NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – Some of the most famous people to ever grace the biggest stages in American soccer took a collective journey off the beaten path Saturday.
Their destination was an auditorium on the campus of Central Connecticut State University, for a celebration of the life of former U.S. women's national team coach Tony DiCicco.
Whether they arrived from the West Coast, the Midwest or the East, the occasion felt like a homecoming, even for those who had never set foot in the place.
The gathering featured a full complement of A-list names. Toward one side of the auditorium, there was Dan Flynn, CEO of the U.S. Soccer Federation, chatting with the DiCicco family and assorted friends. Toward the back, there was Jill Ellis, current inhabitant of DiCicco's former throne. They are forever joined in the history books as coaches of American World Cup champions. And not just any champions: DiCicco's team changed the game forever in 1999. Ellis' 2015 team was the first since his to reach the global game's highest summit.
A few rows away, there was John Langel, the Philadelphia-based attorney who helped so many of DiCicco's players turn their stardom into working strength as a union.
"As we went through our journey, and as I texted with him shortly before he died, without him on the inside – leading the women internally, giving them emotional support, and helping guide me in my talks with U.S. Soccer – the women are never where they are today," Langel said. "The success of the Julie [Foudy], Mia [Hamm], Carla [Overbeck] crew isn't what it is, and the success of the women today is not what it is, without Tony forging ahead and doing everything he did."
Scattered around the hall were some of DiCicco's former colleagues in television, the platform to which he turned when not coaching on the field. And all around were hundreds of people you wouldn't recognize. They coached with DiCicco, or played for him, or simply learned something from him along the way – whether or not they knew him personally.
That didn't just go for the women's game, by the way. It went for the men's game, too. Schellas Hyndman was there, the great champion of soccer's growth deep in the heart of Texas. So was Janusz Michallik, the former U.S. national team defender who later became DiCicco's colleague at ESPN.
Of course, the biggest stars of all in the hall were DiCicco's players from the golden generation. They weren't all there, but plenty were whom you know well. Julie Foudy emceed the ceremony. Brandi Chastain watched the proceedings with Brianna Scurry and Kristine Lilly.
"When we see each other, or we have a chance to reach out for one reason or the other, we are immediately back as if it were 20 years ago," Chastain said. "We love each other, we've always enjoyed being together, and we know that we are here to have each other's backs. So it doesn't matter if it's been two days, three weeks, a year. We're here for each other – and today is a perfect example of that."
The official speaker on the players' behalf was one you might not expect. Mia Hamm remains a reluctant superstar, even 18 years after reaching heights of fame most athletes of any gender could only dream about. So it meant all the more when she took the stage and spoke with extraordinary eloquence and emotion.
She first spoke to the DiCicco family, saying: "Thank you for sharing your husband with us, for sharing your father with us. Thank you for trusting me."
As her emotions started to get the better of her, she caught herself for a moment.
"All right," she said, "it's game time."
Then she snapped to a focus as sharp as the one that took aim at every opponent before her on the field.
Having regained her composure, she began to tell a story:
You know, several days after Tony's passing, I was sitting with my daughter Ava, and we were just sharing space and time together. She grabs my hand and asks me, "What made your coach Tony such a great coach?"
We've heard so many amazing stories today. You know, Tony was courageous. He was innovative. He was inclusive. He was generous. He was hard-working. He was enthusiastic. And he was passionate.
I shared all of these thoughts with her. I also told her that Tony never put us in a situation that he didn't think we could handle.
Tony challenged us as players, but he never abandoned us. He used words like "us" and "we," and never "you" or "I." Tony pushed us, but never humiliated us. He formulated intense, competitive training sessions that only strengthened our team chemistry and our commitment to one another, instead of causing division or tension or animosity.
Tony's goal was to be a leader, a mentor. He didn't see his role as trying to control us, or dominate us. He was able to express strength without arrogance or bravado. But for me, one of Tony's greatest attributes was that he was real.
As you all know, Tony was extremely comfortable in his own skin, and confident in who he was as a man. But also, in who he was not. I remember Tony sharing with us that he didn't believe he was the best motivational speaker, especially in pregame meetings. That when he tried, it came across as awkward or rehearsed. So what did he do about it? He brought in someone who, that was their strength.
Do you know how rare this is? Think about it. A coach at the highest level admitting to a skill that is not his strength. I can tell you, as one of his players, this was incredibly liberating and empowering. As an elite athlete, you spend hours, weeks, years, working on your skills. Strengthening the technical, physical and tactical parts of your game. And your weaknesses, you worked on improving them.
Or in my case, if Kristine Lilly is flying down the left flank, and she serves the ball toward the center of the box, at my head, you pray like hell that Michelle Akers barrels you over and slams it into the back of the net.
[The crowd roared with laughter.]
And in some cases, you pretend those weaknesses don't exist.
Not with Tony as your coach. You see, he taught me that there can be strength in vulnerability. To completely grow as a player, and as a person, you have to be willing to put yourself out there, warts and all. He didn't want you to worry about failure, but growth.
