Donovan's Day Out

December 23, 2002
(Archive)

NEW YORK -- It's a tad past 8 a.m. on a sunny mid-December morning and Landon Donovan is nowhere to be found.

Due on the "Fox and Friends" set in just a few minutes, the 20-year-old World Cup star is stranded at the Rhiga Royal without a car.

The production assistants seem nervous, as does Trey Fitz-Gerald, Major League Soccer's Director of Communications and host for Donovan's media tour of Gotham today.

Even I'm a bit nervous for him, as I know that cutting a soccer player from a morning show interview is not exactly something most networks lose sleep over in this country. But Landon is as cool, calm and collected on his cell phone as he is at the top of the box with the ball at his feet.

"No big deal, I'll just walk," he says.

Five minutes later, Donovan is up in the green room, still shivering from the forty-degree temps -- what New Yorkers call Indian Summer -- that he encountered during his walk to the studio. Knowing that he got in from the Left Coast well after midnight, I ask him how much sleep he's running on."

"Let's not talk about it," says Donovan, pausing a bit before smirking around the room.

Thus begins my day around the Big City with the new face of American soccer.

Dressed in a grey sweater ("I just bought this yesterday"), black pants, black shoes and a sleek black leather jacket, Donovan looks like he belongs in a Kenneth Cole ad, and he certainly fits in around Manhattan.

As I will come to find out throughout the day, he doesn't have the persona to match such an image, though. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find another 20-year-old anywhere who is as grounded and comfortable with himself, not to mention non-materialistic, as Donovan.

Before he steps onto the set for the interview, Donovan asks about the hosts, and wants to know if they know soccer at all. (In other words, will he be getting the "What does soccer have to do to catch on in this country?" question for the millionth time.)

When he finds out that interviewer Brian Kilmeade not only loves the game but used to host a soccer show on Long Island and even coaches a youth team called "The Shreks," he is visibly excited. Think that ever happens to Barry Bonds?

After being introduced as "the Kobe Bryant of soccer", his appearance goes smooth, and Donovan even makes a few jokes to add to the typical loose feel of this morning show. One down, and many to go.

With a few hours to spare before his one-on-one interviews begin back at his suite, I mention to Landon that we're only a short walk to Rockefeller Center and that famous Christmas Tree.

Never having seen it, he puts off the quick nap he promised himself and joins myself, Fitz-Gerald and Brian Gordon, who has now joined the crew as the rep for the public relations firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli that works with Donovan.

When we get to Rockefeller's famed skating rink, Landon turns to me and asks, "Can we rent skates." Not knowing if he is serious or not, I question whether he knows how to or not, and quickly realize my mistake.

"Of course," he says. "My dad played semi-pro hockey."

Instead of looking into getting on the ice, I start explaining to him how the real places to skate are in Central Park, and that it's the all-time Money Date. He smirks at that one. "Definitely. I'd be all over that."

As we walk around midtown, Landon does nothing that would make him resemble a tourist. He's not in awe of anything or walking slow enough to disrupt the steady flow of suits hurrying by to and from the subway.

He's been here before and seems to get how things work on a normal weekday morning.

But then he goes and blows it by picking up an errant Starbucks cup and throwing it into a nearby trash can. For the stunned cops standing by, the tourist alert horn has now been sounded.

We're now back at his suite, where Landon is a gracious host, asking what we all want to drink, where to sit, etc ... It's time for an interview with Sports Illustrated, the magazine that he graced the cover of in the midst of the World Cup run to the quarterfinals in June.

Despite it being a competitor of ESPN in the grand scheme of things, the reporter doesn't mind that I sit in the room and observe.

What we see is a relaxed young man, acting as though he's done this a thousand times. The thing about Landon is that his voice barely ever rises and stays at a low volume, especially during interviews.

But he does perk up when told that he received two third-place votes for FIFA World Player of the Year. Even though the award was bestowed to Ronaldo several days earlier for leading Brazil to its fifth World Cup championship, Donovan was unaware.

He seems perplexed of how Mexico voted for him (Hello? How 'bout that textbook header that gave the U.S. an insurmountable 2-0 lead in the Round of 16 match, thus firmly sticking the knife into the heart of a nation.)

What he does do, though, is look around the room at all of us with a slight smile and announce that they'll be more votes next time. No one disagrees. In fact, it inspires chills.

