|ESPN.com: Wayne Drehs Blog||[Print without images]|
PRINCETON, N.J. -- They are the rules of the superstar athlete, the unwritten code each and every performer has been programmed to follow in any media throng.
Keep it short and simple. Don't talk about anything personal. Act offended if anyone asks anything personal. And try not to smile.
And yet there was the face of American soccer on a chilly, rain-filled Tuesday afternoon, sitting under a wind-swept canopy at Princeton's soccer field, smiling, laughing and undergoing a free therapy session in front of 50 or so members of the media.
Landon Donovan not only didn't mind, he asked for more. Apparently, the 28-year-old has grown up. The California kid, who is about to play in his third World Cup, has learned from his three failed attempts to star in the German Bundesliga, his disappointing performance during the 2006 World Cup and his 2009 divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich. He claims he is now a stronger, more confident human being who better understands who he is and perhaps more importantly, who he isn't.
"I've spent a lot of time looking at myself in an honest way," Donovan said. "And when you do that, you don't have much choice but to learn about yourself. Whether you like it or not."
Tuesday's session was an opportunity to share what he's learned. So for 31 minutes and seven seconds, Donovan answered every single question that was asked of him. About relationships. Pressure. Being a leader. And growing as a person. He was open and honest, candid and real.
The introspective session started with Donovan reflecting on his performance in Germany, saying, "that lesson has been learned and won't be duplicated again." When a reporter followed up with what lesson Donovan was referring to, the midfielder opened up.
"Take the soccer component out of it," he said. "In life you have opportunities that come around every so often and you have to take advantage of. I wasn't prepared nor did I take advantage of it. Whether that's in any facet of your life -- in your job, in your personal life, anything -- when you don't do that, it's disappointing."
But, Donovan insists, that won't happen again. He pointed to his January loan to Everton, which he used to test himself as to whether or not he had actually grown as a person, as an example. After his previous struggles in Europe, Donovan scored two goals and added three assists in 13 games with the Premier League side and was named the club's player of the month for January. After his final match in March, he took a victory lap around the pitch to chants of "USA."
"I am who I am as a player now," he said. "I'm not going to learn how to shoot the ball better the next few years. The biggest improvement I've made is mentally. My time at Everton was a big test at that to see how far I've come. I wanted to make sure when I got there I was prepared and I was open to the experience in every way possible. And I made the most of it."
Now comes the challenge of doing it on the game's biggest stage, like he did when he scored a pair of goals in the 2002 World Cup. On Tuesday, when a reporter asked Donovan how and when these personal changes began, Donovan joked, "How long you got?" But then, without hesitation, he pointed to July 4, 2002, the day he met Bianca at a San Jose Earthquakes versus Los Angeles Galaxy MLS game.
"She taught me more about myself than I've ever known," he said. "And continues to do that. And that was the beginning of it all."
A reporter followed up that question by apologizing before asking Donovan to expand on his relationship with his ex-wife. Before the reporter could finish, Donovan replied, "No, it's OK. You can ask."
Then he answered.
"Bianca is an actress and if any of you know that life it can be miserable at times," he said. "She's fought for everything she's gotten. I've on the other hand been very fortunate and blessed with the ability I've been given and the opportunities I've been given. And when you've been given that perspective and realize you can't take things for granted, that hits you real and it hits you hard when it comes from your wife and best friend. That's a really big part of this process."
Donovan later added that the two remain friends.
"I think every comment when I would tell people I was going through a divorce was always, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,'" he said. "But it doesn't always have to be 'I'm sorry.' Sometimes you learn more from those moments than anything. For me, certainly, that was the case and it doesn't have to be ugly. It doesn't have to be nasty. It can be helpful and you can grow from it."
Sprinkled around all the personal conversation was talk of the injury that will keep Los Angeles Galaxy teammate David Beckham out of the World Cup -- "I'm sure once the World Cup starts there will be disappointment. It's a bad situation," he said -- and a reaction to U.S. teammate Oguchi Onyewu reportedly offering to play at Milan for free in 2011-12 -- "Tell Bruce [Arena, the Galaxy manager], I'm not playing for free."
Donovan admitted that life as the face of American soccer hasn't been easy. He is the all-time leader in scoring and assists for the national team and has the most caps of all active players. In addition, he is the only six-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year Award. But the attention and pressure has often worn him down.
When Bob Bradley was first named the national team coach in December 2006, Donovan wanted to be one of the leaders of the national team. But looking back now, he said, he wasn't ready.
"[Bob] probably saw that, too," Donovan said. "It takes time to earn those things. And for me, I want to earn it. I don't want to be given anything because I have played in a lot of games or have a lot of experience. I want to earn it and it's better that way."
Now, with the help of friends, teammates, coaches, his now ex-wife as well as a therapist, he's rediscovered his passion and appreciation for the game.
"I'm more real than I was," he said. "I'm more centered. Those things give you confidence but also the ease in knowing that whatever comes your way you're going to be OK with it."