoring soccer goals is indeed a lesson in determination and perseverance.
So, it perhaps made sense that during Wednesday’s elegant and eloquent Gatorade year-end luncheon at the swank Biltmore Hotel, a feel-good formal celebration of 12 of the nation’s most accomplished and celebrated high school athletes, Donovan set them all straight.
His golden feet that have produced 41 goals and 37 assists for U.S. Soccer acted somewhat like Monty Python’s squashing left foot as he offered stern, grounding advice on an otherwise rainbow event that featured an endless and fragrant bouquet of deserved praise, accolade and hyperbole.
Donovan, Kevin Durant and Matthew Stafford, all former Gatorade National Players of the Year, were the male presenters for the 2008-09 Male Athlete of the Year, won by Lake Travis (Austin, Texas) football star Garrett Gilbert.
“Right now you are on top of the world and it’s probably all come pretty easy to you,” Donovan said at the podium. “But what makes great athletes over time is someone who continues to get better for a long time. I can promise you from now on it’s going to get a lot harder.”
What’s that? A reality check? The old humble hammer coming down?
It’s not like any of the dozen couldn’t handle it. These are Gatorade kids for character’s sake, none pampered but all driven and fiercely competitive. They’ve already earned their way to many of the most prestigious sports and academics universities in the country: Texas football, Oregon track and field, Duke track, Stanford soccer, Nebraska volleyball, Arizona softball, Arizona State track, Wisconsin track and Notre Dame basketball and soccer.
Along the lines they’ve been hollered at, pushed and prodded by either some one or thing, so challenges are nothing new.
Gatorade Athlete of the Year Banquet
Just the timing of this throw down was a bit startling.
I mean, they were just getting to the crème bouille of their meal and prep careers, the finishing touches of high school bliss when Mr. Soccer warned them that they’re heading off to the Alcatraz of their sporting life.
And though I didn’t do it at the time, I give Donovan a standing ovation.
He added yet another flavor to an event that is already filled with nuggets of personalities, slices of humble pie and overall rich nourishing tales of good old fashion achievement.
Donovan simply set the table for the next step. He did so with a bitter true warning but also offered a tasty positive carrot.
“So keep going,” he said. “You’re obviously here because you are talented. Enjoy what you do, but it’s going to take a lot of work so be ready for it and enjoy it. It’s a great ride.”
There were other meaningful words from the other presenters.
Jessica Mendoza, a four-time softball All-American at Stanford and Olympic gold medalist, told the kids to look forward but occasionally look and give back. She starred in softball and basketball at Camarillo High (Calif.).
“You’ve already accomplished so much, and you’re going to keep accomplishing so much more,” said Mendoza, the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “But don’t forget your roots, where you came from, the amazing parents and family and coaches who helped you get there. There’s so many out there who don’t have that. Always keep on trucking, stay humble, but never forget to give back.”
Remember loved ones will be key during tough times, Matthew Stafford reminded the elite dozen. The No. 1 pick of the 2009 NFL draft gave a very stirring, unrehearsed speech that appeared to come straight out of his heart.
“Lean on your teammates and family,” said the Detroit Lions’ new quarterback. “There’s a bunch of people out there really pulling for you. Parents, coaches, people who really care for you. Just listen to them.”
A three-sport star at Highland Park HS (University Park, Texas), Stafford said sports meant everything to him growing up but that there are days you can take it for granted. That’s when you need to find or remember your center, your core, the passion of your sporting existence.
“You have to find what it takes to drive you,” he said. “I think every athlete has it. Whether it is to get out of a situation you’re in or if you need to prove someone wrong, whatever it is. … stay humble and find that thing that gets you up in the morning to work harder than anyone else.”
What drives my sports writing existence is connecting with the athletes themselves.
The MaxPreps Performance Center team of host Claude Parcon, producer Justin Groom and I were fortunate enough to speak with all 12 athletes and the presenters.
While the Performance Team hit on training tips – look for those videos next week – I hit up the elite dozen on a variety of topics, including humbling moments, inspirations, economic sports hardships and other non-sporting pursuits.
Here is a smattering of observation and favorite responses:
* Girls Athlete of the Year winner Skylar Diggins (Washington, South Bend, Ind.) is going to be a winner far beyond the basketball court. Way beyond. She has ‘It’ qualities galore and appears ready to lead industries, regions, nations.
This was our fourth interview with Diggins this year and every time she was more impressive. She thinks about every question, her answers are clear and well thought out.
When asked about the economic strife that has caused many pockets of the country to cut high school sports back or out, Diggins said: “You build sisterhoods around (high school sports). It keeps girls out of trouble. Without sports or basketball there would be more gang violence. Sports keep you level. If you’re playing something you love and they take it away, then it’s like a hole in your heart.”
As thoughtful as her responses she also showed an honest, crazy side, like when expressing her excitement to attend the ESPYs. “I want to see Kobe (Bryant). If I see him, I’m definitely going to introduce myself. I’ll be a crazy stalker woman who says “Hey Kobeeeee,” and he’ll say, “Security!”
* Girls Track and Field athlete of the Year Anna Jelmini was the most animated when asked about possible cuts in high school athletics due to economic cutbacks.
And you don’t want to get Jelmini upset. The national record holder in the discus and No. 2 shot putter in prep history is one strong woman.
“If I didn’t have high school sports, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “I mean, what are we supposed to do? They want us to turn into great adults but if they don’t give us the foundation, what do they expect for us to do with our lives.”
* Softball Player of the Year Kenzie Fowler (Canyon Del Oro HS, Oro Valley, Ariz.), the only back-to-back national winner honored, couldn’t exactly come up with a passion she has if she didn’t have softball. But she knows where she would land.
“Hollywood,” she said. “I might have to move out here. I love it. It’s so exciting. I love all the celebrities.”
* The best most humbling high school moment probably came from Baseball Player of the Year Matt Hobgood (Norco, Calif.), the fifth pick of the 2009 amatuer draft by the Orioles.
He snatched away a pop fly that was headed for the glove of Norco’s third baseman. That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing except Hobgood was on the bench at the time. The umpire ruled it a dead ball instead of an out.
“My coach wasn’t too happy,” Hobgood said with a giant smile.
There was an easy explanation for error in judgment.
“I was a freshman,” Hobgood smiled.
* Stafford’s most humbling moment was also on the baseball field but a little more profound. He played Little League and prep ball with current Los Angeles Dodgers’ starter Clayton Kershaw.
“It was awesome to just sit back and relax and watch somebody else be so successful,” Stafford said.
* Presenter and Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor had trouble finding another passion she might have pursued without sports.
“Does eating count,” she asked?
* Girls Soccer Player of the Year Rachel Quon had the personally most revealing answer of the day. A defender and deflector of all personal attention by nature, she was asked about what her high school life would have been without sports. She saw the entire field and school experience.
“Going to the basketball games, cheering on your other students and peers, those things are amazing,” she said. “Having the rivalry between other high schools is fantastic. High school sports are what you do on the weekends. If we didn’t have it, I don’t know what we’d replace it with.”
* National boys Cross Country Runner of the Year Reed Connor (The Woodlands HS, Texas) had the most articulate answer on the same topic.
“Just being an athlete has taught me the best lessons I’ve ever learned in life,” he said. “Things that are going to help me get through in the long run. It’s not what kind of clouds are in the sky or what the derivative of a function is. It’s the stuff in sports that is actually going to help me.”
Look for video packages and many more stories from this event here and at the Performance Center next week.