Sunday, November 26, 2006
Rampone a model of consistency
CARSON, Calif. -- At some point soon, probably in the Four Nations Cup in January, Christie Rampone will take the field in the uniform of the U.S. women's national team for the 159th time, passing Cindy Parlow and claiming a spot in the top 10 for all-time appearances.
Then she'll play again. And again. And again, climbing steadily toward a final number that only her legs know for sure, continuing a career that sprang from nowhere and feels as if it might just run on forever.
"It just means I've invested so much time, and I have so many great memories," Rampone, who turned 31 in June, said of the looming accomplishment. "It's exciting to realize I've lasted this long and yet there is more ahead. I look at it in a positive way, and just all the great memories and great times, and I can't believe I made it that far." When it does happen, it will undoubtedly be the quietest 159 caps in team history. Maybe the name change had something to do with it. Following her marriage to Chris Rampone in the fall of 2001, Christie Pearce became Christie Rampone (although she didn't change the name on her jersey until 2004). Her longevity is such that both her single and married incarnations would both rank among the top 25 in all-time appearances for the national team. More likely, a combination of Rampone's quiet personality and overlooked position have consigned her to the blind spot of casual fans over the years, more easily enchanted by bold personalities like Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy or goal scorers like Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. "She's a quiet leader, she does it by actions," explained Cat Whitehill, who herself appears destined to eventually pass Joy Fawcett for the most all-time appearances by a defender for the United States. "You see every day that she works hard, and even after she's pregnant, she gets faster and fitter. That's just a tribute to who she is as a person. She's great, everybody loves her, everybody is dear to her. But as a whole, most people don't see the kind of work that she does, and I think she deserves to be in the top 10 list of caps because of her consistency." Rampone's story has been unique since the beginning. Of the players she'll join in the top 10, four played college soccer at North Carolina, two at Portland and two at Santa Clara (keeper Briana Scurry played at Massachusetts). Rampone played her four years at Monmouth University, which is about as far from the top tier of college soccer as its New Jersey campus is from Rampone's current home in Southern California. And she went there not so much because nobody else wanted her in soccer but because, unlike soccer prodigies locked up by club teams and groomed for international careers, she wasn't sure that she wanted soccer. "Basketball was always my love," admitted Rampone, the daughter of a basketball coach. "I only went to one soccer camp growing up; everything was for basketball. My dad played basketball and baseball, and I think I went more into his likes. I picked up basketball and was pretty good at it at a young age and developed more at the camps. In soccer, I didn't have a lot of teams in the area. It was hard to find a good, competitive team, so I kind of did that on the side for fun and enjoyed it but was really never coached and never trained until I got to college." Monmouth gave her the opportunity to play both sports, and she excelled at both. In addition to finishing her four years as the soccer program's all-time leading scorer, she left as the basketball program's all-time leader in steals. Graduating at a time when the WNBA and ABL were competing for supremacy in the nascent world of women's professional basketball, she even considered trying out for a career in hoops. And as much as attending a small school allowed Rampone to pursue all her sporting passions (she even played a couple of games for the lacrosse team), the experience also allowed her to grow at her own pace off the field, close to friends and family in her hometown of Point Pleasant, N.J. "I didn't have a lot of confidence going out of state," Rampone said. "I was very quiet, very reserved and kept to myself. ... I was kind of like in my element at the time. It was a great choice for me at the time. I grew as a player and a person during my college career, which I think helped me come onto this team, because I don't think I could have come onto this team any earlier and been successful." Tipped off about an uncommon talent in uncommon surroundings while on a trip to Connecticut, Tony DiCicco, then coach of the national team, watched Rampone play and thought enough of her to invite her to training camp following the college season. After a couple of days of practice at her natural forward position, Rampone found herself switched to outside back, with the team stretched thin on defense by the maternity leaves of mainstays Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck. Suddenly, just a few months after finishing a college career at a small New Jersey school, and a few weeks after making her first cross-country flight to a training camp in San Diego, Rampone found herself in Australia, playing her first game for the national team and playing a new position to boot. But instead of being overwhelmed, the rookie found a comfort