EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The first thing you notice about Mia Hamm are her eyes.
On the field, they can be intimidating, almost predatory, flashing with anger at a foul incurred, sparkling in celebration at a goal scored. Intense, smoldering, even passionate.
This is the Mia Hamm that Tony DiCicco knows. The Mia Hamm who has represented the United States on the soccer field for 13 years, starting when she was only 15.
"She's a very passionate player," the U.S. coach said. "You see Mia's true personality come out on the soccer field. Off the field, she's a bit reserved and protected. That's just her natural shyness. But on the soccer field, you see her passion.
"Her essence is about letting all her emotions be displayed, coupled with her incredible athletic abilities and her talent. And when it's all put together, she's just a dynamo. She's a pleasure to watch and certainly a privilege to coach."
But there is another side to the many-faceted Hamm, a side almost never seen by the world away from the U.S. teammates she will lead against Denmark at Giants Stadium today in the opening game of the third FIFA Women's World Cup.
This is the Mia Hamm who is vulnerable, whose eyes are rimmed with tears, whose voice is choking with emotion.
It is also the Mia Hamm who can stand up in front of a large crowd of strangers and bare her soul, who can cry and deliver one-liners at the same time in a virtuoso display of emotion-juggling.
The occasion was the dedication of the 450,000-square-foot Mia Hamm building at Nike's corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., a couple of weeks ago.
With the U.S. players and coaches in a line to one side of her; with her family and former coaches in a VIP area on the other side, and with hundreds of company employees and their children in front of her, Hamm listened calmly to all the speeches and accolades.
Finally, they were over.
". . . Simply the greatest women's player of all time," concluded Phil Knight, Nike's founder. "You cannot say that too many times."
Now it was Hamm's turn. Those who had heard her speak in the past expected the usual--fluent answers deflecting attention away from herself and toward her teammates. That has been Hamm's way for years.
She is intelligent, articulate, even interesting, but her quotes have always seemed curiously dispassionate. Those who edited her new book, "Go for the Goal," described her as the toughest interview in sports.
Not this time.
Perhaps it was the pressure of the three-year buildup toward World Cup '99, three years of answering the same questions, three years of living in the spotlight's glare, always the one being sought out by fans and the media, always the one with the most unreasonable demands on her time.
Now it was almost over and perhaps the relief at knowing that brought about the transformation. Whatever the reason, the tears and the words flowed with equal and honest ease.
"I'm speechless," she said. "I'm rambling right now because I don't know what to say. Never did I ever dream a day like this would ever happen.
"I think all the people who know me know that I don't play for this reason. I don't play for the awards. I don't play for the buildings. I play because I love to do it. When I was born, God gave me a gift, and even though I was a pain in the butt half the time to my family, the gift was to be an athlete and specifically a soccer player.
"We've heard all these superlatives thrown out, 'greatest this, best that.' Well, I'm the result of the people I've surrounded myself with, the coaches who are here today, my teammates, who, if I could handpick 19 people I'd want to hang out with, I'd pick them in a heartbeat. I really am basically what they've given to me.
"From that team to my family. They crack me up every time I see them. I love you guys so much. I'm just so happy you could be a part of this. I know we never really get to see each other that often, but looking at the size of this building, it just shows you how much I love you. So thank you."
The tears were there by now, but then out of the blue, a joke:
"I promised Julie Foudy I'd name a stall after her, so if we can arrange that. . . ."
That broke the tension and Hamm suddenly was free of her normally self-imposed restraints. Finally, the world was seeing a side of her that her teammates know well, the mischievous Hamm, the Hamm who is quick to laugh and to make others laugh.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," she said of the building behind her. "This should have everyone's name on it, not just mine. So think of it as your building," and here the pause was perfectly timed, ". . . with my name on it.
"And, Phil, can I please have a job when I quit?"
There was no ribbon-cutting. Instead a cardboard box was presented to Hamm. When she lifted the lid, 108 butterflies were supposed to fly out--one for each of her world-record 108 goals (now 109). Unfortunately, no one told the butterflies. Many simply fell to the ground. Some were stepped on.