It's now lunch time, and Landon has been chomping at the bit to eat some fine Manhattan cuisine. "I'm up for anything, man," he says. "I'm starving."

Now, finding a good spot to eat in NYC is like trying to find an SUV in the suburbs. They're everywhere all around you.

But Gordon and Fitz-Gerald -- both a part of "Team Landon" that includes PR staff at U.S. Soccer, the San Jose Earthquakes and SportsNet, the L.A.-based firm that his agent, Richard Motzkin, runs -- want the best for their wonderboy, rightly so, which leads us to China Grill, the type of place where reservations aren't so easy to come by, name or no-name.

When we are told that the place is full, I am not surprised. The Maitre D' and hostess don't recognize Landon, either, which does not help our cause. While Gordon pulls the staff aside and tells them who he is with, I find it an easy time to kid with Landon.

"You know, this wouldn't happen with Clint Mathis," I say. "We'd be all set up, probably drinking champagne by now."

Then again, what's a cooler scenario for a U.S. soccer player - getting a table in midtown or leaving money on the table with a prestigious club team like Bayer Leverkusen?

Exactly.

Because that's what Donovan did by choosing to stay in MLS over the world-renowned German Bundesliga. That is also the reason why Donovan is in town today - to deal with all the media interest just two days after being granted another two years to stay with San Jose on loan from Leverkusen, which now owns his rights through 2008.

By having that weight lifted off his shoulders, Donovan appears relaxed, genuinely happy and at peace with the world.

And why shouldn't he? He's playing soccer in his home state of California, where he's just a short trip away from both his mother and sister in Redlands and girlfriend in Hollywood, making plenty of money -- not as much as he could have been making in Deutschland, but enough -- and is about to become the official Poster Boy of Major League Soccer now that his future in the league is secure through the 2004 season.

As his current state of bliss escalates upon news that Gordon just secured him two tickets in the 10th row for tonight's Lakers-Nets game -- as hot of a ticket as they come right now in the Tri-State area -- I remind him of our meeting in April of 2000 when he was fresh off of qualifying for the upcoming Olympics and on break from being in Germany.

"I actually walked away feeling bad for you. You told me how your whole life was e-mailing your family and friends back home when you weren't playing. I remember wanting to just pull you aside and tell you to come home and that there'd be plenty of time to play in Europe, but I didn't want to insult you."

"Yeah, it was tough," says Landon. "When you're not happy, it's just not worth it."

Over a smorgasbord of salmon, Szechwan beef, garlic shrimp and calamari, the four of us touch on most every topic. Landon says how he watched the "Our Way" DVD the other day and how it still feels weird seeing himself on TV like that. We joke with him about how he's shown in his hotel room throughout the whole video.

"But that's all I did," he says. "I didn't leave the hotel when I was there. I didn't even go to another game or anything."

Oddly enough, he also talks passionately about playing in the Pan-Am Games next summer with the U-23s.

For one thing, it's not a very high-profile tournament. Second of all, Donovan already has a bronze medal from 1999 when the squad went 3-2-1 in Winnipeg, Canada. When I am informed of the venue this time around and the, uh, "sights," I realize one of the reasons for his excitement.

"The Dominican Republic is supposed to be incredible," he says. "I want to go, man. Real bad."

As the bill is placed on the table, a call comes in from Connie Chung's office, saying that Landon's scheduled appearance that night has to be bumped due to everything going on in Iraq right now. Gordon and Fitz-Gerald are visibly disappointed, but not the Landon.

"It's ok, we'll just do it again before the season starts."

With that, he swipes the bill up before the people who can actually expense the $250 worth of food gobbled up have a chance to pull out their Amex cards. He refuses to yield.

"You guys have done a lot for me," says Donovan to Gordon and Fitz-Gerald. "Let me do something for you."

My kind of kid.

Landon Donovan
GettyImages / Jamie SquireLandon Donovan looks forward to a busy 2003 with the U.S. national team.

Back to his suite, Landon now has a slew of interviews to tend to. He starts off with Telemundo, and conducts the whole 20-minute conversation -- both on and off camera -- in Spanish. Though he took classes in high school, his ease with the language comes from playing with Latino players growing up. They accepted him as a player, so he figured the least he could do was talk like they did.

"I want to take classes at San Jose State next year," says Landon afterwards. "I can always get better at Spanish, and I want to learn Italian, too."