I didn't have to be perfect for Tony. Because he was assembling a team who loved each other, who covered for each other and who picked each other up. He quite simply created an environment where we could be us. Where our personalities could be expressed, and individuality celebrated. He allowed us to be crazy, silly, emotional, and semi-nude. He was usually in on the joke as well. …
We were valued and trusted. And that trust was extended to the entire staff. Tony was so amazing at bringing members in, and expressing their role and importance in our journey. When you were around Tony, he made everyone want to be more invested. To care more. To love more. To express more joy. …
And the thing is, you didn't behave this way to win Tony's praise or admiration. You did this for the reasons Tony always did: Because it was just the right thing to do.
So as you wake up tomorrow, and every tomorrow after that, I ask you to approach your day as Tony reminded us to approach each game: To play hard. To go after it. Take risks. Take pride in what you do. To play fair. To live your life with humility and compassion. To have fun. To express joy. To dance badly. But most importantly, to love.
Another great tribute came from Anson Dorrance, the legendary women's soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He was also the head coach of the U.S. women's national team from 1986-94, and in 1991 brought DiCicco into the program as an assistant coach. DiCicco would go on to succeed Dorrance in the head job.
Allow me to guess that many of you – even those of you who've followed the growth of women's soccer in American since its earliest days – have never seen Dorrance moved to tears.
It happened Saturday. Such was the depth of his friendship with, and respect for, DiCicco.
Dorrance began his tribute by quoting Harold Kushner.
"Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power," Dorrance said. "Our souls are hungry for meaning. For the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter. So that the world be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it."
DiCicco would surely have relished watching a devout Christian draw inspiration from a Jewish rabbi. Forging collective success with individuals of diverse backgrounds was one of DiCicco's greatest strengths. It happened one more time Saturday.
"There is no greater proof of Tony DiCicco living this Harold Kushner quote than the people in this room that are here to celebrate his extraordinary life," Dorrance said. 'Because in watching his extraordinary example, we were all touched and inspired to live in a certain way, so that our lives mattered as well."
This was just one of the tales that Dorrance offered from the podium. It's based on one of his final interactions with DiCicco:
I was going to write the most heartfelt note to Tony. I was going to edit it about 17 to 20 times, and make sure it was absolutely perfect. And Anthony [Tony's oldest son] said, "No, Anson. Text him something – right now."
[It was here that Dorrance got choked up.]
Thank you, boys, for letting me say goodbye to my wonderful friend. And here's what I texted to him.
In 1986, you and I and Lauren [Gregg, another assistant coach] were asked to take [over] the U.S. women's national team. At the time, the United States had never won a game in international competition.
Five years later, we were the first women's world champions. Five years after that, you reshaped our team and became the world's first women's Olympic gold medalists. Three years later, after polishing the team a bit more, in front of 90,000 people in the Rose Bowl you led our country to our second world championship. You also raised the bar, not just for women's soccer on the planet but for women's athletics.
I bring all this up just to confirm your place in the great firmament of people who have changed the world for the better. But those achievements are not why I love you. They are not why the players love you, and your résumé is certainly not why your wonderful wife and extraordinary children love you, Tony.
You are one of the kindest, most loyal, most principle-centered men I have ever known. I can't believe the luck that brought us together. Bob Gansler, my national team coaching mentor, said you were the missing staff member for me. I trusted Bob completely, and he was right.
The fun we had together for eight years – picking our team, shaping our team, traveling all over the world, teaming up against our managers during any extended stop, and crushing them in any two-v-two sporting competition we could design. And every day, my respect and trust and love for you grew.
You were great where I was horrible. Your attention for detail was extraordinary. Your willingness to watch tape until your eyes were bloodshot verged on masochism. There was nothing you would not do for me or our cause.
And more importantly, I knew if I left [the head coaching job], not only was the coaching box checked for our women's national team, but the care for their personal and individual humanity was protected as well.
Please allow me to say thank you, Tony, for the Mount Rushmore achievements and service to our game and our country. But more importantly, deep appreciation from me for going all in when no one cared about our game.
When you step back, there is going to be a terrifying silence in our country's leadership voice, and an empty hole in the middle of my heart. You are easily one of the finest men I know.
Joe Cummings was the general manager of the Boston Breakers in the Women's Professional Soccer era. He persuaded DiCicco to return to coaching after DiCicco had stepped back from life on the sidelines to serve as commissioner of the prior Women's United Soccer Association.
"Little did [DiCicco] know that he was coaching us all, and that it was an honor for us to have him as our coach," Cummings said. "We shall carry forth his friendship to those we meet in the future, in his name."
Cummings has certainly done that. If you weren't yet his friend when he worked for the Breakers, you became one during his tenure as CEO of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. That's how I came to know him, and the joy he brings to his work and his life.
The last word here goes to Anthony DiCicco, who as I noted above is the oldest of Tony's four sons. In recent years, Anthony has blazed his own trail on the American soccer landscape, through success in the business world and a prominent voice on social media. Now the family torch is officially his to carry.