For your country

December, 24, 2010

This is the third part of my Remembering 2010 blog. It's a very personal story.

It was May 19 and I'd put all the finishing touches on my travel plans for South Africa. All that was left was, well, all the things that go along with preparing your wife and two sons for the reality that you're going to be far away from home for five weeks.

I was about two weeks away from my departure. The U.S. national team had just arrived to Princeton for training. This was great for me, as it's only an hour from my home. And while I wasn't going to be covering the U.S. in South Africa, it was convenient to have the team nearby and accessible. It was really going to get me into full-on World Cup mode.

But as I was preparing to go to bed, I received an e-mail on my BlackBerry that shook me to the core. This was the day I learned that my friend, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, had been killed in Afghanistan. In an instant, my World Cup mood had changed.

This is a soccer story because John McHugh loved the game, probably more than anything in his life except his family and his country. In the weeks before his departure for Afghanistan, John had asked me jokingly if I needed anyone to carry my bags around South Africa. He told me he was going to be locked in watching the games the entire month. I know he also would've spent the between-games hours kicking the ball around with his 5-year old son, David, and his 18-year-old daughter, Kelly.

Last month, I heard Bill Clinton talk about how his daughter Chelsea's generation was the first group of Americans who fell in love with the game. Seeing that Chelsea is 30 years old and I'm 47, the former president is off by a generation, at least.

Then again, Clinton isn't from New Jersey, like me and John McHugh. Because if you were born in or around 1963 in the Garden State, there's a pretty good chance you fell in love with soccer. John and I played against one another throughout our childhood. And in the summers, we attended multiple camps together. John was always a goalkeeper.

As we went through high school (at rival schools), I don't think I ever played against a better keeper. He was perfect for the position because he was simply born to be a leader. No amount of confusion in the box could get him rattled. It was no surprise when he told us he'd be attending West Point. At Army, he still holds the record for saves in a season.

I found out after he was killed that, after 24 years of service to his country, John was talking about retirement. And what he planned to do next was coach -- specifically, train goalkeepers. Just a few months before he left for Afghanistan, John attended a U.S. goalkeeper training school.

The first people I called when I got the horrible news were my parents. Second was my brother Bob. The next morning, before the U.S. took the field to train, Bob took the time to mention Colonel McHugh's passing to his team and to the media in attendance. I can only hope that some of those words registered with the team as the players put on their U.S. jerseys. No one was looking forward to the World Cup -- and especially the U.S. games -- more than John, but this was a brutal reminder that these are just soccer games.

However, I must admit, as the U.S. scratched and clawed its way to draws with England and Slovenia, and won on Landon Donovan's walk-off goal against Algeria, I felt the Americans had played with a spirit that my friend, Colonel John McHugh, the highest-ranking American officer to be lost in Afghanistan, would have admired greatly.



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