If you're thinking Serie A, calm down for a sec. You don't have to be around Landon too long to realize he'd get more out of using Italian to impress the ladies than anything else. Again, I like this kid.

As different writers stroll in, Landon treats them all the same, whether he knows them or not. He likes to keep things casual, so he just starts conversations with them that lead into interviews rather than sitting silently on his couch before coming to life when the camera or tape recorders start rolling.

He tackles nearly every question imaginable regarding his decision to stay.

No one that knows soccer and understands what a possible starting role for a team like Bayer Leverkusen means seems to get Landon's decision.

But he keeps coming back to the importance of his family -- mom Donna Kenney-Cash, twin sister Tristan and father Tim -- and how being around them and his friends override any amount of money or opportunity overseas.

He also sees a chance to be the player, or should we say, the icon that finally gets soccer onto the sports pages on a regular basis and raises the profile of the sport in this country.

In between interviews he talks to me like a typical fellow twenty-something would, meaning topics such as girls, the NBA, movies, and, of course, fantasy football.

"The injury reports are killing me," says Donovan, who spent most of the MLS Cup trying to get updated scores and stats from his players. "I have Deuce McCallister and it's impossible to ever know how much he'll play."

Relatable stuff, no doubt. (Ahman Green's injury woes nearly sent me to the doctor.) Same goes for that fact that he loves, but is not very good at, golf, that he's an X-Box freak and he's still awestruck when he sees different celebrities, even middle-of-the-road hoopsters.

"I was in Niketown the other day and Rick Fox walked by me," says Donovan. "My jaw just dropped."

After the interviews were over, including the "10 Burning Questions" I threw at him for ESPN.com's Page 2, it was on to CNN for his 5:45 appearance on "World Sports" with host Terry Baddoo.

While waiting for the car to arrive, Landon pulled out his cell and made several calls to friends. He got off one of the calls announcing to us that the U.S. Under-23 team lost to Canada, which is a surprise.

"I guess (Bobby) Convey only played a half," says Landon. "No clue about that one."

He also makes time for his dad, and spends several minutes on the line with him on the way downtown.

In between going over his schedule and a few upcoming appearances, Landon informs him how the National Team is coming to Seattle in March to play Japan and how excited he is for it.

For a second, it makes him even sound like some teenager talking about a high school or college trip, rather than someone used to flying all over the world and experiencing different cities.

Once inside the building, I notice something about Landon that he's been doing all day. In a quiet, hardly noticeable type of way he has something to say to everyone he passes, whether it be a security guard, a bell hop, a waitress, a secretary at the front desk or any PA walking by. Nothing fancy, just a "hey," or a "thanks" or a "goodbye". The type of thing you might even make fun of one of your friends for doing.

He also doesn't play the star role well, either. With handlers around him and a scribe like myself in tow, you'd think he'd take a little advantage of it. Instead, he's the one holding all the doors, even signing us all in and writing out our name tags to wear in CNN.

As Landon is introduced by Baddoo as the "Messiah of Major League Soccer", we laugh in the waiting room about how he has quickly become the "something-of-something" to people.

The host rolls through the standard questions about what type of difference the World Cup made in MLS and what else needs to be done to upgrade soccer in this country. And Landon feeds him the same feelings, not lines, he has been saying all day.

"We gotta get our faces out there more, not just on the field, but off the field. We need young stars, as well."

He's right, and days like this are a start. Not only has he made three TV appearances and met with seven different writers, but he's also been "scouted" by reps and writers for various lifestyle magazines, like Maxim, Gear and even Playboy due to his youthfulness and good looks that have quickly made him somewhat of a teen idol and model in several magazines.

At 20 years old with only two years of Major League Soccer under his belt and one World Cup, this is just the start.

It's 6:00 now and time for Landon to head out to the Meadowlands, and time for me to drive back to Connecticut. It has been a full day for everyone involved.

As much as Landon has gone through with the buildup to the World Cup, playing in the 2000 Olympics and being around the German pressure-cooker that is Bayer Leverkusen, he says that today's whirlwind was his third busiest day ever as far as media duty goes.

"The two days after the World Cup when we came here and did all those shows were the top two. This is right behind it. But it's good. I don't mind talking soccer and helping the sport. It's worth it. It's kinda fun, too, in a weird way.

"Life could be worse."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at shaketiller10@yahoo.com.