zone on the back line. "After a few months, I really enjoyed being in the back and didn't want to go up front anymore," Rampone said. She ended up starting 16 games for the national team in 1997, finishing third on the team in minutes. She solidified her place on the roster over the next few years, appearing in one game during the memorable 1999 World Cup and starting 30 games in 2000, including all five games of the Olympics in Australia. Tack on a budding romance -- she met Chris at her sister's wedding shortly after the 1999 World Cup -- and a professional career in the fledgling WUSA and Rampone's story seemed to be something of a fairytale. But that changed in 2001, when she tore her ACL playing for the New York Power. "Mentally, at first it was tough," Rampone said. "Just because my game is speed, strength, and I thought here it goes, you know, the knee is going take it all away." The frequency of ACL injuries in women's soccer, and women's sports in general, has been both a blessing and a curse. In part because of the staggering number of players suffering the injury, surgical procedures and treatments have been continually refined to the point where the injury is no longer a guarantee of a long-term diminishment of physical skills. And with a work ethic honed by her father's support and coaching, Rampone worked her way through rehab and came out with a positive outlook. "You go through highs and lows, but I got through and I got stronger and actually learned how to train better and take care of my body better," Rampone said. "So in a way, I think it helped me prolong my career." Not that reclaiming her spot on the national team, then under the guidance of April Heinrichs, was an easy task. Rampone attended a couple of training camps in 2002 but didn't make the roster for any of the team's 19 games that year. With time running out as the roster solidified in preparation for the World Cup, she caught the break she needed when an injury forced Whitehill to withdraw from the roster for the Four Nations Cup in China in January of 2003. "I was in two camps and didn't make the roster, and I felt myself getting there but I knew I still needed work," Rampone said. "And then just working so hard and getting onto that roster and playing, and realizing that I'm almost back to where I used to be, if not better, and just continuing on." Although she started just one of the three games in China, Rampone was back. She started eight more matches during the spring and summer and started four times during the World Cup that fall. She started 26 of the team's 34 games the following year, the second-most of her career with the national team. All of which makes it that much more remarkable that having come all the way back to reclaim a spot in the starting lineup, Rampone decided to give up another year in 2005 to have daughter Rylie, her first child. "It was tough, because I wasn't ready to give up soccer yet, but at the same time, we wanted to start a family," Rampone said. "Just watching Joy and Carla and what they did, and talking with them and training for the pregnancy. And I was ok if I didn't make it back, but I had to give it that shot. ... And Rylie's been the best thing that's happened to me. So if soccer did take second place to that, then I was ok with that." Rampone did make it back, returning to the lineup in January at the Four Nations Cup in China, 111 days after giving birth. And she didn't return alone. "To have Rylie with me, good day or bad day, I get to go home to her. Your outlook just changes a little bit. I'm playing for her as well as me, and the family. There's just that much joy at the end of the day." In a person's narrative reality, unlike in books, one chapter's beginning is not another's ending. Rylie gives Rampone a new focus in life, but neither her arrival nor the impending statistical milestone of her all-time appearances should be perceived as forbearers of the end of a soccer career. In a recent round of physical testing, Rampone recorded the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team, suggesting she is still as capable of a lightning-quick overlapping run or a speedy recovery as ever before. And with both Whitehill and veteran Kate Markgraf missing time this year, she's increased her versatility by proving she can handle the job in the middle of Ryan's defense, as well. All told, she's started 16 of the team's 21 games this year, sixth on the team behind Abby Wambach, Aly Wagner, Heather Mitts, Kristine Lilly and Hope Solo. "I actually feel good inside, because I can communicate and organize the back line," Rampone said. "But I've got to stay fit and strong for playing outside as well as moving into the middle. It makes me more well-rounded in the back and able to go wherever." Life will eventually take Rampone and her family back home to New Jersey, bringing to a close a career with unconventional origins and uncommon longevity. But for now, she'll just keep playing, whether or not many folks outside of her coaches and teammates notice her contribution. "I think right now I'm very happy with how I'm playing and how my body feels," Rampone said. "It's actually feeling a lot better as the days go on, and I'm getting a lot fitter and stronger and healthier. So as long as I feel this way, I'll be playing."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.